Selected readings on American Exceptionalism
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Liberalism: Illusions and Realities, by Reinhold Niebuhr, July 4, 1955
What Makes Us So Special? Defining what makes American exceptionalism exceptional. Yuval Levin, John O’Sullivan, and Matthew Spalding, NRO, March 3, 2010
An Exceptional Debate The Obama administration’s assault on American identity by Rich Lowry & Ramesh Ponnuru, National Review, March 8, 2010
Less Exceptional Than You Think A response to Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru by Conrad Black, NRO, March 11, 2010
American Exceptionalism, Continued A reply to Conrad Black by Rich Lowry, NRO, March 15, 2010
Conrad Black on the American Revolution by Jonah Goldberg
New standards in history class Texas board endorses conservative-backed curriculum By Gary Scharrer, Houston Chronicle, March 13, 2010
Texas Conservatives Win Curriculum Change James C. Mckinley Jr., NYT, March 12, 2010
American Exceptionalism in AEI On the Issues By James Q. Wilson Sept 2006
World Affairs WINTER 2008 Without Exception: The Same Old Song by David Rieff
WORLD AFFAIRS JANUARY/FEBRUARY 2010 Undying Creed: The Acceleration of Our Exceptionalism by Joel Kotkin
December 8, 2010 AMERICAN INTEREST ONLINE The Crisis of the American Intellectual by WALTER RUSSELL MEAD
HARVEY MANSFIELD “To the Heart of American Exceptionalism” Wall Street Journal February 5, 2011
Donald Kagan: Democracy Requires a Patriotic Education. The Athenians knew it. Jefferson knew it. Somehow we have forgotten: Civic devotion, instilled at school, is essential to a good society.
The Real Meaning of American Exceptionalism
New Book: Charles Murray on American Exceptionalism
Liberalism: Illusions and Realities, by Reinhold Niebuhr, July 4, 1955
The spate of books on conservatism and liberalism in America has resulted in debates about the respective merits of these allegedly opposing political creeds in which a great deal of semantic confusion is manifest. Mr. Clinton Rossiter in his Conservatism in America has accurately defined the conservative mood in our nation as a combination of nationalistic preferences and a passion for the economics of lassez-faire, which is to say, that our conservatism in domestic politics is the old liberalism of the Manchester School. Mr. Russell Kirk in his Conservative Mind seems to assume that there is some authentic conservatism in the mere desire to preserve the status quo of the American paradise; and he rather uncritically seeks to relate this American conservatism with a British conservatism which is rooted in the aristocratic tradition and has none of Kirk’s prejudice against the Welfare State, and with the rather pathetic aristocratic tradition of our own Southland, as expounded by Randolph and Calhoun. This Southern tradition was pathetic because it was but a remnant of an old aristocratic society in a nation which had no conscious relations with the European feudal past, and because it was a form of aristocracy based upon chattel slavery and was naturally destroyed with the institution of slavery.
It is obviously necessary to make the most careful distinctions between the conservatism and liberalism which are merely moods or ideologies according to which one defends a status quo or seeks to leave it behind, and the conservatism and liberalism which are cogent political philosophies. We can dismiss the sort of conservatism and liberalism which are dispositions toward some status quo very simply by giving a priori preference for liberalism over conservatism on the grounds that it is not reasonable to defend any status quo uncritically; and that it is certainly not reasonable to do so in the rapidly changing conditions of a technical society in which “new conditions teach new duties and time makes ancient truth uncouth.” If being for or against change were the only issue involved, any critical person would be bound to be “liberal.”
If we study the various meanings of “liberalism” and “conservatism” in Western and particularly American social history, it soon becomes apparent that “liberalism” in the broadest sense is rightly identified with the rise of a modern technical society availing itself of democratic political forms and of capitalistic economic institutions. This “liberal society” came to birth in Britain, France and America in opposition to the feudal aristocratic culture of the European past. “Liberalism” in the broadest sense is therefore synonymous with “democracy.” Its strategy is to free the individual from the traditional restraints of a society, to endow the “governed” with the power of the franchise, to establish the principle of the “consent of the governed” as the basis of political society; to challenge all hereditary privileges and traditional restraints upon human initiative, particularly in the economic sphere and to create the mobility and flexibility which are the virtues and achievements of every “liberal society” as distinguished from feudal ones.
But liberalism has more distinct connotations; and upon them hang all the issues of contemporary political controversy. One of these connotations arises out of the history of technical societies; the other arises out of the peculiar philosophy of the French Enlightenment and the French Revolution. In the first instance, the narrower connotation of liberalism is identified with the peculiar and unique ethos of middle-class life. But since the middle classes soon found the laboring classes to the Left of them, liberalism soon ceased to be the exclusive philosophy of democracy. Even without the rise of labor as a political power, modern democracies, as they developed from commercialism to industrialism, found that the freeing of economic initiative from political restraint was only one side of the problem of justice. The other side was placing restraints upon initiative in the interest of security and justice.
Thus in every modern industrial nation the word “liberalism” achieved two contradictory definitions. It was on the one hand the philosophy which insisted that economic life was to be free of any restraint. In this form it was identical with the only conservatism which nations, such as our own, who had no feudal past, could understand. It was the philosophy of the more successful middle classes who possessed enough personal skill, property or power to be able to prefer liberty to security. On the other hand the word was also used to describe the political strategy of those classes which preferred security to absolute liberty and which sought to bring economic enterprise under political control for the sake of establishing minimal standards of security and welfare. It has been rather confusing that both of these strategies go by the name of “liberalism.”
The new conservatism about which one hears so much these days may claim a right to the title of “liberalism” on the ground that its promise of gaining justice through economic liberty is actually closer to the old classical economic liberalism than the new liberalism is. On the other hand if the concern for justice is the primary hallmark of liberalism, those who want to bring economic enterprise under at least minimal control have as much right to this title as those who want to preserve economic freedom. For a technical society, moving from commercial to industrial activities, was bound to find the emancipation from traditional restraints inadequate in the long run as a program for justice.
Thus it was significant that John Stuart Mill, who gave the liberal creed the most classic expression in the 19thCentury, moved in the latter years of his life from pure libertarianism to a liberal socialism. It is even more significant that the Liberal Party in Britain took this turn at the beginning of the century before the Labour Party became a power. In Lloyd George’s radical budget the taxing power of the state was used to guarantee minimal security for the workers. This development, in which incidentally Lloyd George was supported by Winston Churchill, Britain anticipated by a quarter of a century the transmutation of Jeffersonian liberalism into Roosevelt’s “New Deal.” American conservatives have made much of this volte-face of the liberal tradition; and in their “liberty leagues” tried to fill the political niche of the seemingly abandoned Jeffersonianism.
In European democracies the desire to establish justice by bringing economic power under political control was advanced by the Socialist parties. In Britain, the old Liberal Party slowly lost ground in the postwar years to labor and the new conservatism. At this moment, the old debate between freedom and control of economic life has narrowed to a very small difference in emphasis between the Tories and the Labour Party, a difference which has become slight in all modern nations. The debate between a responsible Right and a responsible Left is both inconclusive and insoluble because the degree of emphasis which must be put on planning or spontanaeity, on control or freedom, cannot be solved in terms of fixed principles. The peculiar conditions of each nation and of each period within a nation must and will determine the degree of emphasis on the one side or the other of the equation.
In all stable modern nations the political situation reflects the insolubility of this problem. Responsible parties, when not corrupted by demagogy and dishonesty, know that the economic and political life in a community cannot go too far in a collectivist direction without becoming prey to bureaucratic stagnation. Nor can it go too far in the direction of an uncontrolled economy without aggravating the perils of insecurity and the evils of inequality arising from centralization of power. Both evils are inherent in the economic process itself, particularly in our era of rapid growth of techniques.
The semantic difficulties arising from this shift in meaning of the word liberal as a technical civilization moves farther and farther from its original contest with an organic and aristocratic society, are, however, simple compared to the confusions of definition which arise from the fact that “liberalism” is both a political philosophy, identified with the rising technical civilization, and a total philosophy of life which was elaborated in the French Enlightenment. This confusion becomes the greater because liberalism and a modern technical society had their simultaneous inception in three modern nations, Great Britain, France and America. In one of these, France, the aristocratic past, based upon an organic society, was always in the background with its reactionary illusions which in turn incited the illusions of the Enlightenment. In another, Great Britain, the old society was broken in the Cromwellian revolution. Britain finally settled down at the end of the century with a constitutional monarchy of William and Mary which fused both liberal democracy and a more creative version of the old society. This fusion has ever since characterized British life and made John Locke on the one hand, and Edmund Burke on the other, the exponents of the chief strains of British political philosophy. In America the liberal society and the new nation had a simultaneous birth on a virgin continent with only a few vestigial remnants of the old society, and these were finally eliminated in our Civil War. For these and other reasons, American liberalism drew its primary inspiration from the ideological presuppositions of the culture which gave rise to the French Revolution and excluded a part of the British inheritance.
The French Enlightenment was “liberal” in its social policy in the sense that it championed all the extensions of political power and freedom from political control of economic enterprise which characterized the whole middle-class movement in its struggle with the feudal past. But it also had a total philosophy of life based on confidence in the perfectability of man and on the idea of historical progress. These two ideas were basic to all the political miscalculations of the Enlightenment and were the source of its errors. “Liberalism” acquired a special connotation as a philosophy of life which did not take the factors of interest and power seriously, which expected all parochial loyalties to be dissolved in more universal loyalties; and which was indifferent to organically or historically established loyalties and rights under the illusion that it would be simple for rational man to devise more ideal communities and rights. The liberalism of the French Enlightenment was thus based upon illusions as to the nature of man and of history. It was quasi-anarchistic and pacifistic in its attitude toward the coercions which are a necessary part of communal cohesion and toward the conflicts of interest which always take place between communities. These were the illusions which Burke challenged in Reflections on the Revolution in France.
The philosophy of the Enlightenment was not shared by such conservatives as John Adams or such Jeffersonians as James Madison. Our Constitution was, in fact, informed by a realism which contradicted all the illusions of the Enlightenment. Nevertheless it became the primary source of inspiration for the democratic movement in America. When sectarian Christian perfectionism merged with the thought of the Enlightenment on our frontier, perfectionist illusions in regard to man became the stables of the American liberal movement.
It must be apparent to anyone that it adds to the semantic confusion if those who do not share the illusions of Diderot and Condorcet are termed “conservatives.” Such persons would be more accurately defined as “realistics,” particularly since a realistic estimate of perennial factors in the historical and social situation may be put into the service of either a conservative or advancing social policy. It would certainly be wrong to define a labor leader as “conservative” merely because he knew, as every good labor leader must know, that a collective bargaining agreement is not merely a rational or moral encounter, and that its success depends upon the strength and unity of the force at his disposal. Incidentally, it must be observed that organized labor has always been “realistic” in this sense. Its realism included preference for proximate goals of justice, while the more academic liberalism was frequently beguiled by the utopian illusions of the Enlightenment.
In terms of international policy, confusion would be avoided if the word “conservative” were confined to the pure nationalist. It certainly does not fit the internationalist who knows about the perils and responsibilities of a nation in the potential global community, but who is not persuaded that “word government” is the answer.
There is, in short, no reason why the errors of the Enlightenment should continue to bedevil the “progressive” political movements, and why “liberalism” should be identified with illusions about human nature and history. Sometimes the foes of liberalism insist that the illusions are inherent in the policy. There are even some belated liberals who darkly insinuate that a realist who professes to be liberal in social policy must be a crypto-conservative who has yet to reveal his true colors. These confusions could be eliminated if the clear evidences of history were presented to prove that the “liberal” illusions are not necessary for democracy, and might actually have a have a baneful influence upon its life. The best evidence for this thesis is a comparison between the course of British and French democracy. In France the enthusiasm for a liberal society soon degenerated into Jacobin fanaticism and Bonapartist absolutism.
In contrast, the curious blend of aristocracy and democracy in Britain slowly evolved into the world’s most stable democracy, in which “liberty broadened down from precedent to precedent.” The only remnant of the old feudalism is still the prevalent class snobbishness of British life. This superior achievement was due, partly to the superior wisdom of the Lockean type of liberalism and partly to the interplay between the Lockean liberalism and the Burkean type of conservatism. The aristocratic tradition at its worst tried to maintain the traditional privileges of the feudal order. At its best it appreciated the organic aspects of community better than urban-centered liberalism. One must include under the “organic” aspect of community the force of mutually and historically acknowledged rights and responsibilities, in comparison with the “inalienable” rights which are worthless if no community acknowledges them. One must also include standards of justice which have developed by slow and unconscious growth rather than by conscious political intervention. Finally, to the organic aspects one must reckon the hierarchies of authority which develop in every political and economic realm, and without which the community could not be organized.
It is rather ironic that the rigorous equalitarian creed of Communism should in practice generate the monstrous inequalities of power and privilege which we see in the Russian scene. The inequalities are more excessive than usual because there is nothing in the creed that would come to terms with functional hierarchies as such. We have lesser ironic realities in so-called liberal communities, whether in labor unions or in churches. In every case justified inequalities of authority develop, and usually some unjustified inequalities of privilege.
An academic liberalism with its abstract notions of liberty and equality has never been able to come to terms with these realities of the community. There is, therefore, some truth in the aristocratic-conservative tradition which the most democratic society must rescue from the error of aristocratic pretentions and must incorporate into the wisdom by which the life of the community is regulated and integrated. This truth may be imbedded in a conservative tradition. But it must be freed from the errors which are also transmitted in the conservative tradition. If that is done the result can only be a realistic liberalism. It will be a liberalism because only that philosophy, stripped of its utopian errors, leaves the way to the future open.
There is, unfortunately, no social locus in America for a valid “conservative” philosophy. The more parochial part of the business community is bound to develop a conservatism in which a decadent laissez-faire liberalism in domestic politics is compounded with nationalism. It can be beguiled from these prejudices only by the prestige of an Eisenhower. The realism embodied in a valid conservatism, therefore, becomes the property of all parties and tendencies which have enough pragmatic wisdom to discern the perennial factors in the shifting historical scene
What Makes Us So Special? Defining what makes American exceptionalism exceptional. Yuval Levin, John O’Sullivan, and Matthew Spalding, NRO, March 3, 2010
Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru started a discussion on American identity with their essay, “An Exceptional Debate.” National Review Online asked a few of our friends and contributors to continue the conversation.
“In the beginning, all the world was America,” John Locke wrote in his Second Treatise of Government in 1689. Well, times have certainly changed.
As Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru observe in their keen essay, these days America stands apart – culturally, politically, economically, and philosophically. It is, on the one hand, the most advanced example of the kind of liberal society that John Locke sought to lay out in that very treatise, yet on the other hand it offers an example of why liberalism alone is not enough.
Advocates of American exceptionalism generally offer one of two arguments in its behalf: the case for our exceptional creed, and the case for our exceptional history. But taken by itself, each of these arguments actually undermines our claim to uniqueness.
Our creed – that is, our belief in individual liberty and equality, and in the liberal society that protects them – is after all universal. Can universalism really be the essence of our particularism? And if we are defined by a universal creed, then wouldn’t we expect that over time, and given our successes, the world should become more like us, since the same ideals that move us are available to all?
If on the other hand our experience is what defines us – our roots in the English liberal tradition and European culture, the life-experience of our diverse constitutional republic – then we are unique only in the way that every nation is. As President Obama put it, surely the Brits and the Greeks are unique in the same way: Each is a product of its unique culture.
But as Lowry and Ponnuru suggest, what makes America exceptional is its combination of these two. We are at once a creedal nation and a product of our particular cultural origins. The two act to balance one another and make for a truly extraordinary mix: at once liberal and religious, forward-looking and conservative, substantively idealistic yet temperamentally moderate.
Too many Americans ignore one or the other element of that mix. Some on the left would like to ignore the ways that America’s roots in the level-headed and incrementalist British common-law tradition make it sensible about change and realistic about human nature – and the fact that we are a nation, not just an idea. Some on the right would like to ignore the ways that America’s commitment to enlightenment liberalism makes it deeply idealistic about individual liberty and social equality – and the fact that we have always been a nation on a mission. The combination of these facets of America, embodied in our Constitution, is a sober republicanism unlike anything the world has ever seen.
America is both a place and an idea; a culture and a philosophy. And this unique amalgamation is what makes it not only exceptional but also the last best hope of both liberal idealism and conservative realism in a time when both are in peril.
My occasional bouts of nervousness about the notion of American “exceptionalism” are rooted in the fear that it will encourage complacency about America’s problems. Earlier patriots felt this nervousness when their nations were at the zenith – Kipling’s “Recessional” for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee is the classic expression of it – and they have all been proved correct. Their nations declined; their empires no long rule.
But this warning scarcely seems necessary. Complacency is in very short supply in today’s America. Almost everyone on both right and left agrees that the country is going to the dogs. All that remains to be determined is the identity of the dogs. And among American institutions sinking into the Slough of Despond is the notion of exceptionalism itself.
President Obama suggested that since all nations feel themselves to be exceptional, it’s really no big deal. Exceptionalism – it’s the rule. That sounds reasonable, but I don’t believe it. I live at present in Prague. I like the Czechs enormously. But they don’t seem to feel exceptional (except perhaps in their anti-heroism and geographical bad luck). Likewise the Swiss. What do the Swiss dream when they dream of vainglory?
Maybe every nation is exceptional in some respect. But exceptionalism has to mean more than making a great cheese. It involves putting your impress on the world – by military prowess initially perhaps, but more solidly by economic and technological advances, and ultimately by dazzling cultural achievements that lead to the sincerest form of flattery: the world wants to be like you.
Many nations have passed the first two tests – Portugal, Spain, China, and Holland among them. Others such as India are now entering the field. But the modern nations that have achieved all three number very few: France, Britain, and (of course) America.
Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru have given a very eloquent and persuasive account of what makes America exceptional – the country is freer, richer, more democratic, more religious, and more patriotic than other advanced nations. They also trace these exceptional qualities to America’s birth as the rebellious child of Britain: The American Republic made the civilization of England and its traditional liberties available to all comers. As well as enjoying and exploiting these freedoms, however, America felt obliged by its rebellion to make the case for them both to foreign nations and to foreign immigrants. This makes America a special case of what the writer James C. Bennett calls “Anglosphere exceptionalism.” It is more self-conscious and even dogmatic in its love of liberty than its lazier and more confused cousins up North, across the Pond, or beyond the Pacific. Even its exceptionalism is exceptional.
But one aspect of it, though mentioned, is somewhat underplayed by Lowry and Ponnuru, maybe because it is an aspect of Anglospheric rather than narrowly American exceptionalism. The political and economic orthodoxy of the Anglosphere – sound finance, property rights, the rule of law, free trade and free capital movement – has been the dominant global orthodoxy for more than two hundred years. Twenty years ago this orthodoxy looked likely to be dominant for another two centuries. But it is now seriously challenged by a very different tradition associated with Colbertian France and Wilhelmine Germany: state direction, economic and trade regulation, capital controls, protectionism, industrial cartels, etc. These ideas are highly appealing, for rather obvious reasons, both to undemocratic governments and to international organizations. And their threat to the freedoms of the Anglo-American tradition will not stop at the water’s edge when national sovereignty is also under attack.
Other nations share in American exceptionalism and its benefits. It would seem prudent to rally them to the defense of common traditions. There’s such a thing as being too exceptional.
If there is one thing that Americans still overwhelmingly believe, it is that their country, despite its flaws, is unique – and exceptional. Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru are absolutely correct in identifying America’s exceptionalism as the ultimate cultural issue. But to sharpen the point, it is a debate over two views of that exceptionalism.
Modern liberalism is based on the view that America’s origins are fundamentally flawed, yet America is exceptional because of its ability to constantly reinvent itself – it is a nation always in the process of becoming. Encapsulated today by the likes of Howard Zinn and Richard Rorty, the argument grows out of the progressive rejection not only of America’s past but also its principles – there are no self-evident truths, no permanent rights, and no limits on government. The new exceptionalism is the possibility of progress through an ever-expanding nanny state. We have gone far down this path, and Barack Obama seeks to close the deal.
Can we withstand the liberal assault?
There is a crucially important continuity between our British roots and the American Founding. The Americans took British liberalism and ran with it, completing England’s Glorious Revolution. They built on an inheritance of the rule-of-law tradition, going back to Magna Carta, which became under the Americans a written (and much more robust) constitutionalism. They inherited the common law for daily governance. But let us not miss the extent to which America is truly revolutionary and thus exceptional in a way that England (or any other country) is not.
Americans universalized, but also grounded, the principles underlying their inherited liberties. Turning to “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” they centered liberty not in British tradition but in human nature and equal rights – a universal and permanent standard that transcends history and the particulars of time. Our religious heritage gave this American individualism a theological grounding, and so natural rights a deeper meaning consistent with revelation. The other aspects of our exceptionalism – our democratic ethos, commitment to economic opportunity, insistence on limited government – come out of that.
In this political moment – this teaching moment – we must reclaim America’s exceptionalism as a nation based on an idea. To do so we must reconnect the good sense of the American people to the principles of the American Founding. Not as a matter of mere history, but as the source of permanent truths – truths that deny the progressive argument and challenge its project for our country.
An Exceptional Debate The Obama administration’s assault on American identity by Richard Lowry & Ramesh Ponnuru, National Review, March 8, 2010
It’s almost a commonplace on the left that conservatives are “nihilists” for their opposition to President Obama. It’s opposition for opposition’s sake, an unprincipled exercise in partisan obstruction – mindless, toxic, destructive. When directed at Obama, “no” is an indefensible word, devoid of philosophical content.
Another, different charge has traditionally been leveled at conservatives – that they are “radicals.” This criticism was made of National Review right at the beginning. Conservatives want to tear down the state, overturn precedent, reverse the direction of history. They are imprudent and incautious in their pursuit of a blinkered ideological agenda, in other words fundamentally unconservative.
So conservatives get it coming and going. Our opposition to the Left is deemed nihilistic and our affirmative agenda radical. These dueling critiques point to a paradox at the heart of American conservatism. We aren’t Tories, concerned with preserving the prerogatives of an aristocratic elite or defending tradition at all costs. Instead, we’re advocates of the dynamism of an open society. Through most of human history and still in many places in the world, that would make us the opposite of conservatives. Not in America.
What do we, as American conservatives, want to conserve? The answer is simple: the pillars of American exceptionalism. Our country has always been exceptional. It is freer, more individualistic, more democratic, and more open and dynamic than any other nation on earth. These qualities are the bequest of our Founding and of our cultural heritage. They have always marked America as special, with a unique role and mission in the world: as a model of ordered liberty and self-government and as an exemplar of freedom and a vindicator of it, through persuasion when possible and force of arms when absolutely necessary.
The survival of American exceptionalism as we have known it is at the heart of the debate over Obama’s program. It is why that debate is so charged. In his first year, Obama tried to avoid the cultural hot buttons that tripped up Bill Clinton and created the “gays, guns, and God” backlash of 1994. But he has stoked a different type of cultural reaction. The level of spending, the bailouts, and the extent of the intervention in the economy contemplated in health-care and cap-and-trade legislation have created the fear that something elemental is changing in the country. At stake isn’t just a grab bag of fiscal issues, but the meaning of America and the character of its people: the ultimate cultural issue.
To find the roots of American exceptionalism, you have to start at the beginning – or even before the beginning. They go back to our mother country. Historian Alan Macfarlane argues that England never had a peasantry in the way that other European countries did, or as extensive an established church, or as powerful a monarchy. English society thus had a more individualistic cast than the rest of Europe, which was centralized, hierarchical, and feudal by comparison.
It was, to simplify, the most individualistic elements of English society – basically, dissenting low-church Protestants – who came to the eastern seaboard of North America. And the most liberal fringe of English political thought, the anti-court “country” Whigs and republican theorists such as James Harrington, came to predominate here. All of this made America an outlier compared with England, which was an outlier compared with Europe. The U.S. was the spawn of English liberalism, fated to carry it out to its logical conclusion and become the most liberal polity ever known to man.
America was blessedly unencumbered by an ancien régime. Compared with Europe, it had no church hierarchy, no aristocracy, no entrenched economic interests, no ingrained distaste for commercial activity. It almost entirely lacked the hallmarks of a traditional post-feudal agrarian society. It was as close as you could get to John Locke’s state of nature. It was ruled from England, but lightly; Edmund Burke famously described English rule here as “salutary neglect.” Even before the Revolution, America was the freest country on earth.
These endowments made it possible for the Americans to have a revolution with an extraordinary element of continuity. Tocqueville may have been exaggerating when he said that Americans were able to enjoy the benefits of a revolution without really having one, but he wasn’t far off the mark. The remnants of old Europe that did exist here – state-supported churches, primogeniture, etc. – were quickly wiped out. Americans took inherited English liberties, extended them, and made them into a creed open to all.
Exact renderings of the creed differ, but the basic outlines are clear enough. The late Seymour Martin Lipset defined it as liberty, equality (of opportunity and respect), individualism, populism, and laissez-faire economics. The creed combines with other aspects of the American character – especially our religiousness and our willingness to defend ourselves by force – to form the core of American exceptionalism.
Liberty is the most important element of the creed. To secure it, the Founders set about strictly limiting government within carefully specified Immediately upon the collapse of British government in America, the states drew up written constitutions and neutered their executives. They went as far as they could possibly go to tame the government – indeed, they went farther, and had to start over to get a functioning state. But even this second try produced a Constitution that concentrated as much on what government could not do as on what it could.
The Founders knew what men were capable of, in the positive sense if their creative energies were unleashed and in the negative sense if they were given untrammeled power over others. “It may be a reflection on human nature,” Madison wrote in a famous passage in Federalist No. 51 describing the checks in the Constitution, “that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”
The Constitution’s negative character reflected its basic goal: to protect people in their liberty. In stark contrast, European constitutions, even prior to World War II, established positive rights to government benefits. As Mary Ann Glendon notes, these differences “are legal manifestations of divergent, and deeply rooted, cultural attitudes toward the state and its functions.”
This framework of freedom made possible the flourishing of the greatest commercial republic in history. As historian Walter Russell Mead notes, over the last several centuries of the West, three great maritime powers have stood for a time at the pinnacle of the international order: the Dutch, then the English, and finally us. All three had powerful navies and sophisticated financial systems, and were concerned primarily with increasing national wealth through commerce.
Consider the very beginning. John Steele Gordon reminds us in his book An Empire of Wealth that the Virginia Company – a profit-seeking corporation – founded Jamestown. In New England, the Puritan merchants wrote at the top of their ledgers, “In the name of God and of profit.” Even before the Revolution, we were the most prosperous country per capita in the world.
In a telling coincidence, the publication of Adam Smith’s world-changing free-market classic, The Wealth of Nations, coincided with the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Many of the Founders read the book. Without the medieval encumbrances and the powerful, entrenched special interests that plagued other countries, the United States could make Smith’s ideas the basis of its economic dispensation. Gordon writes, “The United States has consistently come closer to the Smithian ideal over a longer period of time than any other major nation.”
In the latitude provided by this relatively light-handed government, a commerce-loving, striving, and endlessly inventive people hustled its way to become the greatest economic power the world has ever known.
In America, there really hasn’t been a disaffected proletariat – because the proletariat has gotten rich. Friedrich Engels had it right when he carped that “America is so purely bourgeois, so entirely without a feudal past and therefore proud of its purely bourgeois organization.”
The traditional Marxist claim about the U.S. was that it was governed by the executive committee of the bourgeoisie. This was not intended as a compliment, but it was largely true. Look at the archetypal American, Benjamin Franklin, whose name comes from the Middle English meaning freeman, someone who owns some property. Napoleon dismissed the British as “a nation of shopkeepers”; we are a nation of Franklins.
Abraham Lincoln, a de facto Founding Father, is an exemplar of this aspect of America. “I hold the value of life,” Lincoln said, “is to improve one’s condition.” There are few things he hated more than economic stasis. He couldn’t abide Thomas Jefferson’s vision of a nation of yeoman farmers living on their land forevermore, blissfully untouched by the forces of modern economic life. (Appropriately enough, Jefferson died broke.) Lincoln captured the genius of American life when he said, “The man who labored for another last year, this year labors for himself, and next year he will hire others to labor for him.”
That sentiment is at the heart of the American economic gospel. American attitudes toward wealth and its creation stand out within the developed world. Our income gap is greater than that in European countries, but not because our poor are worse off. In fact, they are better off than, say, the bottom 10 percent of Britons. It’s just that our rich are phenomenally wealthy.
This is a source of political tension, but not as much as foreign observers might expect, thanks partly to a typically American attitude. A 2003 Gallup survey found that 31 percent of Americans expect to get rich, including 51 percent of young people and more than 20 percent of Americans making less than $30,000 a year. This isn’t just cockeyed optimism. America remains a fluid society, with more than half of people in the bottom quintile pulling themselves out of it within a decade.
And so we arrived in the 21st century still a country apart. Prior to its recent run-up, total government spending was still only about 36 percent of GDP in the U.S. In Europe, the figure was much higher – 44 percent in Britain, 53 percent in France, and 56 percent in Sweden. (The difference is starker when only non-defense spending is compared.)
Politically, we have always been more democratic, more populist than other countries. Edmund Burke said of the low-church Protestants who flocked here, “They represent the dissidents of dissent and the protest wing of the Protestant religion.” The Scotch-Irish who settled the hinterlands were even more cussed. It wasn’t very easy to tell any of these people what to do, as colonial governors learned to their regret.
Later, in the 19th century, the Federalists tried to create a kind of aristocracy. They got rich and set themselves up as grandees. Knowing that many members of this self-designated ruling class started life in the same state they had, their neighbors didn’t take kindly to these pretensions. The Federalist party wasn’t long for this world – a lesson in how poorly elite condescension plays in America.
Today, we still have more elections for more offices more often than other countries. Even many judges and law-enforcement officials are elected. In the federal government, political appointees have greater sway over the civil service than is the case in other developed countries. As Edward C. Banfield and James Q. Wilson have written, “There is virtually no sphere of ‘administration’ apart from politics.”
In Europe, the opposite is the case and has become more so with the rise of the European Union. Brussels is arrogating more decision-making to itself, removed from the locus of democratic accountability in individual nations. When important EU questions are put to the voters in referenda, there is only one correct answer, and when nations vote the “wrong” way, elections are held over and over again until they succumb. This European-style politics of bureaucratic, elite high-handedness is dangerous in its undemocratic nature and anathema to the American character.
We have managed to preserve a remarkable national spirit. At over 70 percent, more Americans express pride in their country than Western Europeans do in theirs. In terms of demography, we are the youngest advanced country in the world, and our population continues to grow as that of Western Europe is projected to decline.
Americans are more religious than Europeans. In the 18th century, American religious dissenters supported overthrowing state-supported churches because it would allow them to compete on an even playing field with other denominations. In that competition, America saw an explosion of religious feeling and became the most evangelical country in the world.
Religion gained authority and vitality from its separation from the state, and religion-inspired reform movements, from abolitionism to the civil-rights movement, have been a source of self-criticism and renewal. Today, 73 percent of Americans believe in God, compared with 27 percent of Frenchmen and 35 percent of Britons, according to a 2006 Financial Times survey.
All of this means that America has the spirit of a youthful, hopeful, developing country, matched with the economic muscle of the world’s most advanced society and the stability of its oldest democratic institutions.
This national spirit is reflected in our ambitious and vigorous foreign policy. We were basically still clinging to port cities on the eastern seaboard when we began thinking about settling the rest of the continent. There never was a time when we were an idyllically isolationist country. We wanted to make the continent ours partly as a matter of geopolitics: France, Spain, and Britain were wolves at the door. But throughout our history, we have sought not just to secure our interests abroad, but to export our model of liberty.
This missionary impulse is another product of the American Revolution, which took English liberties and universalized them. The Founders thought we would play an outsized role in the world from the very beginning. We would be an “empire of liberty,” Jefferson said. He believed that the flame of liberty, once lit on our shores, would inevitably consume the world.
This strain in American thought was expressed throughout the 20th century in the democratic idealism of Wilson, FDR, and Carter. At its best, this tendency has been tempered by prudence and realism so as to avoid foolish adventurism. Reagan exemplified the appropriate mix, as he avoided (with the painful exception of Lebanon) risky foreign interventions at the same time he ushered the Soviet Union to its grave through a shrewd combination of hard and soft power.
But make no mistake: America is still a martial nation with a no-nonsense, hit-back-harder Jacksonian temperament when challenged. Historically, it has responded to attacks, whether at Fort Sumter or Pearl Harbor, with overwhelming force and the maximum plausible effort to spread our democratic system. In this sense, George W. Bush’s response to 9/11 – two foreign wars, both justified partly as exercises in democratization – was typically American.
Our defense spending constituted half of the world’s defense spending in 2003. With a few exceptions (the British, the Canadians), we are the only Western nation that is able and willing to conduct major combat operations overseas. Even when Afghanistan was considered “the good war” by the rest of the world, we had to do most of the heavy lifting.
None of this is to say, of course, that America is perfect. No nation can be. But one can only regard with wonderment what America stands for and all that it has accomplished in its amazing, utterly distinct adventure in liberty.
There have always been those who take exception to American exceptionalism. Europeans developed a cottage industry in travel writing about America, most of it – although not all, with Tocqueville the most important exception – scandalized by the riotous freedoms of these restless, stubborn, commerce-crazy, God-soaked barbarians. The America of these portraits was simultaneously primitive and decadent: “grotesque, obscene, monstrous, stultifying, stunted, leveling, deadening, deracinating, roofless, uncultured,” as James Ceaser summarizes the critique in Reconstructing America. Many of America’s European critics hoped that, over time, America would lose its distinctiveness. It would become just another developed Western country: more centralized, more elitist, more secular, less warlike, and less free. In short, a quieter, more civilized
The American Left has shared this maddened perplexity at its country’s character and this hope for its effacement. Marxists at home and abroad were always mystified by the failure of socialism in the U.S. They thought that, as the most advanced capitalist society, we would have had the most restive proletariat. Instead we have had a broad and largely satisfied middle class. Even our unions, in their early history, were anti-statist, their radicalism anarchistic rather than socialist. At the Progressive convention of 1912, Jane Addams saw “a worldwide movement toward juster social conditions” that “the United States, lagging behind other great nations, has been unaccountably slow to embody in political action.”
Hence the search for foreign models. In the early 20th century, the Left was fascinated with all things German and brimmed with enthusiasm for Bismarck’s welfare state. Woodrow Wilson, in a sentiment typical of progressive intellectuals, deemed Bismarck’s creation an “admirable system”; he was less admiring of the American Founding. Herbert Croly, the founder of The New Republic and one of the most significant progressive intellectuals of the era, was another Bismarck admirer. Croly advocated rule by “expert social engineers” to bring to these shores the best innovations of the modern dictatorial movements taking over in Europe.
New Deal intellectuals gushed over Bolshevism in the 1930s. FDR Brain Truster Stuart Chase enthused, “Why should Russians have all the fun of remaking a world?” His statement captured the utopian underpinnings of the progressive project and the yearning for the kind of radical remaking of society that was readily attainable only in countries that gave themselves over entirely to the state. The other model was Italian fascism, which New Dealers studied closely and in important respects aped.
The New Deal was a watershed, but America didn’t lurch all the way to socialism. The power of the central government increased, a welfare state was born, and unionization advanced. But even in the midst of the Great Depression, typically American attitudes still prevailed. In a 1935 Gallup survey, Americans by a wide margin thought the government was spending too much.
After World War II, a Left that had been gaining strength in Europe for decades finally realized its social-democratic ambitions. The U.S. followed a different course. In the academy, a perverse version of American exceptionalism took root: an exceptionalism of criminality, conquest, and oppression. America was special only in its misdeeds and failings; all cultures were to be celebrated except our own. The exceptionalism of Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky, in milder form, occupied the commanding heights of our education system. It has worked to trash our Founding, to wipe out our historical memory, and to create a guilty conscience among our ruling elite.
In politics, however, the country’s progress away from its character continued to be “unaccountably slow.” American government continued to grow, particularly during the Johnson and Nixon years; the states became ever more one of the federal government’s key client groups rather than checks on its power. But the individualistic American character began to reassert itself after its mid-century dormancy. Americans saw the stagflation of the 1970s as an indictment of Big Government rather than a crisis of capitalism. Ronald Reagan won the presidency of a nation that, by European standards, was still a freewheeling cowboy economy and democracy – and made it even freer.
Deregulation exposed unions to competitive pressures that they could not survive. The U.S. quickly came out of its post-Vietnam defensive crouch. And religion, rather than fading away, became more publicly assertive in response to perceived threats. Bill Clinton’s Democratic presidency did more to confirm than to alter these trends.
The Left’s search for a foreign template to graft onto America grew more desperate. Why couldn’t we be more like them – like the French, like the Swedes, like the Danes? Like any people with a larger and busier government overawing the private sector and civil society? You can see it in Sicko, wherein Michael Moore extols the British national health-care system, the French way of life, and even the munificence of Cuba; you can hear it in all the admonitions from left-wing commentators that every other advanced society has government child care, or gun control, or mass transit, or whatever socialistic program or other infringement on our liberty we have had the wisdom to reject for decades.
President Obama’s first year in office should be seen in the context of contemporary liberalism’s discomfort with American exceptionalism.
The president has signaled again and again his unease with traditional American patriotism. As a senator he notoriously made a virtue of not wearing a flag pin. As president he has been unusually detached from American history: When a foreign critic brought up the Bay of Pigs, rather than defend the country’s honor he noted that he was a toddler at the time. And while acknowledging that America has been a force for good, he has all but denied the idea that America is an exceptional nation. Asked whether he believed in American exceptionalism during a European trip last spring, Obama said, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” (Is it just a coincidence that he reached for examples of former hegemons?)
In this respect the president reflects the mainstream sentiment of American liberals. We do not question the sincerity of his, or their, desire to better the lot of his countrymen. But modern liberal intellectuals have had a notoriously difficult time coming up with a decent account of patriotism even when they have felt it. From Richard Rorty to Todd Gitlin, they have proclaimed their allegiance to a hypothetical, pure country that is coming into being rather than to the one they inhabit.
Given the liberal gestalt, it is perhaps unsurprising that every important aspect of American exceptionalism has been under threat from President Obama and his allies in Washington. Obama has frankly and correctly described their project as to change the country fundamentally.