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Selected readings on American Exceptionalism


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.

Yuval Levin

“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.

John O’Sullivan

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.

Matthew Spalding

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.

On those occasions when Obama places himself in the con­text of American history, he identifies himself with the post-Wilsonian tradition – with, that is, the gradual replacement of the Founders’ design.  He seeks to accelerate it.

Already we are catching up to the European norm for government power.  In 2010, government spending in the U.S. will reach an estimated 44 percent of GDP.  With entitlements for the elderly on a path to explode with the retirement of the Baby Boomers, the trend is toward more convergence.  In a strange reversal, last year it was an American president urging continental Europeans to spend more to combat the recession.  Two of his highest priorities would drastically, and probably irreversibly, expand the government’s footprint.

American liberals have long been embarrassed about our country’s supposedly retrograde policies on health care and energy, especially compared with Europe’s nationalized health insurance and carbon rationing.  So they tried to use their un­precedented power after the 2008 elections to bring the U.S. into line.  They sought to limit carbon emissions.  That legislation would simultaneously represent a massive indirect tax increase, an extension of the tentacles of government regulation into every sector of the economy, and an empowerment of new bureaucratic instruments to control and direct economic development.

Obama’s health-care policy would change the relationship of people to government, probably forever, by further nationalizing our system.  It would have the federal government, for the first time, order all Americans to purchase a specified product.  And socialized health-care systems in other lands have become endless warrants for more taxing and spending, as both are justified as necessary to delivering adequate health care.  Once the public is hooked on government health care, its political attitudes shift leftward.  (The system’s flaws, such as rationing, tend to be attributed to underfunding, so that even discontent with it ends up entrenching it.)

Free labor markets have been an expression of American individualism and a contributor to American dynamism.  But President Obama has attempted to upend seven decades of American labor law in order to make it easier for unions to collect new members.  Democrats hope to reverse the unions’ decline.  Tellingly, after the United Auto Workers helped wreck GM and Chrysler, the Obama administration handed it a large share of control over the two companies.

Corporations, meanwhile, are also becoming more dependent on government handouts.  Rivalry between business and political elites has helped to safeguard American liberty.  What we are seeing now is the possible emergence of a new political economy in which Big Business, Big Labor, and Big Government all have cozy relations of mutual dependence.  The effect would be to suppress both political choice and economic dynamism.

The retreat from American exceptionalism has a legal dimension as well.  Obama’s judicial nominees are likely to attempt to bring our Constitution into line with European norms.  Here, again, he is building on the work of prior liberals who used the federal courts as a weapon against aspects of American exceptionalism such as self-government and decentralization.  In­creasingly, judicial liberals look to putatively enlightened foreign, and particularly European, opinion as a source of law capable of displacing the law made under our Constitution.

Liberal regulators threaten both our dynamism and our self-government.  They are increasingly empowered to make far-reaching policy decisions on their own – for instance, the EPA has the power to decide, even in the absence of cap-and-trade legislation passed by Congress, how to regulate carbon emissions.  The agency thus has extraordinary sway over the economy, without any meaningful accountability to the electorate.  The Troubled Asset Relief Program has turned into a honeypot for the executive branch, which can dip into it for any purpose that suits it.  Government is increasingly escaping the control of the people from whom it is supposed to derive its powers.

Inevitably, the transformation of America at home is being accompanied by a shift in its policies toward the rest of the world.  Since the 1940s America has been the crucial undergirding of the international order.  Its power and sway are a stabilizing influence in every region of the world, and it provides international public goods, from the policing of sea lanes to humanitarian interventions.  It is also, in keeping with its missionary history, the chief exponent of liberty in the world.

Obama is turning his back both on the overarching vision of freedom and on the prudence, and mislabeling his approach “realism.”  He has been positively allergic to the word “demo­cracy.”  His administration has shown very little interest in defending human rights around the world, whether in China or in Cuba.  During the Iranian election crisis, he was even cooler to the protesters in the streets than the Europeans were.

His hesitance to advocate American ideals is not a return to the realpolitik of Nixon or the first Bush.  A deep naïveté informs his policy.  He believes that our enemies can be persuaded, merely through sweet talk and blandishments, to abandon their cold-blooded interests and their most deeply held ambitions.  This is impossible without developing the kind of leverage over them in which Obama seems to have little interest.  Yes, Reagan negoti­ated with the Soviets, but only when they had a leader who was a reformer and the arms build-up and the prospect of SDI had tilted the correlation of forces – to use the Marxist argot – in our direction.  Under the sway of Obama’s anti-idealism, the U.S. is less interested in serving as a champion of liberty; his policies will also reduce our power, and thus our effectiveness should we choose to wield it again.

In many of Obama’s performances overseas (the Nobel acceptance speech is an exception), there has been a dismaying defensiveness.  It’s almost as though he doesn’t think we deserve to stand up for our ideals or for our interests, and believes that our record of sins, hypocrisies, and affronts makes a posture of apologetic passivity the only appropriate one.  This posture raises a disturbing possibility: that the waning of America’s civilizational self-confidence is part and parcel of the change Obama is effecting.

In Europe, we see a civilization that is not willing to defend itself: nations that will surrender their sovereignty, cultures that will step aside to be supplanted by an alien creed, peoples that will no longer make the most meaningful investment in the future by reproducing.  There is a sense that history is over and Europeans are just waiting for someone to turn out the last light in the last gallery of the Louvre.

The popular revolt against Obama’s policies is a sign that Americans are not prepared to go gentle into that good night.  Other factors are of course in play – most important, the weak economy – but the public is saying “No” to a rush to social democracy.

Although the conservatives, libertarians, and independents who oppose Obama’s health-care initiative may not put it in quite these terms, they sense that his project will not just increase insurance premiums but undermine what they cherish about America.  Those Americans who want to keep our detention facility at Guantanamo Bay think it necessary to protect our security – but they also worry, more profoundly, that our leaders are too apologetic to serve our interests.  Americans may want change, even fundamental change, but most of them would rather change our institutions than our national character.

It is madness to consider President Obama a foreigner.  But it is blindness to ignore that American exceptionalism has homegrown enemies – people who misunderstand the sources of American greatness or think them outdated.  If they succeed, we will be less free, less innovative, less rich, less self-governing, and less secure.  We will be less.

As will the world.  The Europeans can afford a foreign policy devoted nearly exclusively to “soft power” because we are here to defend them and mount the forward defense of freedom.  Who is going to do that for us, when we are no longer doing it for ourselves?  Who will answer the call when America is no longer home?

If our politics seems heated right now, that is because the central question before us is whether to abandon our traditional sense of ourselves as an exceptional nation.  To be exceptional is of course not to be perfect.  The old anti-imperialist saying – “My country right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; if wrong, to be set right” – has considerable wisdom.  But Americans are right not to want to become exceptional only in the 230-year path we took to reach the same lackluster destination as everyone else.

Less Exceptional Than You Think A response to Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru by Conrad Black, NRO, March 11, 2010

It is with regret and trepidation that I take some issue with Richard Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru’s stimulating essay on American exceptionalism in the March 8 issue of National Review.  I am afraid they exaggerate the pristine idealism of the founders of the United States, and the current state of the effervescence of its democracy.  They state that America has always had “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.”

There is no doubt that this is the country’s longstanding self-image, and the American genius for the spectacle, for public relations and advertising, which is as old as the republic, gathered much credence for this version of events, through the polemical talents of Jefferson, Paine, Patrick Henry, and others.  In fact, though King George III and his prime minister, Lord North, handled it incompetently, they were really only trying to get the Americans to pay their fair share of the costs of throwing the French out of Canada and India in the Seven Years’ War.

Lowry and Ponnuru are correct that America was already the wealthiest place in the world per capita, and it had 40 percent of the population of Britain and was the chief beneficiary of the eviction of France from Canada.  The colonists should certainly have paid something for the British efforts on their behalf, and “no taxation without representation” and the Boston Tea Party and so forth were essentially a masterly spin job on a rather grubby contest about taxes.

In its early years, the U.S. had no more civil liberties than Britain, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and parts of Scandinavia.  About 15 percent of its population were slaves and, in the Electoral College, the slaveholding states were accorded bonus electoral votes representing 60 percent of the slaves, so the voters in free states were comparatively disadvantaged.  (If America had stayed in the British Empire for five years beyond the death of Jefferson and John Adams, the British would have abolished slavery for them and the country would have been spared the 700,000 dead of the Civil War.)

The authors write: “We are a nation of Franklins.” I don’t think so.  Franklin was the principal architect of one of the greatest triumphs of statesmanship in modern history: America’s enlistment of Britain to evict France from Canada and of France to eject Britain from America, without which the colonists would not have won the Revolutionary War.  America’s precocious manipulation of the world’s two greatest powers was brilliant, but not exactly heroic.

Nor was the United States much interested in exporting democracy.  One of its greatest secretaries of state, John Quincy Adams, spoke of being a brilliant light and example, but of avoiding attempts to influence other countries except by example.  After the country was established, there was almost no focus on foreign affairs generally until John Hay, Theodore Roosevelt, and Elihu Root, and then Woodrow Wilson (whom I do not accept to have been a non-believer in the goals of the Revolution, as the authors suggest).  Then there was another lapse until the late 1930s, when the objective emerged of getting rid of the Nazis and Japanese imperialists, and Stalin was eventually sustained in doing most of the heavy work with the Germans.  As late as 1944, the only democracies in the world were the U.S., the British Isles and Dominions, Switzerland, and the unoccupied parts of Scandinavia, though the French, Danes, Norwegians, and Benelux countries had legitimate hopes of democratic restorations.

The brilliant achievement of Roosevelt and Churchill in salvaging — from the disasters of 1939–41 — France, Germany, Italy, and Japan for the West, and of Roosevelt’s lieutenants (especially Truman, Marshall, MacArthur, and Eisenhower, with outstanding indigenous statesmen such as de Gaulle, Adenauer, and De Gasperi) in reconstituting those countries and their neighbors as democratic allies, took democracy decisively forward.  So did the success of a number of American protégé countries that were or became democracies, such as Israel, South Korea, Taiwan, Chile, and Spain.

The propagation of democracy emerged as a goal only in the Cold War, and exceptions were made for all manner of dictators, from Franco to the Shah, Sadat, and Chiang Kai-shek.  And the American-led victory in the Cold War brought the long-suffering Poles and Czechs, the Slovenians, Baltic countries, and others into the democratic column and crowned democracy with the laurel of a mighty and relatively bloodless geopolitical victory.

The wages of this victory have included the stale-dating of the authors’ claim that America “is freer, more individualistic, more democratic, and more open and dynamic than any other nation on earth.” It is more dynamic because of its size, the torpor of Europe and Japan, and the shambles of Russia.  But Americans do not do themselves a favor by not recognizing the terrible erosion of their country’s education, justice, and political systems, the shortcomings of U.S. health care, the collapse of its financial industry, the flight of most of its manufacturing, and the steep and generally unlamented decline of its prestige.

Unionized teachers have destroyed much of the state school system.  Rampaging and often lawless prosecutors win 95 percent of their cases (compared to 55 percent in Canada), by softening the pursuit of some in exchange for inculpatory perjury against others, in the plea-bargain system.  The U.S. has six to fourteen times as many imprisoned people as other advanced prosperous democracies, and they languish in a corrupt carceral system that retains as many people as possible for as long as possible.  There are an astounding 47 million Americans with a “record,” and the country glories with unseemly glee in the joys of the death penalty.  Due process and the other guarantees of individual rights of the Fifth, Sixth, and Eighth Amendments (such as the grand jury as any sort of assurance against capricious prosecution) scarcely exist in practice.

Most of the Congress is an infestation of paid-for legislators from rotten boroughs, representing the interests that finance their elections and exchanging earmarks with their colleagues like casbah hucksters.  Many other countries are better functioning democracies with better legal and education systems.  American doctors are very good, but annual medical care costs $3,000 per capita more than in other countries where standards of care are comparable and care is more widely accessible.

The fact that Western Europe is dyspeptic and is paying Danegeld in back-breaking amounts to industrial workers and small farmers does not mean that the U.S. has not already sloughed much of its exceptionalism.  Of course the authors are right that the Howard Zinn–Noam Chomsky view of U.S. history is an almost complete fraud, but it was made plausible only by the Washington’s-cherry-tree school of myth-making.

The United States is still much the world’s greatest power, and its military is very efficient.  The people are hard-working and productive; not demotivated and pretentiously world-weary like Europeans, nor encumbered by hundreds of millions of primitive peasants like the Chinese.  But half the horses of American exceptionalism have already fled.  Where I agree emphatically with Richard Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru is that President Obama is aggravating the problem.  It is not nearly too late and can certainly wait for another president.  But the problem will not be improved by the time-worn mantra about American virtue and superiority, as if they were entirely intact, incanted as if by Victorian elocution-school students shouting “C-A-T spells cat.”

— Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom and Richard M.  Nixon: A Life in Full.  He can be reached at

American Exceptionalism, Continued A reply to Conrad Black by Rich Lowry, NRO, March 15, 2010

I enjoyed Conrad’s critique of our piece – as muscular as all the stuff he has been writing for NRO.

Just a few points in reply.

A number of points he raises do not involve disagreements with our main argument.  Conrad calls the American Revolution a “grubby contest about taxes.”  That’s one view.  But we don’t get into the causes of the Revolution and for our purposes we don’t have to.  (It sounds like Conrad should appreciate our references to how “lightly” Britain governed us under the policy Burke dubbed “salutary neglect.”) The point is that there was a revolution that began to make the traditional liberties of Englishmen into a universal creed.

Of course, initially, American society didn’t live up to that creed.  Some of our critics, by the way, seem to think we do not understand or minimize that truth; but they have generally made their case by taking phrases out of context and then reading them as maliciously as possible.

Conrad says at the beginning the U.S. had no more civil liberties than Britain, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and parts of Scandinavia.  I’ll defer to him on the latter countries, but as a general matter we were more democratic and egalitarian than Britain (although our South was obviously an outlier).  Here‘s Seymour Martin Lipset making the broad point:

As a new society, the country lacked the emphasis on social hierarchy and status differences characteristic of postfeudal and monarchical cultures.  Postfeudal societies have resulted in systems in which awareness of class divisions and respect for the state have remained important, or at least much more important, than in the United States.  European countries, Canada, and Japan have placed greater emphasis on obedience to political authority and on deference to superiors.

Conrad says in no way are we a nation of Franklins because Americans lack his manipulative genius as a statesman.  I take a back seat to no one in my appreciation of Franklin’s cold-blooded subtlety as a diplomat (indeed, contrary to Conrad, I’d go so far as to call it heroic).  But this isn’t the point.  We were merely saying that America has been a middle-class society of widespread property ownership.  Not that we are a nation of successful publishers, fertile inventors, seductive charmers, or brilliant aphorists, to mention some of Franklin’s roles.

Conrad says that at the beginning the United States wasn’t “much interested in exporting democracy” and cites John Quincy Adams for the proposition that we’d be “a brilliant light and example.”  Again, this doesn’t contradict what we wrote.  We purposely didn’t get into the debate over the history of American foreign policy.  (Robert Kagan’s brilliant Dangerous Nation is perhaps the best long-form argument for an interpretation wholly different from Conrad’s, contending that the view of the U.S. as “isolationist and passive until provoked rests on a misunderstanding of America’s foreign policies in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth centuries.”) It was to avoid getting into all of this that we wrote we’ve been a vindicator and exemplar of freedom.

Conrad dissents from our reference to Woodrow Wilson’s criticism of the Founders.  But what we said about Wilson seems pretty uncontestable.  Here are two recent longer discussions of Wilson.

Finally, Conrad notes how degraded American exceptionalism has become and calls for reform in the electoral, education, and criminal justice systems.  Once again, no argument here – we remark on the waves of progressivism throughout the 20th century that have eroded our exceptionalism.  And nothing in our piece said that conservatives should oppose policy changes.  We just want those changes to be with, rather than against, the grain of our finest traditions and best national qualities.

Conrad Black on the American Revolution by [Jonah Goldberg]

All in all, I think Rich does a fine job replying to Conrad Black.  But I think he really lets him off the hook in at least one regard.  Black writes:

Lowry and Ponnuru are correct that America was already the wealthiest place in the world per capita, and it had 40 percent of the population of Britain and was the chief beneficiary of the eviction of France from Canada.  The colonists should certainly have paid something for the British efforts on their behalf, and “no taxation without representation” and the Boston Tea Party and so forth were essentially a masterly spin job on a rather grubby contest about taxes.

Oh please.  I don’t think it’s wise or necessary for National Review to be seen as re-litigating the American Revolution.  Modern American conservatives are not those kind of conservatives.  But to argue that the American Revolution (that’s what I take “and so forth” to mean given the larger thrust of his piece) was just a masterful bit of spin designed to get out of paying our fair share really won’t do.

Consider two commentators whose authority on such matters I would expect Conrad Black to at least respect, if not bow to: Lord Acton and Edmund Burke.

Lord Acton marked the birthday of liberty as 1776 for a reason.  Acton believed that the American Revolution was the application of the best ideas of the Scottish Enlightenment and of English philosophy and political custom.  He wrote liberty had been dying in Europe in 1773, but that it was riding to the rescue not from the forests of Germany but from the forests of Pennsylvania.  Acton was too contemptuous of the English Revolution of 1688, I think.  But he was right that the more important triumph of liberty came in 1776.

As for America being on the wrong side of a “grubby contest” about taxes, Edmund Burke – the founding father of modern conservatism, on both sides of the pond, and a contemporary observer – didn’t see it that way.  In his speech “On American Taxation“ Burke came out on America’s side.  While Burke had hoped for reconciliation with the British in America, he always recognized the decency and justice of the American cause – a marked contrast with Burke’s views on the evils of the French Revolution.  During the war, Burke was not only dismayed that his German-descended king was waging war against the “American English” with the “the hireling sword of German boors and vassals,” he grew convinced that American victory was the only way to ensure the survival of liberty in Britain.  If the British defeated the colonists, Burke feared, than Whiggish principles would be in mortal danger at home as well.

Black goes on to say that America at its founding didn’t much care to “export democracy.”  As Rich rightly notes, this is a misreading of his and Ramesh’s point, which I’ll state plainly: The American experiment – a republic if we can keep it – was rightly and nigh upon universally seen, by common men and courtiers alike, as the most significant and pioneering adventure in liberty anywhere in the world.  As such, the founders understood that their first obligation was to ensure its success.  After all, the school of mankind is example, quoth Burke, and it will learn at no other.

Black can assert that people were more free in the Netherlands or Scandinavia all he likes.  The simple fact is that lovers – and haters – of liberty all around the world were looking to America for inspiration.  Indeed, Belgium – formerly the Austrian Netherlands – explicitly followed America’s example, and our declaration of independence, in 1789.

In Denmark (which then held Norway as well) the American Revolution consumed the public’s attention.  The press was filled with stirring and profound arguments about more than “grubby contests about taxes.”  Here is what A.  P.  Bernstorff, the powerful, pro-British, Danish minister for foreign affairs, wrote to a friend on Oct.  22, 1776:

“The public here is extremely occupied with the rebels in America , not because they know the cause, but because the mania of independence in reality has infected all the spirits, and the poison has spread imperceptibly from the works of the philosophes all the way out to the village schools.”

I could go on, because the history is quite settled that the world – including, later the French Revolutionaries – were mesmerized by the world-historic contest in North America and its profound significance for human liberty.  The founders knew this and had it on their minds, which is why it is so misleading to suggest they didn’t care about the cause of liberty elsewhere.

1776 is, was, and forever shall be the birthday of human liberty, not the merely the culmination of a grubby contest about taxes.

New standards in history class Texas board endorses conservative-backed curriculum By Gary Scharrer, Houston Chronicle, March 13, 2010

AUSTIN – The State Board of Education tentatively approved new standards for social studies Friday with members divided along party lines – some blasting them as a fraud and conservative whitewash, others praising them as a tribute to the Founding Fathers that rightly portrays America as an exceptional country.

The standards, which will influence history and government textbooks arriving in public schools in fall 2011, were adopted by 10 Republicans against five Democrats after weeks of debate and across a racial and ideological chasm that seemed to grow wider as the proposal was finalized Thursday.

The document faces a public hearing and a final board vote in May.

The often contentious process has been watched closely across the nation, particularly this week as the board gathered to debate and vote on the proposed standards.  Because of Texas’ size, decisions by the board on what should and should not be included can influence publishers whose textbooks may be adopted by other states.

Democrats on the board – all of them black or Hispanic – complained the new standards dilute minority contributions to Texas and U.S. history.

“We have been about conservative versus liberal.  We have manipulated the standards to insist on what we want to be in the document, regardless whether it’s appropriate,” said Mavis Knight, D-Dallas.  “We are perpetrating a fraud on the students of this state.”

But Terri Leo, R-Spring, called the proposal “a world class document” and told her Democratic colleagues the board has “included more minorities and historical events than ever before …  I am very disappointed at those allegations because they are simply not true.”

Ken Mercer, R-San Antonio, said the proposed standards reflect the desires of his constituents to emphasize “personal responsibility and accountability” and “to honor our Founding Fathers, and our military.”

Mary Helen Berlanga, D-Corpus Christi, said the standards ignore the Ku Klux Klan in Texas, Texas Rangers “killing Mexican-Americans without justification” and the U.S. Army’s role in the attempted extermination of American Indians.

“Until we are ready to tell the truth about history, we don’t have a good history or a good social studies curriculum for Texas,” she said.

She had failed in an attempt earlier in the meeting to get the history standards to identify Tejanos who fell defending the Alamo.

The board majority’s conservative approach to “culture, government and the changing political landscape” was impossible 13 years ago when the social studies curriculum last was updated, said David Bradley, R-Beaumont.

“There’s been a cultural and political shift in Texas, at least in the policy-making level,” he said.  “We all represent a constituency.  Elections matter.”

In 1997, Bradley was on the losing end of an 11-4 vote.  Every conservative-pushed amendment got tabled then, he recalled.

Shifting demographics and political winds likely will produce yet another outcome when Texas tackles the standards again sometime after 2020, Bradley acknowledged.

“Mary Helen may have her wish, and it will be the Hispanic Education Agency,” he said.

At least until then, the proposed standards are aligned with the Republican Party platform’s traditional call for limited government, regulation and taxation.

Although the proposal is “fair, accurate and well-balanced,” it could stand improvement before final action, said Bob Craig, R-Lubbock.

Craig and Lawrence Allen Jr., D-Houston, said they were concerned about its length.  It has nearly 300 historical figures and prominent people for students to study.

Some board members failed Friday to restore “hip- hop” music to the draft proposal’s high school social studies standard on culture.

Experts had recommended students study the impact of cultural movements in art, music and literature, such as Tin Pan Alley, the Beat Generation, rock and roll, the Chicano Mural Movement, country-western music and hip-hop.  The board’s seven social conservatives, joined by Geraldine “Tincy” Miller, R-Dallas, considered some of the hip-hop lyrics offensive and voted to eliminate hip-hop as an option for students to consider.

Rick Agosto, D-San Antonio, said it was a double standard to delete hip-hop, but retain the Beat Generation, a genre that rejected mainstream values and celebrated illegal drugs and alternative sex.  He pushed for it to be dropped from the standard, but was unsuccessful.

The board’s success in exposing students to more conservative government and cultural principles follows similar efforts in recent years to put a more conservative imprint on other public school subjects, including a back-to-basics English language arts and reading curriculum two years ago and adding caveats to the teaching of evolution when adopting new biology curriculum standards last year.

Texas Conservatives Win Curriculum Change James C. Mckinley Jr., NYT, March 12, 2010

AUSTIN, Tex.  – After three days of turbulent meetings, the Texas Board of Education on Friday approved a social studies curriculum that will put a conservative stamp on history and economics textbooks, stressing the superiority of American capitalism, questioning the Founding Fathers’ commitment to a purely secular government and presenting Republican political philosophies in a more positive light.

The vote was 10 to 5 along party lines, with all the Republicans on the board voting for it.

The board, whose members are elected, has influence beyond Texas because the state is one of the largest buyers of textbooks.  In the digital age, however, that influence has diminished as technological advances have made it possible for publishers to tailor books to individual states.

In recent years, board members have been locked in an ideological battle between a bloc of conservatives who question Darwin’s theory of evolution and believe the Founding Fathers were guided by Christian principles, and a handful of Democrats and moderate Republicans who have fought to preserve the teaching of Darwinism and the separation of church and state.

Since January, Republicans on the board have passed more than 100 amendments to the 120-page curriculum standards affecting history, sociology and economics courses from elementary to high school.  The standards were proposed by a panel of teachers.

“We are adding balance,” said Dr. Don McLeroy, the leader of the conservative faction on the board, after the vote.  “History has already been skewed.  Academia is skewed too far to the left.”

Battles over what to put in science and history books have taken place for years in the 20 states where state boards must adopt textbooks, most notably in California and Texas.  But rarely in recent history has a group of conservative board members left such a mark on a social studies curriculum.

Efforts by Hispanic board members to include more Latino figures as role models for the state’s large Hispanic population were consistently defeated, prompting one member, Mary Helen Berlanga, to storm out of a meeting late Thursday night, saying, “They can just pretend this is a white America and Hispanics don’t exist.”

“They are going overboard, they are not experts, they are not historians,” she said.  “They are rewriting history, not only of Texas but of the United States and the world.”

The curriculum standards will now be published in a state register, opening them up for 30 days of public comment.  A final vote will be taken in May, but given the Republican dominance of the board, it is unlikely that many changes will be made.

The standards, reviewed every decade, serve as a template for textbook publishers, who must come before the board next year with drafts of their books.  The board’s makeup will have changed by then because Dr. McLeroy lost in a primary this month to a more moderate Republican, and two others – one Democrat and one conservative Republican – announced they were not seeking re-election.

There are seven members of the conservative bloc on the board, but they are often joined by one of the other three Republicans on crucial votes.  There were no historians, sociologists or economists consulted at the meetings, though some members of the conservative bloc held themselves out as experts on certain topics.

The conservative members maintain that they are trying to correct what they see as a liberal bias among the teachers who proposed the curriculum.  To that end, they made dozens of minor changes aimed at calling into question, among other things, concepts like the separation of church and state and the secular nature of the American Revolution.

“I reject the notion by the left of a constitutional separation of church and state,” said David Bradley, a conservative from Beaumont who works in real estate.  “I have $1,000 for the charity of your choice if you can find it in the Constitution.”

They also included a plank to ensure that students learn about “the conservative resurgence of the 1980s and 1990s, including Phyllis Schlafly, the Contract With America, the Heritage Foundation, the Moral Majority and the National Rifle Association.”

Dr.  McLeroy, a dentist by training, pushed through a change to the teaching of the civil rights movement to ensure that students study the violent philosophy of the Black Panthers in addition to the nonviolent approach of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He also made sure that textbooks would mention the votes in Congress on civil rights legislation, which Republicans supported.

“Republicans need a little credit for that,” he said.  “I think it’s going to surprise some students.”

Mr. Bradley won approval for an amendment saying students should study “the unintended consequences” of the Great Society legislation, affirmative action and Title IX legislation.  He also won approval for an amendment stressing that Germans and Italians as well as Japanese were interned in the United States during World War II, to counter the idea that the internment of Japanese was motivated by racism.

Other changes seem aimed at tamping down criticism of the right.  Conservatives passed one amendment, for instance, requiring that the history of McCarthyism include “how the later release of the Venona papers confirmed suspicions of communist infiltration in U.S. government.”  The Venona papers were transcripts of some 3,000 communications between the Soviet Union and its agents in the United States.

Mavis B. Knight, a Democrat from Dallas, introduced an amendment requiring that students study the reasons “the founding fathers protected religious freedom in America by barring the government from promoting or disfavoring any particular religion above all others.”

It was defeated on a party-line vote.

After the vote, Ms. Knight said, “The social conservatives have perverted accurate history to fulfill their own agenda.”

In economics, the revisions add Milton Friedman and Friedrich von Hayek, two champions of free-market economic theory, among the usual list of economists to be studied, like Adam Smith, Karl Marx and John Maynard Keynes.  They also replaced the word “capitalism” throughout their texts with the “free-enterprise system.”

“Let’s face it, capitalism does have a negative connotation,” said one conservative member, Terri Leo.  “You know, ‘capitalist pig!’ ”

In the field of sociology, another conservative member, Barbara Cargill, won passage of an amendment requiring the teaching of “the importance of personal responsibility for life choices” in a section on teenage suicide, dating violence, sexuality, drug use and eating disorders.

“The topic of sociology tends to blame society for everything,” Ms.  Cargill said.

Even the course on world history did not escape the board’s scalpel.

Cynthia Dunbar, a lawyer from Richmond who is a strict constitutionalist and thinks the nation was founded on Christian beliefs, managed to cut Thomas Jefferson from a list of figures whose writings inspired revolutions in the late 18th century and 19th century, replacing him with St. Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin and William Blackstone.  (Jefferson is not well liked among conservatives on the board because he coined the term “separation between church and state.”)

“The Enlightenment was not the only philosophy on which these revolutions were based,” Ms. Dunbar said.

American Exceptionalism in AEI On the Issues By James Q. Wilson Sept 2006

What Alexis de Tocqueville noticed about America’s uniqueness over 170 years ago is even more valid today than it was back then: a daunting reminder of the caution with which the United States must proceed in its admirable efforts to plant democracies in rocky soil.

James Q. Wilson is the chairman of the Council of Academic Advisers at AEI. A version of this article appeared in the September 2006 issue of The American Spectator.

When President George W. Bush said that America hopes to spread democracy to all the world, he was echoing a sentiment many people support.  Though Americans do not put “extending democracy” near the top of their list of foreign policy objectives (preventing terrorism is their chief goal), few would deny that if popular rule is extended it would improve lives around the world.  Democracy, of course, means rule by the people.  But the devil is in the details. By one count, the number of democracies quintupled in the secondhalf of the twentieth century, but there are freedom loving and freedom-disdaining democracies. Fareed Zakaria calls the latter “illiberal democracies.”  Among them are Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Ukraine, and Venezuela.

The number of democratic regimes has grown rapidly in the last several decades, but what has grown is not like American democracy. Though most democracies have certain things in common—popular elections, the rule of law, and rights for minorities—we should never suppose that what we hope will appear in the Middle East and elsewhere will look like American government any more than Britain, France, Germany, India, Japan, or Turkey look like us. Recall that American democracy contains some strikingly undemocratic features, such as the Electoral College, two senators for each state regardless of state populations, and an independent judiciary.

America differs from other democratic nations in many ways, some material and some mental. It has a more rapidly growing economy than most of Europe and a deeper sense of patriotism than almost any other country with popular rule. A recent survey of 91,000 people in fifty nations, conducted by the Pew Research Center and reported on by Andrew Kohut and Bruce Stokes, outlines our political culture and shows how different it is from that in most other democracies.

Americans identify more strongly with their own country than do people in many affluent democracies.  While 71 percent of Americans say they are “very proud” to be in America, only 38 percent of the French and 21 percent of the Germans and the Japanese say they are proud to live in their countries. Americans are also much more committed to individualism than are people elsewhere.

Only one-third of Americans—but two-thirds of Germans and Italians—think that success in life is determined by forces outside their own control.  This message is one that Americans wish to transmit to their children: 60 percent of Americans say that children should be taught the value of hard work, but only one-third of the British and Italians and one-fifth of the Germans agree. Over half of all Americans think that economic competition is good because it stimulates people to work hard and develop new ideas; only one-third of French and Spanish people agree. Americans would like their views to spread throughout the world: over three fourths said this was a good idea, compared to only one fourth of the people in France, Germany, and Italy, and one-third in Great Britain.

In 1835 Alexis de Tocqueville discussed American exceptionalism in Democracy in America, and he is still correct. There was then and there continues to be now in this country a remarkable commitment to liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, and laissez-faire values. He gave three explanations for this state of affairs: we came to occupy a vast, largely empty, and isolated continent; we have benefited from a legal system that involves federalism and an independent judiciary; and we have embraced certain “habits of the heart” that were profoundly shaped by our religious tradition. Of these, Tocqueville rightly said that our customs were more important than our laws, and our laws more important than our geography. What is remarkable today is that a vast nation of around 300 million people still share views once held by a few million crowded along the eastern seaboard.

Slow to Change, for Better or Worse

Our Constitutional system is, I think, even more important than it was to Tocqueville’s mind. He wrote about federalism, local township government, and an independent judiciary, but neglected the system of separated powers and the checks and balances each branch imposes on the other two. Federalism, he correctly understood, keeps government close to the people, but the separate branches of the national government, each of which shares power with the others, impede the rate of change in ways that make it both difficult to adopt new policies and hard to change old ones.

America was slow to adopt welfare programs, social security, unemployment insurance, and government supported health care, while Europe adopted these policies rapidly. We have kept our tax rate lower than it is in most of Europe. The central difference is not that Europeans are either smarter or dumber than we, but that a parliamentary system permits temporary popular majorities to make bold changes rather quickly, while a presidential system with a powerful, independent, and internally divided Congress requires that big changes undergo lengthy debates and substantive accommodations. On occasion, America acts like a parliamentary system, as it did under Franklin Roosevelt during the Great Depression and under Lyndon Johnson when they commanded extraordinary majorities in both houses of Congress.

The system a country uses to elect its rulers also makes a difference. In a recent study, political scientists Torben Iversen and David Soskice have shown that, among seventeen large democracies, those that elect their legislators using proportional representation (PR) are three times more likely than those electing them by majority vote to have leftist governments that redistribute income from rich to poor.  Australia, Canada, Japan, Great Britain, and the United States have majoritarian systems, while Austria, Germany, Italy, and Sweden have PR systems. Under a PR system, several parties will compete, while in majoritarian systems, only two parties usually contest elections.

If there are several parties, middle-class voters will support programs that tax the rich and benefit themselves, knowing that they can change their voting habits if a government wishes to tax them more. But if there are only two major parties, middle-class voters will worry that voting for leftist parties will mean more taxes for them, so they will be inclined to support right-wing parties.  As we struggle to rescue Medicare and Social Security from their inevitable bankruptcy, we are learning that correcting old programs is as difficult as inventing them in the first place. How well our Constitutional system will handle these problems remains to be seen, but some changes will surely occur: the government cannot abandon programs that are as popular as these. Already national commissions have reported on both, though so far with little effect.

Our Constitutional system is, of course, no guarantee against making mistakes. When President John Adams was in office, Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts; after we entered the First World War, we experienced an overblown “red” scare; it took a century after the Civil War before Congress was willing to pass laws ending racial discrimination; and of late, the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, written by Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russell Feingold (D-Wisc.), constitutes a massive attack on the First Amendment rights of various interest groups.

But parliamentary systems do no better. England gave us homegrown fascism in the person of Oswald Mosley; France expressed its anti-Semitism in the Dreyfus Affair; and today, much of Europe is in the grip of deep tensions between Muslims whom it will not assimilate and native Europeans who want Muslim labor but not Muslim rights. America, by contrast, has managed to absorb every immigrant group in ways that enrich the country and convert most new arrivals into patriots. We have several million Muslims living here, but I suspect that the proportion that embraces the radical fascism of Muslim extremists is smaller here than abroad.

The Will of the People

Federalism keeps government close to the people, especially with respect to issues that mean a lot to them.  Police, schools, criminal justice, and land-use planning are deeply local matters. As a result, we have more variation in the policies of these agencies than one would find in a centralized democracy. As school quality becomes a problem, some states allow the creation of charter schools, and a few places use voucher programs. Land-use planning can be either greatly restrictive or open to new developments, depending on the policies of cities and counties.

Federalism, of course, has costs as well as benefits. Southern states practiced racial discrimination after most northern ones had passed laws against it. Locally elected school boards can often be captured by the electoral power of teachers’ unions, thus creating a dubious bargaining arrangement: school boards that are supposed to negotiate with teachers over salaries and working conditions often are the captive of the very teachers with whom they must do business. But the benefits are just as clear.

When welfare reform began at the national level, it built on new ideas being tried in several states. When limits on aggressive medical malpractice suits began, they came first in states and are only now being considered in Washington. These changes confirm the argument by Justice Louis Brandeis that federalism is valuable because it creates “laboratories of democracy.” He was explaining why much good comes from political alternatives. Not only can government choose what to do, people can choose among states where it is done. People who want medical marijuana, tough environmental laws, lenient criminal justice penalties, and alternative lifestyles can live in one place; people who prefer the opposites of these can live elsewhere. By keeping certain policies close to the people, government here cannot long ignore popular demands.

Consider crime. When our crime rates began to rise in the early 1960s, Barry Goldwater, the Republican presidential candidate in 1964, campaigned about “crime in the streets.” Many of his opponents berated him, claiming, wrongly, that his concern was a mask for hostility to racial minorities. But Lyndon Johnson, who defeated Goldwater, knew better. Since people were worried about crime, he created a national commission on crime and the administration of justice that issued a multi-volume report.

But far more important than a national commission is the fact that every district attorney, mayor, and governor, and many judges are elected by the people. When crime became a public concern, these officials had to respond.  By the early 1980s, that response had led to a higher proportion of convicted criminals going to prison where they served longer sentences. In Europe, by contrast, crime rates also rose, but this fact was confronted by political elites who were insulated from public concern.

The difference can be seen in the contrast between the United States and England. In the 1970s, England had lower robbery and burglary rates than did California, probably because the former sent a higher proportion of robbers to prison than did the latter. But by the mid-1980s, the criminal justice policies of the United States and England had switched places.

The United States, driven by popular pressure, increased the proportion of convicted offenders sent to prison, while England reduced that proportion. Crime rates fell in the United States and rose in England.  By the early 1990s, England had a robbery rate higher than the U.S.’s and a burglary rate that was twice as high. We cannot be certain that differing punishment policies explain the changes in crime rates, but no other plausible explanation is available.

During many of these changes, Ronald Reagan was president of the United States and Margaret Thatcher the prime minister of England. I doubt they disagreed about crime or how to deal with it. What is important is not that they were in office, but that in this country scores of elected prosecutors endorsed popular new policies, while in England scores of appointed prosecutors did not.  When public officials are appointed, they acquire a certain detachment from public opinion, thereby enabling them to act on the basis of their personal beliefs. Those beliefs, in my experience, consist of some combination of self-interest and a therapeutic ideology.

The self-interest of British civil servants has been memorably recorded in Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister, two BBC television series that I believe are not only hilarious, but also accurate. It would be almost impossible to make such a program about U.S. civil servants, not because they care less for their own advantage, but because they are checked by competing elected officials in legislative committees who are highly sensitive to what the public wants.

These differences are dramatized by differing U.S. and English policies toward the death penalty. In both countries a majority of the people support it, but only in the United States does it exist. And it exists in most states, but not all. In England, parliamentary leaders do not propose the idea for enactment even though people want it.

When confronted with the choices offered by federalism, the right decision is not always made. In some states, the public can back unconstitutional or morally dubious arguments. The courts will ordinarily prevent the former from taking effect, but nothing will prevent the latter. But human choice makes a difference: if a state makes a series of popular but questionable choices, people can move to a different state. Moreover, the states must compete with one another for business. A firm wishing to build a factory or an office building will examine not only land costs, but also tax rates and political attitudes, picking the state that offers the best combination of factors. This competition imposes a powerful brake on ill-considered schemes.

Spiritual Entrepreneurship

Tocqueville ascribed our political culture in large part to our religious heritage. Our settlers who escaped religious persecution at home brought with them a form of Christian worship that was both “democratic and republican.”  To be sure, some Americans in 1835 and many more today “profess Christian dogma . . . because they are afraid of not looking like they believe them.” But for most people, religion is a reality, not a dodge. Tocqueville understood that, contrary to the prediction of European philosophers, freedom and enlightenment would not extinguish religious zeal. On the contrary: here freedom largely explains our persistent religiosity.

That is because a nation that never had an established church and did not grant money or privileges to existing churches left religion in the hands of spiritual entrepreneurs. These people were sometimes domestic missionaries or local citizens eager to create and govern a religious organization. Protestant churches had to compete in a spiritual marketplace, with many new churches emerging every year, people changing their affiliations frequently, and a few mega-churches emerging under the guidance of the most successful ministers. The system of natural liberty that Adam Smith said would benefit the economy has also aided religion.

As a result, nearly half of all Americans attend churches or synagogues weekly, compared to 4 percent of the English, 5 percent of the French, and comparably low levels in most of western Europe. Some may suspect that our religiosity is sustained by recent immigrants—especially those from Latin America—but that is only part of the story. Churches grew in membership between 1776 and 1850, long before Irish and Italian immigrants arrived in any number. When German immigrants arrived toward the end of the nineteenth century, they behaved like Germans still in their homeland: most were nonobservant Lutherans. But by the time they had become third generation Americans, they acquired the church commitments of most Americans and went to church frequently. In addition, the Mormon Church has grown rapidly without, at least in the United States, emphasizing immigrant recruitment.

In most of Europe, by contrast, religion was allied with politics so that over the centuries, European secularists, as one scholar has noted, “hounded Christians as political enemies rather than as religious adversaries.” As a result, European churches that are still under government influence in much of Europe long after these nations had become secular generate political failure. As Tocqueville put it, “religion increases its power over some and loses the hope of reigning over all.”

Religion in America has helped train citizens on self-government by giving them independent congregations to manage, even in places that when first settled had no civil government. The struggle between religious faiths has at times been acute, as with Protestant attacks on the Roman Catholic Church in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But this rivalry was suppressed by the courts, weakened by the slow realization that Catholics here were Americans first and Catholics second, and by the election of a Catholic president in 1960.

As with the economy, so with religion: markets generate mutual understanding far better than monopolies.  Religion has powerfully affected American politics: its leaders were at the forefront of efforts to abolish slavery, and they still struggle over war, abortion, and gay rights. Among white voters in the 2004 presidential election, religious differences explained a larger fraction of their votes than did their age, sex, income, or education.

At the extremes, religion can lead to violence, as evidenced by some radical fundamentalists who bomb abortion clinics, or radical secularists who sustained the Weather Underground in the 1960s. But for most people, religion has a moderate impact despite the fervent rhetoric directed at it by several contributors to the New York Times.

Religion in America explains a host of worthwhile traits. As Arthur Brooks shows in the new book Who Gives?, people who are religious are more likely to live in two-parent families, achieve upward economic mobility, resist the lures of drugs and crime, and overcome health problems.  They are also more likely to give to charity, including secular ones, than are nonreligious people, and they are more likely to donate blood, give food or money to homeless people, and return excessive change mistakenly given to them by a cashier.

Religion, of course, cannot be the sole guide to a useful democracy. People who believe that their faith justifies their desire to dominate other people or to destroy the infidels are on a crash course toward social destruction. Iran is an example. And a country in which a secular autocrat has imposed draconian rule as a way of curbing the excesses of religion has created an alternative no better than the one he suppressed. Iraq under Saddam Hussein is an example.

Religion requires constitutional boundaries to limit the radical demands of a few. But constitutional government without religion may not, as the examples cited earlier in this article suggest, give to people any sense of common destiny or any faith in the transcendent value of their principles.

Rough-and-Tumble Politics

No matter how many mistakes they make in understanding the Bill of Rights and no matter how many times they may support policies hostile to liberty, Americans share at a deep level a commitment to freedom. Ask almost any member of the armed forces why they are fighting in Afghanistan or Iraq, and the most common answer is that they are “defending freedom.” Ask almost any citizen what it is they like most about this country, and they will say its freedom.

Now, fighting in the Middle East involves many issues having little to do with freedom in the United States; many American domestic policies actually reduce freedom. Despite that, our verbal commitment to this goal is real. And this view means that Americans tend to define the issues that divide them as a contest of rights more than as a matter of choice.

We see this in the flood of lawsuits by which Americans tend to manage their differences. Some people think that this is because we have too many lawyers, while others have suggested that to solve the problem we close our law schools for five years. And it is true that we have, in proportion to our population, three times as many lawyers as does Great Britain and twenty-five times as many as Japan.

But we are not more litigious because we have more lawyers: we have more lawyers because we are so litigious. Not even the framers of the Constitution anticipated this. As Alexander Hamilton said in Federalist 78, “the judiciary . . . has no influence over either the sword or the purse, no direction of either the strength or the wealth of the society, and can take no active resolution whatever.” As a result, “the judiciary is beyond comparison the weakest of the three departments of power.” Things turned out a bit differently than Hamilton supposed. The courts have become immensely powerful for two reasons: the existence of an independent judiciary and the beliefs Americans have about the foundation of their government. Courts that are independent of the legislative and executive branches will inevitably become the referees that determine when a law or order violates the Constitution.

Granted, there must be some organization that will defend that claim. Early on, the Supreme Court, under the leadership of John Marshall, became that entity, and since then no one has doubted it. As the federal government grew in size and authority, more and more issues arose that implicated the Constitution, and so more and more often the Supreme Court decided how that document should be read. Since 1789, the Supreme Court has declared more than 160 laws to be unconstitutional.

People who want medical marijuana, tough environmental laws, lenient criminal justice penalties, and alternative lifestyles can live in one place; people who prefer the opposites of these can live elsewhere.

But far more important than judicial review in explaining America’s commitment to rights has been the legacy of the Revolutionary War and the sentiments expressed in the Declaration of Independence. That document said that “all men are created equal” and are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights” that include “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” To secure these rights, governments are created that derive their “just powers from the consent of the governed.”

This language has had a lasting influence over how Americans think about government, even though the Supreme Court has rarely made any reference to the Declaration and lawyers are not trained to think that this document has any legal value. To judges and attorneys, the Declaration has no more authority, and probably less, than does the preamble to the Constitution. But to Americans, the language of the Declaration is remembered far more clearly than that of the Constitution.

Even though in 1776 neither women nor slaves could vote, we recall the claim that we were created equal.  Though the government may imprison or execute criminals and send soldiers off to die, we have a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (though not to happiness itself).

This language fits well with the fact that in America we had no experience with a hereditary aristocracy or with a king who could rule by divine right. As settlers moved out West, beyond the few million residents along the Atlantic coast, Americans took with them a desire for each person to be esteemed and have a fair share in government, and a shared view of equality with its accompanying hostility to displays of superiority. They also embraced a desire for liberty, but not license; that is, the freedom to act in accord with decent principles, many of them religiously defined. As towns were organized, these principles shaped their governance, not because Thomas Jefferson had written them, but because Americans shared these views before they tried to design any local political arrangements.

This tradition has equipped Americans with a commitment to natural law: that is, to a belief that laws cannot be justified simply as the commands of a ruler but only as an expression of some higher standard that endows people with claims against both other people and the government itself if either oversteps what we believe to be the right standards of conduct. This commitment helps us understand an otherwise puzzling fact: Americans typically have a low opinion of our governing institutions, especially Congress, but an exceptionally high opinion of the Constitutional system of which they are a part.

These views impose constraints on what government might do. In Europe, the slow replacement of kings with elected parliaments did not alter the general assumption that the people owed the government something—namely, a respect for authority. In America, as Seymour Martin Lipset has argued, people who had that view (the Loyalists) emigrated to Canada, while those who thought the government owed respect to the people remained and fought as revolutionaries. The differences in outlook persist to this day. Canada has a larger welfare state than the United States in part because Canadians (notably those in the east) want welfare and Americans (notably those in the middle and far west) do not.

The consequence of these views is that Americans today practice adversarial politics, not deferential ones, and turn frequently to the courts to settle their differences in a struggle over rights. Every government agency here operates under close public scrutiny by the press, interest groups, and on occasion an aroused public. We see the result in environmental policies. In England and Sweden, these policies tend to be made by a collaborative and often unpublicized accord among business firms, labor unions, environmental groups, and government agencies. Here, by contrast, they are made in a hotly contested public struggle that pits firms, unions, groups, and agencies against one another.

Spreading Democracy

There are many different kinds of democracy that can be spread, and Americans should never suppose that what may take hold in another country will closely resemble what has grown up here. A few types of democracy may be illiberal ones, while many will be elitist ones, but most will enhance the freedom of their people, change governments peacefully after an election is held, and refrain from the use of force to conquer other nations.

Some Americans are skeptical that democracy can be exported, especially to the Middle East. These countries lack what we had: a successful war against a colonial power, wise statesmen who drafted the Constitution, and a political culture that will sustain democratic authority and protect human freedom. But most nations that have become democracies lack some or all of these traits: there was no revolutionary war, few wise statesmen, and no democratic political culture in France, Germany, Italy, or Japan. England, the nation that became democratic a few decades after the United States was created, had many helpful precursors: a weaker feudal legacy, many independent farmers who owned their own land, and an early experience with an independent judiciary. England’s former colonies—not only America, but Australia, Canada, India, and New Zealand—became the leading democracies of the world.

But other countries have become democratic despite internal terrorism (France), domestic autocracy (Germany), a weak political culture (Japan), a lack of territorial integrity (Italy), and a Muslim population (Turkey and increasingly Indonesia). The facts that not all democracies (in fact, almost none) will look like ours and that radicalism and despotism will make democratic progress painfully slow in many countries are not arguments against encouraging the spread of democracy; they are only arguments against hoping that our system can be exported intact, and that we will see democracy in the most resistant nations in our (or our children’s) lifetimes.

Though American democracy got off to a good start in 1789, we had to fight a bloody civil war before much more progress could be made.

But we have left a legacy that many people wish to emulate. When people in Lebanon, Jordan, Morocco, and Indonesia are asked whether Western-style democracy can work in their countries, the overwhelming majority say yes. The greatest barrier to American influence on the world today is probably not our system of government or even our unequalled military power, but our popular culture.

We export, to great individual but no collective applause, blue jeans, Big Macs, rock and hip-hop music, Web-based pornography, and motion pictures that often celebrate violence and a shallow adolescent culture. As Martha Bayles and others have pointed out, this is not what we exported right after World War II, when, with government aid, we sent abroad artists, jazz musicians, and gifted writers to show what America could produce. Our earlier efforts at public diplomacy were a success; our most recent efforts at consumerism confirm in the minds of many leaders that we are a corrupt, violent, and mindless people.

There is a great irony in all this. Our foreign critics dislike the fact that freedom produces consumerism, yet they ignore the fact that their followers buy into our retail output with great enthusiasm. In fact, despite our differences with other countries about capitalism, patriotism, and democracy, Americans generally share the same moral values as Europeans. As many Americans as foreigners are upset by the vulgarity of American motion pictures and video games. Anti-Americanism has deep roots, some linked to our foreign policies, some to our military power, and some merely to our vast impact on world affairs.

But much of it is dressed up to appear as a moral critique of the United States.  Some of that is nonsense: movies starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, records featuring Frank Zappa, and fast food restaurants penetrate to the farthest reaches of the globe and are eagerly consumed by people who may wonder how a nation they are supposed to dislike produces so many things they love. Still, democracy and free enterprise encourage consumerism, and consumerism will lead to things that many people, notably in Muslim nations, will regard as immoral.

For our own good, I think America ought to lean against this picture of our country and encourage a renewed public diplomacy that emphasizes the deepest features of our culture: a love of freedom, a respect for great talent, and a willingness to forego any imperial ambitions even when we have the power to impose them. We did this after World War II by means of trips and broadcasts that drew on our best features. Today we rely on the export of the basest forms of our popular culture.

We cannot keep the latter at home, but we can do more to export the former.

Religion in America has helped train citizens on self-government by giving them independent congregations to manage even in places that when first settled had no civil government.

World Affairs WINTER 2008 Without Exception: The Same Old Song by David Rieff

David Rieff

The Idea that Is America: Keeping Faith with Our Values in a Dangerous World Anne-Marie Slaughter Perseus Books Group, 2007.

Barack Obama “The American Moment.” Remarks to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs April 23, 2007.

When a David Gelernter writes a book about the United States as a great religion or a Victor Davis Hanson states in an oddly Marxian vein that history has already proven that America has offered mankind its “last and greatest hope,” one may disagree. But to evince surprise or shock is about as persuasive as saying that one is shocked to discover gambling going on at Rick’s Café. Whether it is a Robert Conquest or a David Frum insisting that Anglo-American democracy is an unprecedented experiment in human history—and one for which neither the historical trajectory and fate of other empires nor skepticism about the moral bona fides of the powerful has much relevance—the conservative case for American Exceptionalism remains both untroubled and largely consistent.

But what of liberals? It is common in American political discourse these days to lament the passing of the golden age of bipartisanship. In his new book, The Second Civil War: How Extreme Partisanship has Paralyzed Washington and Polarized America, the columnist Ron Brownstein evokes a vast ideological gulf separating progressives and conservatives (to use two voguish, though somewhat misleading, labels). And on certain domestic policy issues, notably abortion and immigration, Brownstein may be right. But the same can hardly be said about today’s foreign policy debates. For all the hazy evocations of some mythic time when politics halted at the water’s edge, a bipartisan foreign policy is hardly a constant in U.S. history. To the extent that Democrats and Republicans ever shared a monolithic worldview, this was but a function of the particular conditions of the Cold War. It did not exist in America before World War II, and it is hardly surprising that it no longer exists almost two decades after the collapse of the Soviet empire.

But if one looks at the current American foreign policy debate without the expectation that Democrats and Republicans will agree on just about everything, what seems remarkable is the extent to which they do, in fact, agree on just about everything. To be sure, the Chomskian/English department left and the Buchananite right have an altogether different perspective. They view American power either as fundamentally malign, or else as benign but not to be expended other than when vital U.S. national interests, narrowly construed, are at stake. (Chomsky really just turns American Exceptionalism on its head: America the exceptionally evil.) But for the most part, from Barack Obama to—dare one say it?—Richard Cheney, the argument goes undisputed that the world “needs” (that extraordinarily loaded word being the one most commonly employed) American leadership and that, for its part, the U.S. has a “special” (also a loaded word) role to play on the international scene.

Of course, citizens of all great powers, at least those belonging to the dominant classes, have always believed something of this sort, and have convinced themselves that they dominated the world not so much in their own interests but in the interests of humanity. Cecil Rhodes famously insisted that imperialism was “philanthropy plus five percent.” But with the exception of a few ardent defenders of empire—Max Boot and Robert Kaplan being two obvious names that come to mind—and some noisy critics on the far left, the American consensus has always been and remains that we are not an empire in any traditional sense, but rather the last best hope of humanity—which, coincidentally or not, also happens to be the most powerful nation in the world. And if one counts oneself the last best hope of humanity, and one possesses extraordinary power, what seems immoral is not a propensity to use that power but rather a propensity to conserve it.

The debate over the Iraq War has occluded the fact that, for the most part, liberals agree wholeheartedly with this proposition. Liberals, no less than conservatives, accept the premise of the virtuousness of U.S. power (no “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” coming from the mouths of Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton, let alone those advising them, from Samantha Power to Richard Holbrooke.) And by liberals, one refers to people who, in American terms, occupy a space very much to the left of writers like Peter Beinart, whose book, The Good Fight: Why Liberals—and Only Liberals—Can Win the War On Terrorism, is a cri de coeur for the liberalism of Scoop Jackson or John F. Kennedy, before Vietnam ruined everything. Or centers like the Truman Project for National Security or the Web site Democracy Arsenal [sic], whose name may evoke Rooseveltian idealism to those who blog for it, but that would have a rather different resonance to, say, a historically minded Latin American.

To listen to liberals describe what has happened since the Bush administration began to prosecute the “Global War on Terrorism,” one would think that there was a total discontinuity between the policy of this administration and that of its predecessors. As Senator Obama put it in his now celebrated April 2007 speech at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, “We have seen the consequences of a foreign policy based on a flawed ideology, and the belief that tough talk can replace real strength and vision.”

As a candidate generally (and rightly) viewed as being much more critical of the administration’s foreign policy than Senator Clinton has been, Obama presents an interesting case study in the tyranny of small differences. Unlike Clinton, he steadfastly opposed the war in Iraq from the beginning and has not hedged about when and how he will withdraw U.S. forces. His supporters insist that he represents a decisive break with not just the policies of the Bush administration but also with the administration’s worldview. Yet that same Chicago speech reveals that, while Obama may differ with them on rhetoric and particulars, he remains every bit as committed to cementing U.S. hegemony in the world as President Bush or Vice President Cheney.

Indeed, reading that speech, it is impossible not to conclude that had the Iraq War gone well, most liberal Democrats would still be championing it (as, famously, Senators Clinton and John Edwards did). The reason for this, in my view, is not bad faith or (out-of-the-ordinary) hypocrisy on the part of Democrats, but rather that, again, a consensus about the U.S. role in the world unites most of the right and most of the liberal-left in this country, and that this view is grounded in, and would collapse in ruins absent, the theology of American Exceptionalism.

Her record makes it difficult to conclude that Senator Clinton is anything else but a trimmer. Thus, if she mouths Fourth of July bromides about American goodness, the likeliest explanation is that she is merely bowing to conventional expectations of what politicians should say about America. By contrast, and whatever his weaknesses, Senator Obama seems less prone to prepackaged rhetoric. This is what makes his case worthy of note. While his Chicago speech contains a fierce attack on the Bush administration, his account of America’s special mission in the world could have been written by former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson. The speech has echoes of Bush’s high-Wilsonian second inaugural address—itself a mix of religious and human rights language that, as William Schultz of Amnesty International pointed out at the time, would have been greeted ecstatically by liberals had it been delivered by anyone other than George Bush.

Obama begins by telling his audience that “we all know that these are not the best of times for America’s reputation in the world.” He then follows with boilerplate denunciations of the Iraq War, the Bush administration’s bluster, and then with an account of the “disappointment” many people around the world feel about the United States. That said, Obama recounts a series of his trips abroad—to decaying chemical warfare facilities in Ukraine, to Israel-Palestine, to the Darfur border—in the course of which it occurred to him that many if not most of the world’s worst problems could only be solved with America’s help or, using a Biblical phrase that would not have been out of place in one of Gerson’s speeches, the “promise” of American leadership.

From this recognition, Obama tells his audience that he feels confident in rejecting “the notion that the American moment has passed.” That conclusion is one that, after dispassionately toting up the strengths and weaknesses of the various world powers, a hard-boiled realist could also have made. But Obama’s analysis does not reflect his view of America’s power so much as it does his view of the country as, if not quite a religion, then at least a moral cause. The line from “The City on the Hill,” or Benjamin Franklin, who famously said that “the cause of the United States is the cause of humanity,” really could not be clearer. When Obama says that he rejects “the notion that the American moment has passed,” he does so not for reasons of sober assessment but out of faith in America’s special mission. “I dismiss,” he continues, “the cynics who say that this new century cannot be another when, in the words of Franklin Roosevelt, we lead the world in battling immediate evils and promoting the ultimate good.”

The Ultimate Good: only in countries convinced that their own particular values are universal values writ small, countries animated by a messianic belief that their nation has a duty to right the world’s wrongs, could a mainstream politician—and one who, in American terms anyway, resides on the left—utter such a phrase. And lest Obama be misunderstood, in the next sentence, he drives his meaning home. “I still believe,” he assures his audience, “that America is the last, best hope of Earth. We just have to show the world that this is so.” Then, turning to Bush, he accuses the incumbent president not of hubris, but rather of not filling properly what Obama calls “the position of leader of the free world.” Naturally, the candidate concludes by saying that he will fill it.

Because of their values, their constitutions, their commitments to human freedom, only two countries have this sense of entitlement that enables them to meddle in the affairs of others on moral grounds. They are France and the United States, and this may account for the skepticism with which each has historically tended to view the other. The difference, of course, is that France is now a mid-sized power, which, unlike Britain, chose Europe when it lost its empire and is increasingly indifferent (above all, after the debacle of Rwanda) even to its historic playgrounds in Africa. In contrast, the United States obviously remains in a position, assuming it musters the political will, to lead the world. Whether advocates of American hegemony, from Michael Mandelbaum and Richard Holbrooke to Condoleeza Rice and John McCain, are correct in their conviction that this is inherently a good thing for the world as well as for the United States (this is what isolationists question, after all) is a different question altogether.

The essential point, however, is that in an era when formal empires have lost their usefulness and in which the discourse, if not the reality, of world politics has become highly moralized, the American conviction that it has a duty to redress the world’s wrongs is what provides the moral warrant for the material side of U.S. hegemony. What Obama’s speech demonstrates is that this conviction is completely bipartisan—in other words, that liberals are just as wedded as conservatives to America’s global mission. When high moralism and a limitless sense of mission combine with hegemonic force, we are talking about more than simply an activist foreign policy.

Lest there be any confusion, American Exceptionalism signifies much more than the idea that the country is unique and unlike other countries. As Andrew Kohut and Bruce Stokes demonstrate in their book, America Against the World: How We Are Different and Why We Are Disliked, many nations, not just the French and the Americans, think themselves exceptional. The difference is that, in the American case, there is a global mission that comes along with, indeed is inseparable from, that sense of being special. To use an obvious example, the Chinese sense of national superiority is widespread. But it would be inconceivable for a Chinese politician to say what Senator Obama did in his Chicago speech, which was that the message the next President of the United States needs to address to the world at large is: “You matter to us. Your future is our future. And our moment is now.”

But the emphasis—and here, again, no real gap divides conservatives and liberals—is on moral leadership. Thus, President Bush has argued that the war in Iraq was a demonstration of America’s moral leadership, whereas his liberal opponents claim that Iraq was where the U.S. forfeited its moral leadership. What no one questions is the certainty that we are capable of, indeed accustomed to, exercising such leadership, and, more basically still, that our ideals as a nation entitle us to do so. There is contention as to which American leader is fit to assert it, whether it should be done unilaterally or multilaterally, and how much the opinion of the rest of the world should count. Beyond that, there is absolute consensus.

That liberals belong to this consensus should not be surprising. For the key difference between American Exceptionalism and that which grips other nations may be traced to the deep conviction that America is as much an idea as it is a country. Anne-Marie Slaughter, the dean of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School and someone routinely mentioned as a candidate for one of the top foreign policy jobs in a Clinton or an Obama administration, recently produced a book that neatly sums up this liberal self-understanding. Its title, The Idea that Is America: Keeping Faith with Our Values in a Dangerous World, pretty much encapsulates the argument.

It is not a good book, but it is an emblematic one, and what is most interesting about it is not the standard narrative of progress that Slaughter serves up—U.S. history seen as a steady process of emancipation and enfranchisement, with admittedly the odd setback—but rather the sense that, on the deepest level, America exists far less as a place than as an ideal. That, of course, is what permits American liberals to cling just as fiercely to the idea of American Exceptionalism as conservatives do. If American history is not contingent, but foreordained—we are back to “The City on the Hill,” to America as cause, or, pace Senator Obama, the world’s last best hope—then the idea always trumps the reality, which is as good a definition of liberal idealism as any.

And Slaughter is emphatic on the point. She rejects the imputation that she is an American exceptionalist, but what to make of her claim that “liberty, democracy, equality, justice, tolerance, humility, and faith—these are America’s fixed stars”? Slaughter says that is not an evocation of “The City on the Hill,” but it is difficult to see how it can be anything else. Her secular grafting of the old-time progress narrative onto the actual history of the United States only works so long as she touts a self-loving vision of the political and moral essence of the country. Pace Slaughter, we are not like other nations enmeshed in what she calls “The traditional game of the international system.” Instead, we stand for our “values.” This is the purest expression of the traditional liberal idea of American Exceptionalism, and wrapping it in antiseptic sheets of international law and multilaterism does nothing to change that fact, whatever Slaughter may imagine.

The principal way in which the liberal vision of American Exceptionalism can be distinguished from the conservative one is the degree to which it is critical, sometimes harshly critical of American reality. But most liberals remain wedded to the idea, well expounded in Slaughter’s book, that the American ideal will always trump the American reality. This faith, incidentally, is what permits mainstream American liberals to remain mainstream American liberals and not become leftists, given that their analysis of what is wrong with American reality often coincides with that of the left. If one believes, as people like Slaughter or John Ikenberry (who has accused the Bush administration of “stealing” liberal internationalism) do, that American ideals are so transcendent that they can only prevail in the end, then it becomes fairly easy to convince oneself that if a great guy like Barack Obama were president, rather than a coarse Texan like George W. Bush, liberty, democracy, and all the rest would prevail—as, according to Slaughter, they will in the long run anyway.

At its most extreme, this faith—and it is faith in the sense of being a religious rather than a political construct—can lead to the claim, recently made on the Web site Democracy Arsenal by the writer Michael Cohen, that the United States is an “inherently” good country. What Cohen meant was not that the United States always did good things (he was, for example, an early and bitter critic of the war in Iraq), but that its constitution was an inherently good document, and that since the United States in the end was both governed and afforded the means of social transformation by that document, that it was not too much to assert that the U.S. was innately good. As the old joke about Communism goes, “If the facts don’t fit the theory, so much the worse for the facts.”

In fairness, the debate over America’s inherent goodness was not one that Cohen was particularly comfortable with, as he repeated in a number of subsequent posts on the Democracy Arsenal blog. Nonetheless, he refused to back down, and this too is hardly surprising; it is obviously possible to say that there are inherently good ideas. The problem, which neither Slaughter nor Cohen nor, it appears, Senator Obama and the team around him seem to be willing to contend with is that, however much Americans might wish it otherwise, America is not an idea; it is a nation founded on certain ideas. And Slaughter’s interpretation of them differs dramatically from that of, say, The Federalist Society.

Whether Americans, especially American liberals, can live without the idea of being a light to nations is an open question. As a colleague of Cohen’s, Shadi Hamid put it to me only half jokingly: “What’s the point of being an American if we’re not exceptional?” It is a sense many American liberals share, which explains why there was far more continuity between Bush and Clinton than liberals wish to concede and why, assuming Senator Clinton or Senator Obama is elected in 2008, there will be far more continuity between a new Democratic administration and that of the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. For now, normalcy—the idea that the United States is a nation like any other, with its strengths and weaknesses, virtues and defects, and that there is far too much history in front of us for any sensible person to speak about any nation being the last best hope of humanity—does not stand much chance of appealing to many Americans, left or right. In that sense, at least, politics still stops at the  water’s edge.

David Rieff is a journalist and author, most recently, of Swimming in a Sea of Death: A Son’s Memoir.

WORLD AFFAIRS jANUARY/fEBRUARY 2010  Undying Creed: The Acceleration of Our Exceptionalism by Joel Kotkin

Joel Kotkin

Many Americans—particularly those involved with the major news media, academia, and the world of policymaking—envision their country becoming an ever more predictable follower of global fashions in everything from health care to climate change, jurisprudence to economic policy. In other words, they look ahead and see a nation that is a somewhat larger version of those that make up the European Union.

But in reality, those who believe that the United States is sliding down from its historical apex—and that we must accordingly downscale our expectations and adopt the assumptions and economy more appropriate to our European friends—are wrong. American exceptionalism has lost none of its momentum, and the United States is becoming more, not less, distinct among the countries of the developed world in its economic, demographic, and cultural evolution.

For at least a generation, the appeal of declinism and the belief that we must embrace foreign models has constituted, in the words of Georgetown University’s Robert Lieber, a kind of “historical chic” both domestically and abroad. “There is much to be said for being a Denmark or Sweden, even a Great Britain, France, or Italy,” Andrew Hacker suggested in 1971. More than thirty-five years later, the same refrain can be heard from author Parag Khanna, who envisions a “shrunken” America lucky to eke out a meager existence between a “triumphant China” and a “retooled Europe.” America, notes Morris Berman, another critic, is simply “running on empty.”

Such assessments consistently underestimate the sources of what the Japanese scholar Fuji Kamiya has described as America’s unique sokojikara, or reserve power. The peculiar demographic, economic, and cultural strengths of this country, Kamiya believes, create a vastly different reality from that of its major competitors.

This fact was largely ignored at the outset of the current financial crisis, which many pundits here and abroad blithely expected to accelerate American decline as other countries adapted more easily to hard times. Yet Japan’s rate of decline in GNP was three times that of the United States, while Germany and Britain contracted by twice as much. Moreover, the current recession has sparked far more overt social unrest in Europe, China, and Russia than in the United States.

America’s unique strengths will not fade quickly, and it’s difficult to see how an aging Europe, with its own ethnic problems, out-migration of skilled workers, weak military, and weaker technological base, could challenge our preeminent position. India and China are more likely long-term competitors, but both suffer from a legacy of poverty and underdevelopment that will take decades, if not generations, to overcome.

In India’s case, per capita income in 2005 ranked just slightly above that of sub-Saharan Africa; it endures chronic ethnic and religious conflict, as well as an ongoing and lethal struggle with Pakistan. Meanwhile China, like America’s former great rival, Russia, lacks the basic environmental protections, reliable legal structures, favorable demographics, and social resiliency of the United States. Inequality, a growing issue in most countries, including America, has been rising even more quickly in theoretically egalitarian China, which could further undermine its long-term social stability. China’s tendency to ascribe superiority to the Han race will also limit its ability to project itself onto a world that will remain predominately non-Chinese.

Perhaps the key distinguishing characteristics of the once and future American exceptionalism derive from the fact that in the coming decades America’s population will grow dramatically, adding at least 100 million people by 2050. This contrasts with more rapidly aging basic rivals in Europe and the Far East, including China.

Although its percentage of childless women continues to rise, America still boasts the highest fertility rate among advanced countries: 50 percent higher than Germany or Japan, and well above that of China, Italy, Singapore, Korea, and virtually all of Eastern Europe. The contrast between the United States and Russia, America’s onetime primary rival for world power, is particularly telling. Thirty years ago, Russia constituted the core of a vast Soviet empire that was considerably more populous than the United States. Today, even with its energy riches, Russia’s low birthrate and high mortality suggests that its population will decline 30 percent by 2050, to less than one-third that of the United States. Even Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has spoken of “the serious threat of turning into a decaying nation.”

A perhaps even more critical demographic shift has taken place in East Asia, particularly in China, where a one-child policy has set the stage for a rapidly aging population by mid-century. By 2050, according to United Nations statistics, roughly 30 percent of China’s population (and 41 percent of Japan’s) will be over sixty years old. South Korea, meanwhile, has experienced arguably the fastest drop in fertility in world history, except for during times of war or plague, which perhaps explains its extraordinary, if scandal-ridden, interest in human cloning. Barely one-quarter of the United States’ population will be over sixty in 2050.

Fright projections of population growth made around the time of The Population Bomb, Paul Ehrlich’s widely acclaimed 1968 Malthusian tract, still shape public perceptions, but those forecasts have turned out to be ludicrously off the mark. Global population growth rates of 2 percent in the 1960s have dropped to less than half that today, and mid-century projections of Earth’s human residents in 2000 turned out to be too high by more than 200 million. World population growth is likely to continue its decline—with growth rates dropping to less than 0.8 percent by 2025—due to a largely unanticipated drop in birthrates in developing countries such as Mexico and Iran. The world’s population, according to some estimates, could peak as early as 2050 and actually begin to fall by the end of the current century.

These trends will have profound consequences, as the fate of the so-called East Asian Tigers shows. Fueled by a rapid expansion of their workforce, these countries have constituted the world’s greatest economic success story of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. However, within the next four decades they, like most of the developed countries in Europe, will become veritable old-age homes compared to America, as the workforces that propelled their growth go gray.

History—from the decline of Rome onward—has much to tell us about the relationship between demographics and national destiny. While a somewhat slower population growth would be a boon for developing countries, a rapidly aging or decreasing population does not bode well for the societal or economic health of advanced countries. It is modest growth that offers the prospect of expanding markets, new workers, and entrepreneurial innovation.

America’s exceptionalism also extends to national attitudes toward the future, work, raising children, morality, and religious values. As the author Michael Chabon wrote recently, “In having children, in engendering them, in loving them, in teaching them to love and care about the world,” parents are “betting” that life will be better for them and their progeny.

In terms of attitude toward family and religion, America already may have more in common with Third World countries than it does with the developed world. In the 1960s and ’70s, social theorist Peter Berger predicted the nation would follow the European lead toward “secularization,” defined as a society largely “removed from the domination of religious institutions and symbols,” and where individuals “look upon their world and their own lives without the benefit of religious interpretation.” Yet, although non-affiliation has risen, roughly 60 percent of Americans, according to a recent Pew Global Attitudes survey, believe religion is “very important.” This is twice as many as in Canada, Britain, Korea, or Italy—and six times the percentage in France or Japan.

Other aspects of daily life in twenty-first-century America also increasingly diverge from those in other advanced countries. Americans tend to work longer hours and be more career-oriented than their European counterparts. By 2003, Americans worked more than 300 more hours annually than did the average resident of the European Union.

America’s critics see these figures as proof of a predatory economic system that imprisons citizens in a rat race. As one writer puts it, Europeans “emphasize quality of life over accumulation” and “deep play over unrelenting toil.” (Some have gone so far as to argue that this more relaxed attitude is better not only for people, but in terms of the production of greenhouse gases.) Yet the belief that one should work hard and that one will be rewarded for doing so appears to be ingrained in the American attitude; an approach to life that is voluntary rather than coerced by “the system.” Under their demands for diminished workweeks, other countries worry that as they snooze, they lose. Even in Japan and South Korea, countries long known for a fevered work ethic, there is now widespread concern about the younger generation’s questionable tolerance for hard work.

It seems unlikely that with an additional 100 million citizens the United States will relax its work ethic, especially as more and more Americans endeavor to carve out a place for themselves and their families in a more crowded and competitive country. Although globalization produces homogeneity in other respects, Americans retain an essentially different set of assumptions from many abroad, particularly in holding to the notion that success lies fundamentally in their hands. All indications suggest that this fundamental philosophical difference is likely to grow even more pronounced over time, particularly between Europeans and Americans.

Robust American demographics will also be the engine driving its economic vitality. As many other advanced countries become dominated by the elderly, the United States will have the benefit of a millennial baby boomlet: a surge in growth beginning in the decade 2010–20. This next rise in births, though it may be delayed by tough economic times, will over time add to the workforce, boost consumer spending, and allow for a new creative impetus from a generation slightly larger than the boomers.

Perhaps more important, America’s comparatively flexible business culture will be able to tap these demographics in order to meet the challenges of both new and traditional competitors. Rumors of the death of American capitalism fueled in the past year by the failures of Wall Street’s investment banks and other financial institutions have been wildly exaggerated. New investment vehicles will emerge, as will some of the more dynamic, locally based banks—most of which have avoided the most arcane and dangerous financial instruments. Some of these banks are now quite small, but they will evolve, in traditional financial centers like New York and elsewhere, as the country grows and adapts to new economic conditions.

It is also likely that many of those who used to be considered of “retirement age” will be playing an increased role in the twenty-first-century economy, in part due to the flexibility of a society that increasingly embraces home-based work and less rigid retirement schemes. Freed by new technologies and a culture that rewards entrepreneurship, many Americans, including those in their fifties and beyond, will relocate at will and consistently reinvent what they do. Similar opportunities exist in Europe and Japan, but rigid labor laws and more conservative social mores make them less likely to embrace the positive potential of older workers.

This trend was in place even before the recession of 2008–09, when nearly one in four Americans reported they did not intend to retire when they hit 65, as was once considered the norm. Some of these seniors may end up in full-time jobs, but many others will work part-time, or may serve as mentors to younger people entering businesses. In any case, the seniors may well prove less of a burden than a powerful reserve force for the American economy.

Between 2000 and 2050, the vast majority of America’s net population growth will take place among racial minorities, particularly Asians and Hispanics, as well as in a growing mixed-race population. The American experiment in what Walt Whitman described as creating “the race of races” will continue to evolve. By mid-century, the United States will no longer be a “white” country, but an amalgam of racial, ethnic, and religious groups, all participants in the construction of a new kind of civilization whose roots lie not in any one country or continent, but across the entirety of human cultures and racial types. This multiracial society just now emerging in a few places—such as in southern California—will become ever more commonplace in the rest of the country. No other advanced, populous country will enjoy this kind of ethnic diversity. And in many ways these newcomers will not so much change the country’s cultural and economic exceptionalism, as enhance it through the embrace of religious faith, family, and the culture of hard work.

As they attain critical social mass, minorities and immigrants will continue their gradual move into the suburbs, where there is much less chance of creating racial enclaves than in urban neighborhoods. Even now, the best places to find America’s Hindu temples or new mosques are not in the teeming cities, but alongside churches and synagogues in the outer suburbs of Los Angeles, New York, or Houston, areas rarely dominated by one ethnicity.

The United States’ chief global rivals seem far less able to accommodate this level of immigration and integration. China, Japan, and South Korea are so culturally allergic to diversity that they are unlikely to welcome large-scale immigration, even if much of their future labor force has to go to work in walkers and wheelchairs. Given Europe’s current considerable problems integrating its immigrants, particularly Muslims, the continent seems ill disposed to open its doors further, and rather than opening their doors wider, some notionally liberal countries like Denmark and the Netherlands have begun considering measures to sharply restrict immigration.

The United Nations estimates that 2 million people will move to developed countries annually until 2050, and that more than half will come to the United States. The United States also remains by far the world’s largest destination for educated, skilled migrants. In 2001, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an association of thirty democratic, free-market countries, the United States was home to nearly 8 million skilled immigrants, equaling the combined total for Australia, Canada, and the entire European Union.

These newcomers will play a leading role in the next economic transition of the United States. The country’s increasingly diverse population will generate many of the new ideas, technological innovations, and cultural expressions of our future society. They will supply the critical manpower to run the increasingly automated and highly specialized factories, efficient farms (both large and small), and scientific laboratories of the twenty-first century. And they will be a primary source for the teachers, caretakers, and hospital workers needed to both raise large numbers of children and cope with an increasing number of the aged.

The demographics of the next several decades will generate challenges as well as a promise for twenty-first-century America. While Europeans and increasingly East Asians face key challenges like an unprecedented aging of population, labor shortages, and the lack of opportunities for domestic economic growth, the United States will have to deal with an expanding number of working-age and young people. While a reduced workweek and slower economic growth might not dramatically affect Europe and East Asia, because of their rapidly aging societies, a policy of slow growth in a growing United States would be socially unsustainable. America’s greatest priority, therefore, will be creating the entrepreneurial and workforce opportunities for an ever-expanding population.

Similarly, America’s response to environmental challenges will diverge from those in Europe as well as Japan, South Korea, and other advanced Asian nations. For them, declining demographics alone may help mitigate problems linked to energy use or land management. But a growing United States will have to seek out innovative solutions, primarily through social organization and technology, to maintain rising output but with markedly less detrimental ecological impact.

While no “clash of civilizations” between us and other developed countries is in the offing, we will approach the problems of the next few decades differently, in part because of our diverging demographic prospects. This does not mean the United States cannot learn from Europe or East Asia. Some elements of European social policy—including approaches to city management, health-care systems, and fuel economy standards—deserve to be studied and perhaps emulated. Asian methods of production, technology usage, and social organization also hold promise. Civilizations have always thrived by learning from each other.

The social cement binding the various groups of Americans together in the future will have little to do with bloodlines or common ancestors. Most other countries in the developing world will continue to build upon a substructure of racial identity and distinct cultural heritage, or even the manipulations of colonial mapmakers. America can continue its evolution only to the extent that it fulfills some sense of its historic mission as a purveyor of classical liberal values. This will become more, not less, important as the new powers of the twenty-first century, notably China, export what has been called their “illiberal challenge” to America’s more inclusive and democratic system.

As the British writer G. K. Chesterton put it a century ago, the United States is “the only nation . . . that is founded on a creed.” This faith is not, and was not initially meant to be, explicitly religious, but it does reflect a fundamentally spiritual idea of a national raison d’etre.

This American creed will become ever more important as the United States attempts to cope with its own growing diversity, its differentiation from other nations, and the challenge of new aspiring powers. Rather than a country that sees itself as the norm, America in the twenty-first century may become, as it was in its earliest decades, more of a great exception: a beacon and model to some; an abomination to others.

It will probably not be the hegemonic giant it remains today, but the America of 2050 may well evolve into the one truly transcendent superpower in terms of its society, technology, and culture. If it does, the United States will exercise its influence less through force and more through technological and cultural innovation, and through the dynamism of its diverse society. In this sense, the primacy of America in 2050 will rest, as Thomas Jefferson saw it back in 1817, “not on conquest, but in principles of compact and equality.”

Joel Kotkin, a scholar of urban development, is a fellow at the New America Foundation.

December 8, 2010  AMERICAN INTEREST ONLINE The Crisis of the American Intellectual by WALTER RUSSELL MEAD

America has everything it needs for success in the twenty-first century with one exception: a critical mass of thinkers, analysts and policy entrepreneurs who can help unleash the creative potential of the American people and build the new government and policy structures that will facilitate a new wave of private-sector led growth.  Figuring out why so many of our intellectuals and experts are so poorly equipped to play a constructive role — and figuring out how to develop the leadership we currently lack — may be the most important single thing Americans need to work on right now.

Regular readers of these posts know that I think that the world is headed into a tumultuous period, and that the United States is stuck with a social model that doesn’t work anymore.  Thanks to the wonders of the internet, I don’t need to reproduce those arguments here; readers interested in the gathering storms can look here to see what I mean, and readers curious about the failure of the Blue Social Model can get started here.

There’s a lot of work ahead to enable the United States to meet the coming challenges.  I’m reasonably confident that we remain the best placed large society on earth to make the right moves.  Our culture of enterprise and risk-taking is still strong; a critical mass of Americans still have the values and the characteristics that helped us overcome the challenges of the last two hundred years.

Guild members.

But when I look at the problems we face, I worry.  It’s not just that some of our cultural strengths are eroding as both the financial and intellectual elites rush to shed many of the values that made the country great.  And it’s not the deficit: we can and will deal with that if we get our policies and politics right.  And it’s certainly not the international competition: our geopolitical advantages remain overwhelming and China, India and the EU all face challenges even more daunting than ours and they lack our long tradition of successful, radical but peaceful reform and renewal.

No, what worries me most today is the state of the people who should be the natural leaders of the next American transformation: our intellectuals and professionals.  Not all of them, I hasten to say: the United States is still rich in great scholars and daring thinkers.  A few of them even blog.

But the biggest roadblock today is that so many of America’s best-educated, best-placed people are too invested in old social models and old visions of history to do their real job and help society transition to the next level.  Instead of opportunities they see threats; instead of hope they see danger; instead of the possibility of progress they see the unraveling of everything beautiful and true.

Too many of the very people who should be leading the country into a process of renewal that would allow us to harness the full power of the technological revolution and make the average person incomparably better off and more in control of his or her own destiny than ever before are devoting their considerable talent and energy to fighting the future.

I’m overgeneralizing wildly, of course, but there seem to be three big reasons why so many intellectuals today are so backward looking and reactionary.

First, there’s ideology.  Since the late nineteenth century most intellectuals have identified progress with the advance of the bureaucratic, redistributionist and administrative state.  The government, guided by credentialed intellectuals with scientific training and values, would lead society through the economic and political perils of the day.  An ever more powerful state would play an ever larger role in achieving ever greater degrees of affluence and stability for the population at large, redistributing wealth to provide basic sustenance and justice to the poor.  The social mission of intellectuals was to build political support for the development of the new order, to provide enlightened guidance based on rational and scientific thought to policymakers, to administer the state through a merit based civil service, and to train new generations of managers and administrators. The modern corporation was supposed to evolve in a similar way, with business becoming more stable, more predictable and more bureaucratic.

Most American intellectuals today are still shaped by this worldview and genuinely cannot imagine an alternative vision of progress.  It is extremely difficult for such people to understand the economic forces that are making this model unsustainable and to see why so many Americans are in rebellion against this kind of state and society – but if our society is going to develop we have to move beyond the ideas and the institutions of twentieth century progressivism.  The promises of the administrative state can no longer be kept and its premises no longer hold.   The bureaucratic state is too inefficient to provide the needed services at a sustainable cost – and bureaucratic, administrative governments are by nature committed to maintain the status quo at a time when change is needed.  For America to move forward, power is going to have to shift from bureaucrats to entrepreneurs, from the state to society and from qualified experts and licensed professionals to the population at large.

This doesn’t mean that government becomes insignificant.  The state will survive and as social life becomes more complex it will inevitably acquire new responsibilities – but it will look and act less like the administrative, bureaucratic entity of the past.  The professional, life-tenured civil service bureaucrat will have a smaller role; more work will be contracted out; much more aggressive efforts will be made to harness the power of information technology to transfer decision making power from the federal to the state and local level.  All this change runs so deeply against the grain for many American intellectuals that they have a hard time seeing it whole, much less helping make the reforms and adjustments these changes demand.

Second, there are the related questions of interest and class.  Most intellectuals today still live in a guild economy.  The learned professions – lawyers, doctors, university professors, the clergy of most mainline denominations, and (aspirationally anyway) school teachers and journalists – are organized in modern day versions of the medieval guilds.  Membership in the guilds is restricted, and the self-regulated guilds do their best to uphold an ideal of service and fairness and also to defend the economic interests of the members.  The culture and structure of the learned professions shape the world view of most American intellectuals today, but high on the list of necessary changes our society must make is the restructuring and in many cases the destruction of the guilds.  Just as the industrial revolution broke up the manufacturing guilds, the information revolution today is breaking up the knowledge guilds.  Guild methods are too expensive given society’s rapidly increasing need for the services they provide; we must drastically raise productivity by re-imagining the way our society makes and distributes the services that, currently, the guilds and the learned professions provide.

Guilds are not very good at mass production, and our need for the services they produce has become so great that only a much more efficient production process can serve.  Health care, education and legal services are all economic sectors where prices have been rising more rapidly than the overall rate of inflation.  These professions must be fundamentally restructured; a Marxist would speak at this point about the proletarianization of the petit bourgeois intellectual professions.

Fortunately for the rest of society if not for the guilds, developments in IT and telecommunications now make it possible to reduce costs dramatically in the learned professions.  Outsourcing and automation between them can transform the production and delivery of these services.  Moreover, the process of disintermediation will enable many Americans to dispense with the expensive services of the professional classes.  Basic legal services and advice can increasingly be found, free or at very low cost, on the internet.  Many Americans have substituted tax software for accountants; more and more activities once performed by highly paid professionals will be performed by computers and the internet.

Ultimately one suspects that services once reserved for elites will be available for the masses, just as the industrial revolution enabled mass ownership of goods that had once been the preserve of small elites.  The effect will not only be to raise living standards for most people by improving their access to useful services.  It will also be to transfer power and authority from the provider of such services to the consumer.  When my grandfather was a doctor, his patients mostly did what he told them to do.  He was the expert and there was no rival source of information — especially as many of his patients had little or no formal education and in some cases struggled to write their own names.

Today, well-educated patients (many of whom have college and advanced degrees and must routinely master complicated bodies of knowledge in their own work) check with the internet and search the archives of web-based support groups to challenge their doctors’ prescriptions.  Increasingly, people will seek and acquire more control over the decisions that shape their lives.  People not only want to be more affluent in the future than they are today; they want to be more powerful, less beholden to the men in white suits.

Third, there’s training.  America today has many technical intellectuals – people like doctors, engineers, and others who are able to carry out complex tasks – and we are extraordinarily rich in specialist intellectuals who have a deep knowledge of a particular subject.  Our educational and professional systems are set up to train and support the large numbers of people needed to fill these roles.  We are much less effective at teaching and supporting people who are able to master the essentials of many complex subjects, integrate the insights from this kind of study into a coherent social or political vision, and communicate what they have learned to a broad general lay audience.  The more complex a society and the more rapidly it is changing, the more need it has for multi-disciplinary, synthesizing intellectuals who are focused on communicating serious ideas to a large audience.  Otherwise, a gap grows between the technical and specialist intellectuals and the values and ideas of society at large.

There’s another, equally serious problem.  In most of our learned professions and knowledge guilds today, promotion is linked to the needs and aspirations of the guild rather than to society at large.  Promotion in the academy is almost universally linked to the production of ever more specialized, theory-rich (and, outside the natural sciences, too often application-poor) texts, pulling the discourse in one discipline after another into increasingly self-referential black holes.  We suffer from ‘runaway guilds’: costs skyrocket in medicine, the civil service, education and the law in part because the imperatives of the guilds and the interests of their members too often triumph over the needs and interests of the wider society.

Almost everywhere one looks in American intellectual institutions there is a hypertrophy of the theoretical, galloping credentialism and a withering of the real.  In literature, critics and theoreticians erect increasingly complex structures of interpretation and reflection – while the general audience for good literature diminishes from year to year.  We are moving towards a society in which a tiny but very well credentialed minority obsessively produces arcane and self referential (but carefully peer reviewed) theory about texts that nobody reads.  Political science is becoming more mathematical and dogmatic – while fewer and fewer Americans understand the political foundations and ideas behind American institutions.  Similar problems unfortunately exist in many disciplines.  Academic discourse becomes more self-referential and remote from public concerns; the public discussion suffers from the absence of the intellectual rigor and historical perspective that serious students and thinkers can bring to it.   (The natural sciences are in much less bad shape as the process of empirical verification imposes a certain necessary honesty on the intellectual process, but those who try to connect the sciences to the world of philosophy, policy, theology and politics suffer many of the same problems as intellectuals in the humanities and social sciences.)  At the same time, the edifice of academic studies is becoming so expensive and top heavy that except at a relative handful of very wealthy institutions the whole system of tenured teaching appointments looks steadily less sustainable.

We can see the same unhappy pattern in knowledge-based American institutions beyond the groves of academe.  The mainline Protestant churches have a hyperdeveloped theology, an over-professionalized clergy – and shrinking congregations.   The typical American foundation is similarly hyperdeveloped in terms of social and political theory, over professionalized in its staff – and perhaps thankfully has a declining impact on American society because its approaches are increasingly out of touch.  With the New York Times in the lead, American journalism was moving in this direction until the rapid onset of financial problems began to force change.

So there you have it.  The foundational assumptions of American intellectuals as a group are firmly based on the assumptions of the progressive state and the Blue Social Model.  Those who run our government agencies, our universities, our foundations, our mainstream media outlets and other key institutions cannot at this point look the future in the face.  The world is moving in ways so opposed to their most hallowed assumptions that they simply cannot make sense of it.  They resist blindly and uncreatively and, unable to appreciate the extraordinary prospects for human liberation that this change can bring, they are incapable of creative and innovative response.

For the sake of the country’s position in the world, for the sake of our economic development , for the sake of American democracy and for the sake of our intellectuals themselves, this needs to change.

Right now, too many intellectuals try to turn this into a left/right debate rather than one about the past and the future.  There is a liberal case for the radical overhaul of our knowledge industries as well as a Tea Party one.  People who want to extend government protections to more groups need to be thinking how government can be radically restructured so it can be more effective at a lower cost.  People who want more education to be available for the poor need to think about deep reform in primary and secondary education, and they need to think up ways to reduce the spiraling costs of university education.  Those who like the public services provided in troubled blue states like New York, Illinois and California need to redesign state government and find alternatives to the tenured civil service bureaucracies built one hundred years ago.  Those who want more access and more equal access to education, to legal services and to medical care need to think about how we can use technology to radically restructure the way we organize and deliver these services — and the more you care about the poor the less you can care about the protests of the guilds.

IIn a society like ours, the future is always unexpected, always surprising.  The emerging American future will both fulfill and confound the expectations and hopes of people from all different political backgrounds.  Because American society is undergoing a chaotic process of accelerating change, no one can really know what will be needed tomorrow – what ideas and what institutions will be useful as we move forward into the unknown.

HARVEY MANSFIELD “To the Heart of American Exceptionalism” Wall Street Journal February 5, 2011

Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America” is a book that every American who reads should read. There’s no better book on democracy and none better on America, first home of modern democracy.

Among a wave of new translations and analyses in recent years, these two volumes provide elegant decoration for Tocqueville’s masterpiece. Frederick Brown has edited and translated a handy collection of the letters Tocqueville wrote while traveling through America in 1831-32, speaking with Americans and gathering documents in preparation for his book. Olivier Zunz and Arthur Goldhammer have produced a tome fit for a generous gift, containing the same letters as in Mr. Brown’s collection, plus Tocqueville’s travel notebooks, narrations of his side-trip to the frontier, later letters, other writings on America and ample selections of writings from Tocqueville’s friend and companion on the trip, Gustave de Beaumont. This book even includes pictures of American birds that Tocqueville and Beaumont shot so that Beaumont could paint them—thus illustrating Tocqueville’s uncanny appeal both to the left (lovers of nature) and the right (lovers of hunting).

Two questions arise from the materials of Tocqueville’s trip and his preparations for his book, whose first volume appeared in 1835. First, what did he learn by coming to America instead of examining it from afar? Second, how—by what method—did he learn what he wrote so convincingly and profoundly? These questions engage the assertion known today as American Exceptionalism, a recent issue between Republicans, who trumpet it as the justification for American patriotism, and Democrats, who deprecate it and imply that America is nothing special, unless it is special to be the leader of all other unexceptional countries.

Tocqueville thought America to be singular quite apart from the favorable circumstances permitting it to grow and flourish on its own without much interference from Europe. In the introduction to his book, he said he saw in America “more than America . . . an image of democracy itself.” Special to America was not only that it believed in democracy and practiced it as best it could, as if straining to fulfill the demands of a theory of democracy. Rather, the theory or the “image” was shown in the practice of democracy, because America was democracy complete and as a whole, the material and source of its image.

In speaking of democracy in America—the title of his book—Tocqueville confirmed and went beyond what Alexander Hamilton said on the first page of the Federalist by way of explaining American Exceptionalism. Hamilton wrote that America was deciding by its conduct and example the question of whether good government could be thoughtfully chosen or was just a matter of chance. America was special because it would answer a theoretical question never before answered, not by thinking up a new theory but by means of its own practice. Tocqueville agreed and then actually found the new theory in its practice. His book on America told the rest of the civilized world what to expect in its future, as America was unique in displaying a complete democracy. It was not unique in being superior to all other peoples for all time, as implied in the boastful, irritable American patriotism Tocqueville found so objectionable.

Tocqueville was not friendly to philosophers or “theoreticians,” as several letters confirm. In “Democracy in America,” he ignored the political philosophy in the principles of America’s founding, calling the Puritans and not, say, John Locke, America’s “point of departure.” He emphasized the practical work of the Constitution (based on theories, to be sure) and never even mentioned Jefferson’s more theoretical and Lockean Declaration of Independence. Yet Tocqueville was interested in “theoretical consequences.” In a letter to a cousin written in 1834 (published only in the Zunz volume) he noted that it is “ten years since I conceived most of the ideas” of his book. “I went to America only to remove my remaining doubts.” Ten years before, Tocqueville was 19 years old! He did not get his ideas from his trip to America but thought them up years before. He came to America to see “what a great republic is,” knowing what it is in advance. In “Democracy in America,” he noted it was only of the variety of associational activity there that he “had no idea” before he came.

To this definition and endorsement of American Exceptionalism one might object, and doubters of that idea today do object, that a country maintaining slavery could not congratulate itself for being an example, let alone the exemplar, of political freedom or thoughtful choice to the rest of mankind. Tocqueville agreed, and in his letters on America after his visit he inveighed against the taint put by slavery on America’s reputation around the world, particularly since other countries had already abolished it. After the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 he grew increasingly concerned; it was one thing not to abolish slavery where it was long established, quite another to extend it to new territories. This was a point made by Lincoln, but Tocqueville died in 1859 without learning of the man who would have shown him the greatness he most praised: great thought from the doer of great deeds.

In “Democracy in America,” Tocqueville treated slavery as an instance of majority tyranny. As such it belongs to democracy; it is the characteristic vice, the continual threat in democracy. That is why he could say that America revealed what a complete democracy is. Democratic justice is always accompanied by democratic injustice. The reason why slavery continued for so long in America is that the majority was behind it, and when the crisis came— shortly after Tocqueville’s death— Lincoln saw that although there was a majority in the country against slavery, there was not a majority for war to abolish it. After the election of 1860, he was able to rally a majority for a war to save the union in the course of which, with much bloodshed, slavery was abolished. As Tocqueville foresaw, it was because of democracy that democracy had such trouble cleansing itself.

In his book, Tocqueville contrasted the fates in America of blacks and Indians, the former enslaved by democratic prejudice and the latter cheated in unfair treaties by democratic hypocrisy. On his trip, too, he had shown equal interest in the two sets of victims, and the Zunz volume contains Arthur Goldhammer’s fine new translation of “Two Weeks in the Wilderness” (until now usually known as “Fortnight”). This work of 40 pages, composed on a steamboat on Lake Huron, is a demonstration of the prodigious energy Tocqueville commanded on his trip. It is a reflection on man and nature so beautifully done that it can be thought romantic, but it is not so hostile to civilization as is romanticism. Indians in his view are free and noble in their extreme way, but they remain savages unable to accept the benefits of reason and civilization that would moderate and improve their intractable souls.

And the question of Tocqueville’s method? One must first confront the uncomfortable truth that his genius was indispensable. To see the difference between a genius and a non-genius one could begin with the difference between Tocqueville, who wrote a great book, and his friend Beaumont, who wrote a mediocre one. The two shared the investigation into American penitentiaries that was the “pretext” (Tocqueville’s word) for their trip, and Beaumont spoke proudly in July 1831 of “our great work” on America, the real object of their voyage, that was to come. But by November, he understood that Tocqueville was writing that book on his own and that he was to write a fictional treatment of slavery—”the great work that is to immortalize me,” he noted wryly. After Tocqueville’s death, Beaumont edited his works, and one could say of him that he was as true a friend as he knew how.

Tocqueville made “travel notebooks” that are translated in the Zunz collection. These are transcripts of his questioning of his sources appearing as dialogues between “Q” and “A” and contrasting nicely with modern survey research techniques. Tocqueville asks intelligent questions of intelligent people and presses them to face their contradictions and explain themselves; he thinks and learns as he surveys. Today’s survey researcher asks bland questions of average respondents, has an assistant code the responses, restates and manipulates them mathematically, and then interprets them according to a model that he can persuade his professional colleagues to accept. Which method produces the better result? To answer the question, consider that Tocqueville addresses the question of American Exceptionalism, the question of what America is all about, while social science assumes it is meaningless or unanswerable and evades it. In our time we can hardly read too much Tocqueville.

—Mr. Mansfield, professor of government at Harvard University and senior fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, is the author of “Tocqueville: A Very Short Introduction” (2010

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.

Sept. 26, 2014 6:23 p.m. ET

Adapted from remarks by Yale University historian and professor emeritus Donald Kagan at the Hotchkiss School in Lakeville, Conn., Sept. 18, a talk based in part on a lecture he delivered at Yale on Nov. 4, 2001:

What is an education for? It is a question seldom investigated thoroughly. The ancient philosophers had little doubt: They lived in a city-state whose success and very existence depended on the willingness of citizens to overcome the human tendency to seek their individual, self-interested goals and to make the sacrifices needed for the community’s well-being. Their idea of education, therefore, was moral and civic, not merely instrumental. They reasoned that if a state or community is to be good, its citizens must be good, so they aimed at an education that would produce virtuous people and good citizens.

Some two thousand years later, from the 16th through the 18th centuries, a different group of philosophers in Italy, England and France introduced a powerful new idea. Their world was dominated by ambitious princes and kings who were rapidly asserting ever greater authority over the lives of their people and trampling on the traditional expectations of individuals and communities. In the philosophers’ view, every human being was naturally endowed with three essential rights: to defend his life, liberty and lawfully acquired property.

The responsibility of the state, therefore, was limited and largely negative: to protect the people from external enemies and not to interfere with the rights of individual citizens. Suspicious of the claims of church and state to inculcate virtue as mere devices to serve the selfish interests of their rulers, most philosophers of the Enlightenment believed that moral and civic instruction was not the business of the state.

Among our country’s founders, none was a more devoted son of the Enlightenment than Thomas Jefferson, yet as he considered the needs of the new democratic republic he had helped to establish, he came to very different conclusions. Like the ancient philosophers, Jefferson regarded education as essential to the establishment and maintenance of a good polity— Plato, in “The Republic,” spends many pages on the nature of the citizens’ education, as does Aristotle in “Politics.” Jefferson regarded a proper educational system as so important that in the epitaph he wrote for himself, he did not mention that he had twice been elected president of the United States but proudly recorded that he was the “Father of the University of Virginia.”

Jefferson was convinced that there needed to be an education for all citizens if they and their new kind of popular government were to flourish. He understood that schools must provide “to every citizen the information he needs for the transaction of his own business; to enable him to calculate for himself, and to express and preserve his ideas, his contracts, and accounts, in writing.”

For Jefferson, though, the most important goals of education were civic and moral. In his “Preamble to the 1779 Virginia Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge” he addresses the need for all students to have a political education through the study of the “forms of government,” political history and foreign affairs. This was not meant to be a “value free” exercise; on the contrary, its purpose was to communicate the special virtues of republican representative democracy, the dangers that threatened it, and the responsibility of its citizens to esteem and protect it. This education was to be a common experience for all citizens, rich and poor, for every one of them had natural rights and powers, and every one had to understand and esteem the institutions, laws and traditions of his country if it was to succeed.

It is striking to notice the similarity between Jefferson’s ideas and those of a leader of the last great democracy prior to Jefferson’s fledgling democracy. In 431 B.C., Pericles of Athens described the character of the great democratic society he wished for his community: A city “governed by the many, not the few,” where in the “matter of public honors each man is preferred not on the basis of his class but of his good reputation and merit. No one, moreover, if he has it in him to do some good for the city, is barred because of poverty or humble origins.”

Both great democratic leaders knew that democracy, properly understood, requires a careful balance between the political and constitutional rights of the individual, where absolute equality is the only acceptable principle, and the other aspects of life, where equality of opportunity and reward on the basis of merit are appropriate. They also agreed on the need for individuals to limit their desires and even to curtail their own rights, when necessary, to make sacrifices in the service of the community without whose protection those rights could not exist. In short, democracy and patriotism were inseparable.

These values have not disappeared, but in our own time they have been severely challenged. With the shock of the 9/11 terror attacks, most Americans reacted by clearly and powerfully supporting their government’s determination to use military force to stop such attacks and to prevent future ones. Most Americans also expressed a new unity, an explicit patriotism and love of their country not seen among us for a very long time.

That is not what we saw and heard from the faculties on most elite campuses in the country, and certainly not from the overwhelming majority of people designated as “intellectuals” who spoke up in public. They offered any and all explanations, so long as they indicated that the attackers were really victims, that the fault really rested with the United States.

As most of us have come to know too well, the terrorists of al Qaeda and other jihadists regard America as “the great Satan” and hate the U.S. not only because its power stands in the way of the achievement of their Islamist vision, but also because its free, open, democratic, tolerant, liberal and prosperous society is a powerful competitor for the allegiance of millions of Muslims around the world. No change of American policy, no retreat from the world, no repentance or increase of modesty can change these things.

Yet many members of the intelligentsia decried the outburst of patriotism that greeted the new assault on America. The critics were exemplified by author Katha Pollitt, who wrote in the Oct. 1, 2001, edition of the Nation about her daughter wanting to fly the American flag outside their window after 9/11. “Definitely not,” Ms. Pollitt replied. “The flag stands for jingoism and vengeance and war.”

Such ideas still have a wide currency, reflecting a serious flaw in American education that should especially concern those of us who take some part in it. The encouragement of patriotism is no longer a part of our public educational system, and the cost of that omission has made itself felt. This would have alarmed and dismayed the founders of our country.

Jefferson meant American education to produce a necessary patriotism. Democracy—of all political systems, because it depends on the participation of its citizens in their own government and because it depends on their own free will to risk their lives in its defense—stands in the greatest need of an education that produces patriotism.

I recognize that I have said something shocking. The past half-century has seen a sharp turn away from what had been traditional attitudes toward the purposes and functions of education. Our schools have retreated from the idea of moral education, except for some attempts at what is called “values clarification,” which is generally a cloak for moral relativism verging on nihilism of the sort that asserts that whatever feels good is good.

Even more vigorously have the schools fled from the idea of encouraging patriotism. In the intellectual climate of our time, the very suggestion brings contemptuous sneers or outrage, depending on the listener’s mood. There is no end of quoting Samuel Johnson’s famous remark that “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel,” but no recollection of Boswell’s explanation that Johnson “did not mean a real and generous love for our country, but that pretended patriotism which so many, in all ages and countries, have made a cloak for self-interest.”

Many have been the attacks on patriotism for intolerance, arrogance and bellicosity, but that is to equate it with its bloated distortion, chauvinism. My favorite dictionary defines the latter as “militant and boastful devotion to and glorification of one’s country,” but defines a patriot as “one who loves, supports, and defends his country.”

That does not require us to denigrate or attack any other country, nor does it require us to admire our own uncritically. But just as an individual must have an appropriate love of himself if he is to perform well, an appropriate love of his family if he and it are to prosper, so, too, must he love his country if it is to survive. Neither family nor nation can flourish without love, support and defense, so that an individual who has benefited from those institutions not only serves his self-interest but also has a moral responsibility to give them his support.

Thus are assaults on patriotism failures of character. They are made by privileged people who enjoy the full benefits offered by the country they deride and detest, but they lack the basic decency to pay it the allegiance and respect that honor demands. But honor, of course, is also an object of their derision.

Every country requires a high degree of cooperation and unity among its citizens if it is to achieve the internal harmony that every good society requires. Most countries have relied on the common ancestry and traditions of their people as the basis of their unity, but the United States can rely on no such commonality. We are an enormously diverse and varied people, almost all immigrants or the descendants of immigrants. The great strengths provided by this diversity are matched by great dangers. We are always vulnerable to divisions among us that can be exploited to set one group against another and destroy the unity and harmony that have allowed us to flourish.

We live in a time when civic devotion has been undermined and national unity is under attack. The idea of a common American culture, enriched by the diverse elements that compose it but available equally to all, is under assault, and attempts are made to replace it with narrower and politically divisive programs that are certain to set one group of Americans against another.

The answer to these problems and our only hope for the future must lie in education, which philosophers have rightly put at the center of the consideration of justice and the good society. We look to education to solve the pressing current problems of our economic and technological competition with other nations, but we must not neglect the inescapable political, and ethical, effects of education.

We in the academic community have too often engaged in miseducation. If we encourage separatism, we will get separation and the terrible conflict in society it will bring. If we encourage rampant individualism to trample on the need for a community and common citizenship, if we ignore civic education, the forging of a single people, the building of a legitimate patriotism, we will have selfish individuals, heedless of the needs of others, the war of all against all, the reluctance to work toward the common good and to defend our country when defense is needed.

The civic sense that America needs can come only from a common educational effort. In telling the story of the American political experience, we must insist on the honest search for truth; we must permit no comfortable self-deception or evasion, no seeking of scapegoats. The story of this country’s vision of a free, democratic republic and of its struggle to achieve it need not fear the most thorough examination and can proudly stand comparison with that of any other land.

In the long and deadly battle against those who hate Western ideals, and hate America in particular, we must be powerfully armed, morally as well as materially. To sustain us through the worst times we need courage and unity, and these must rest on a justified and informed patriotism.

The Real Meaning of American Exceptionalism

SEP 23, 2013 9:00 AM EDT

Sept. 23 (Bloomberg) — In recent years, the term “American exceptionalism” has sometimes been an empty applause line, a fancy way of shouting “USA! USA!” Vladimir Putin recently went so far as to proclaim that “It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional,” without bothering to investigate what American exceptionalism might entail.

As it happens, the term has become familiar only in the last three decades, with explosive growth since 1985. But we can find a version of the concept as early as 1787, and in a prominent place: the very first paragraph of “The Federalist,” in which Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay tried to persuade the nation to ratify the new Constitution.

At the outset of “The Federalist” No. 1, Hamilton wrote, “It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.”

The stark opposition between “reflection and choice” on the one hand and “accident and force” on the other has defined the American character from its inception. The opposition suggests the U.S.’s distinctive optimism, captured in the repudiation of any kind of fatalism in political life.


It is true that the idea of self-government had been elaborated by countless others, including the French political theorist Montesquieu, a revered source for members of the founding generation. But the U.S. Constitution broke dramatically from Montesquieu, and the break casts a bright light on the nature of American exceptionalism.

Montesquieu insisted that republican self-government is possible only in a small, homogeneous nation. “It is natural to a republic to have only a small territory; otherwise it cannot long subsist,” he said. In a large republic, “the public good is sacrificed to a thousand private views,” whereas in a small one, “the interest of the public is more obvious, better understood, and more within the reach of every citizen; abuses have less extent, and, of course, are less protected.”

The anti-federalists, opponents of the proposed constitution, complained that the document’s framers had betrayed Montesquieu by trying to create a large, diverse republic overseen by a powerful central government.

Brutus, an especially articulate anti-federalist, urged: “In a republic, the manners, sentiments and interests of the people should be similar. If this be not the case, there will be constant clashing of opinions; and the representatives of one part will be continually striving against those of the other.”

In their most original argument, the framers responded that Montesquieu and Brutus had it backward. In the framers’ view, a large republic, with many points of view, would improve deliberation and better safeguard liberty.

Hamilton spoke most clearly on the point, urging that the “differences of opinion, and the jarring of parties” in the national legislature “often promote deliberation and circumspection, and serve to check the excesses of the majority.”

The depth of this commitment — to a process of deliberation among people with different points of view — emerges from an illuminating debate in America’s early years, raising the question of whether the Bill of Rights should include the “right to instruct” representatives. Many people claimed that citizens of a particular state should have the authority to bind their representatives on how to vote.


But this view has a big problem, which is that it would eliminate deliberation. Roger Sherman made the decisive objection:

“The words are calculated to mislead the people, by conveying an idea that they have a right to control the debates of the Legislature. This cannot be admitted to be just, because it would destroy the object of their meeting. I think, when the people have chosen a representative, it is his duty to meet others from the different parts of the Union, and consult, and agree with them on such acts as are for the general benefit of the whole community. If they were to be guided by instructions, there would be no use in deliberation.”

To be sure, American exceptionalism can be understood in many ways. The insistence on “reflection and choice” rather than “accident and force” is reflected in a national commitment to equality of opportunity, originally signaled by the Constitution’s rejection of monarchy, its prohibition on “titles of nobility,” and its insistence that sovereignty lies in We the People. It is also reflected in a cultural commitment to freedom, individual rights and self-help.

We betray our heritage when we treat American exceptionalism as an occasion for chest-thumping, for deepening political divisions, for disparaging other nations, or for asserting what Hamilton denounced as “an obstinate adherence to party.” But whatever today’s controversies, American exceptionalism is real. It began in 1787, with the Constitution’s effort to establish a large, self-governing republic, in which diverse views serve as both a safeguard and a creative force.

(Cass R. Sunstein, the Robert Walmsley University professor at Harvard Law School, is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is the former administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, the co-author of “Nudge” and author of “Simpler: The Future of Government.”)

New Book: Charles Murray on American Exceptionalism

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: July 11, 2013, 202.862.5829

In a new book aimed at college students, best-selling political scientist Charles Murray distills what American exceptionalism means. Murray explains what has made America unique in the last two centuries and what has changed since its founding.

In “American Exceptionalism: An Experiment in History,” Murray notes that the concept of American exceptionalism is often associated today with emotions and value judgments: patriotic for some, jingoistic for others. But instead, Murray explains, American exceptionalism was a concept recognized not just by Americans, but also by foreigners at the time of the founding. Rather than implying excellence or superiority, the concept is a historical fact.

The idea refers to qualities first observed at the beginning of America’s history, and whether it still applies today is an empirical question. But understanding its meaning is indispensable when thinking about the future of our country. Murray outlines that America was exceptional from the founding through the 1800s because of:

An exceptional geographic setting with the Atlantic Ocean as a buffer, peaceful neighbors to the north and south, and available lands in the West-all of which contributed to the characteristics of the American ideal, as people making the arduous journey to America and then to the frontier self-selected as uniquely courageous and hardworking. An exceptional ideology that was both optimistic, because the founders assumed that all humans possess birthrights that cannot be given or withheld by the state and acting in their own best interest will serve the public good, and pessimistic because the founders believed that humans acting in the political realm tend to be resourceful and dangerous. This produced our system of checks and balances. Exceptional traits. The American civic culture made our country exceptional, specifically four elements of our culture: industriousness, egalitarianism, religiosity, and community life. Exceptional politics. Unlike Europe, Americans never developed a worker’s party. The country has never experienced class warfare. Murray notes that, ironically, the term “American exceptionalism” was first coined by Stalin.

Is America still exceptional? Murray writes that America still attracts more immigrants than any other country, and our economy remains the largest in the world. America has a democracy that grants its citizens more direct power to affect government policies than other countries do.

Yet that exceptionalism has eroded. Murray encourages the reader to ask: What changes have diminished American exceptionalism? Which are for the good? Which are to be mourned? Only in thinking through those answers can we determine America’s future.

For further reading:

The Constitution of Liberty Friedrich A.von Hayek

The Road to Serfdom Friedrich A.von Hayek

Human Action  Ludwig von Mises

The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality Ludwig von Mises

Planning for Freedom Ludwig von Mises

Capitalism and Freedom Milton Friedman

The Conscience of a Conservative Barry Goldwater

Witness Whittaker Chambers

Wealth of Nations Adam Smith

The Decline of the West Oswald Spengler

How Democracies Perish Jean-Francois Revel

The Affluent Society John Kenneth Galbraith

Winston Churchill (the biography) William Manchester

American Caesar: Douglas MacArthur 1880 – 1964 William Manchester

I Saw Poland Betrayed Arthur Bliss Lane

Pillar of Iron Taylor Caldwell

Dred Scott Decision

Monkey Scopes Trial

Lincoln (selected speeches)

Frederick Douglass (selected)

Booker T Washington (selected)

WEB DuBois (selected)


Articles of Confederation

The Federalist Papers Madison, Hamilton, Jay

Democracy in America Alexis de Toqueville

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