Some years ago, John Podhoretz, a right-of-center writer, now the editor of Commentary, admonished his colleagues on the left: “We speak liberal as well as our own tongue. Why don’t you speak conservative?”
I was put in mind of this quip while reading a recent column by the Washington Post’s Richard Cohen. In “The Myth of American Exceptionalism,” he boldly posits that the “problem of the 21st century” is “the culture of smugness. The emblem of this culture is ‘American exceptionalism.’ It has been adopted by the right to mean that America, alone among the nations, is beloved of God.”
Cohen provides no evidence that anyone on the right defines exceptionalism as he does. What do those of us who use, defend, and advocate exceptionalism mean instead?
Among other things, that America is simply different from other nations. It is a nation of immigrants from every corner of the earth, a nation bound not by ancestral blood but by revolutionary ideas and beliefs brilliantly articulated more than two centuries ago in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
The founding of the United States ushered in the modern democratic experiment, along with new concepts of freedom and human rights. In the 20th century, the Greatest Generation fought for the survival of that experiment against its totalitarian enemies, Nazi, Fascist, and Communist alike. Today, the challenges posed by Islamic totalitarianism test a new generation.
America has been a uniquely productive nation: a font of invention, creativity, and economic dynamism. In America, tens of millions of people have risen from poverty. The United States has been a singularly generous, if not always effective, provider of assistance to other countries, including those where Americans are not popular.
But, most of all, exceptionalism implies that the responsibility for global leadership rests on America’s shoulders, not because Americans hunger for power but because there is no good alternative.
At the conclusion of World War II, the British rejected Winston Churchill — without whose vision and determination Hitler might well have triumphed — and turned inward to focus on building a welfare state. That meant relinquishing global leadership. They could do that because they could pass the torch to America.
If that torch has now become too heavy for Americans, or if it is seen as unfair for America to continue to lead, who is prepared to take America’s place? Those who rule Iran, China, and Russia are no doubt eager. But they are despots, as Cohen ought to appreciate.
There are those on the left known as “transnational progressives.” They believe the United Nations and similar organizations should be recognized as a world government to which America will increasingly cede power and sovereignty. To favor that option requires willfully ignoring the corruption, financial and moral, that infects the U.N. and the extent to which it is manipulated by dictators and such anti-democratic and supremacist blocs as the Organization of the Islamic Conference.
In other words: At present, there is no substitute for American leadership. America is the indispensable nation. That is what makes it exceptional.
Cohen goes on to link exceptionalism to such maladies as America’s high murder rate, execution rate, and dysfunctional education system — rather a stretch, it seems to me. But he is most peeved by what he sees as the theological implications of exceptionalism, what he calls the “huge role of religion in American politics.” He contends that those who invoke exceptionalism — he specifically cites “Mitt Romney, Mike Pence, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee and, of course, Sarah Palin” — claim to know what God wants and therefore insist: “What God prefers should not be monkeyed with.”
To bolster his case, Cohen sets off on a historical digression, writing that “in the years preceding the Civil War, both sides of the slavery issue claimed the endorsement of God. . . . Within five years, Americans were slaughtering one another on the battlefield. . . . Therein lies the danger of American exceptionalism. It discourages compromise, for what God has made exceptional, man must not alter.”
Is it really Cohen’s view that the abolitionists were wrong to oppose slavery on moral grounds? Does he actually think Lincoln should have compromised on slavery in the hope of settling the conflict between the North and South nonviolently?
What’s more, Cohen conspicuously ignores the view Lincoln himself expressed on precisely this matter. In the midst of the Civil War, the first Republican president was asked by a clergyman if God was on his side. Lincoln’s reply: “Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side. My great concern is to be on God’s side.”
Such humility is implicit in the idea of American exceptionalism. Americans value freedom not least because we don’t think anyone has a monopoly on truth or the private e-mail address of the Almighty. This is the polar opposite of Cohen’s interpretation of exceptionalism as a word “that reeks of arrogance and discourages compromise. American exceptionalism ought to be called American narcissism. We look perfect only to ourselves.”
No, we exceptionalists do not think that. What we think instead: Americans will never perfect themselves or “form a more perfect union” by letting transnational bureaucrats, politicians, and professors run our lives.
Exceptionalists do not deny that America has many faults and that Americans have made many mistakes in the past and are likely to do so in the future. But that doesn’t make the United States the equivalent of Norway, Uruguay, Burkina Faso, or New Guinea. That doesn’t lead us to the Lake Wobegon all-children-are-above-average view of the world expressed by President Obama two years ago in Europe: “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”
We exceptionalists look instead to President Reagan, for whom exceptionalism meant that America remained “the last best hope for a mankind plagued by tyranny and deprivation.” To keep that hope alive will require efforts — one might say exceptional efforts — on the part of Americans. It also will require that pundits such as Richard Cohen try harder to understand what his friends on the right are saying.
— Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism and political Islam.