Politics & Policy

American Exceptionalism, Continued

A reply to Conrad Black.

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.

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