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.”