What sets America apart?
Liberty, equality, and all of our liberal democratic ideals are core to who we are as Americans, but they are downstream from what truly differentiated the United States of America from all that had preceded it: As Alexander Hamilton put it in Federalist No. 1, ours was a regime built on “reflection and choice” rather than “accident and force.” That was exceptional, setting in motion a revolution in human affairs that extends beyond our borders and persists to this day.
There’s a reason James Madison studied trunk loads full of books (history, philosophy, political theory) prior to heading to the Philadelphia convention in the summer of 1787. There’s a reason John Adams adhered to a rigorous reading schedule in his early twenties and advised himself: “Let no trifling Diversion or amuzement or Company decoy you from your Books, i.e. let no Girl, no Gun, no Cards, no flutes, no Violins, no Dress, no Tobacco, no Laziness, decoy you from your Books.” There’s a reason Thomas Jefferson once remarked to Adams, “I cannot live without books.”
And the reason is that the Founders were intellectuals, and they thought, read, and reasoned their way to our constitutional system of self-government and individual freedoms. The seeds of the American experiment — the drive toward self-government and individual liberty — may reside in every human heart, but the experiment can persist for longer than a passing moment only through the work of human heads.
The Founding was not the result of pure reason alone, of course. Slavery — an ancient institution — also affected and warped America’s national character from the outset. Slavery is the tyrannical rule of the powerful and privileged. That’s why Abraham Lincoln, an intellectual heir of the Founders, argued that there was no rational basis on which to defend slavery. It’s also why the first antislavery organization in the history of the world was founded in Philadelphia in 1775: Brute force grounded in something as arbitrary as skin color was so clearly opposed to the Revolutionary principles, grounded in reflection and reason, of equal human dignity and rights to liberty.
The tribalism running rampant through our politics today is similarly opposed to the principles of the Revolution.
Binding ourselves so tightly to our in-group and growing so hate-filled toward the “other side” necessarily runs counter to our Founding principles — to what made us exceptional. Why? Because to some significant degree, tribalism is necessarily anti-reason, anti-intellectual. Our in-group is so just and the out-group so despicable that only knee-jerk condemnation of “them” and support for “us” will suffice. That sort of thinking walls us off from independently reasoning our way through political issues, and it is part and parcel of the intolerance, warring, and group loyalties and antagonisms that dominated the pages of human history prior to the Revolution.
This is not to say that being a committed partisan and consistently voting Democratic or Republican is somehow anti-American. That’s silly. Despite George Washington’s best efforts and deepest fears, rank partisanship arose in the early republic almost immediately. But consistently voting one way need not preclude us from thinking through issues and policy debates on our own and even constructively engaging and debating with those on the other side of the aisle. Nor does partisanship necessarily prevent us from criticizing our own side when it deserves it.
Tribalism, then, is distinct from partisanship much as patriotism differs from nationalism. Uncritical love of party and country are similarly destructive, as they lead us back to the frames of thought that motivated the tribal warfare of the ancients, to the religious wars of the Middle Ages, and to the imperialism of modernity — worldviews of “us at all costs” versus a supposedly lesser “them.” The tribalism of today resides in a very old, unreflective part of the brain that the Founders worked to temper and subdue through the power of reason and debate. Giving in to the all-too-human urge to hate for the sake of hating, to belong for the sake of belonging, is un-American and stands in direct opposition to our Founding ideals.
America was exceptional in that it offered a new way to structure human affairs. Drawing on the latest trends of Enlightenment philosophy and their independent studies of human history, the Founders formulated certain precepts of human nature and government, universal in scope, and proceeded to fashion a system of government that squared with them to a considerable degree. To sustain those principles (best articulated in the Declaration of Independence) that inform our constitutional system requires that we Americans in the here and now employ the same techniques of self-governance as the Founders did: reflection, reading, independent thinking, and debate.
Our continued failure to do so will nudge us closer and closer to recreating pre-American history — the wars, the spats, the tribal prejudices, the hatreds. As John Adams reflected in a letter to Thomas Foxcroft in 1807, “If we imitate the vices and follies of all the Nations, who have gone before us, we have no right nor reason to expect or hope to be exempted from such calamities as they brought upon themselves.”
So, are we up to the task of self-government? Can we persist in being exceptional? The answer to this pivotal question will ultimately hinge on whether we prove capable of rediscovering the virtues of “reflection and choice” and resist the urge to allow tribal urges and “accident and force” to forge our political future.