Magazine March 8, 2010, Issue

An Exceptional Debate

(Darren Gygi)
The Obama administration’s assault on American identity

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 bounds. 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 place.

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.

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