July 13, 2014

Is America Exceptional?

By In Blogs, C.Jay Engel

What is meant by “American Exceptionalism” –a phrase that is clearly more popular on the political right– and is it true that it accurately describes this country?  We hear it a lot, especially on holidays in which the United States government takes as opportune for PR efforts.  I really want the right, my fellow cultural conservatives, to consider what it means.

For instance, I could point out the socialist origins of the modern phrase which were rooted in the famous conversation between Joseph Stalin and American Communist leader Jay Lovestone.  Lovestone held to the belief that the United States was the one exception to Marx’s laws of historical progress.  No proletariat revolution was needed in this country because, according to Lovestone, the United States already lacked a class system that would be been required to be expunged in the coming wave of socialism.  The American “proletariat” was simply not interested in the Communist Revolution.  Stalin was angry over this and informed Lovestone that the “heresy of American exceptionalism” needed to be eradicated.

But even though the phrase had its modern popularity centered around the mentality of the socialistic American proletariat groups, it’s quite obvious that this is not how the phrase is used on the right.  We can’t get the right in trouble for using a phrase that has a suspicious meaning if they accept the phrase and not the meaning.  More likely, if the phrase is historically considered at all, its proponents will point to Alexis de Tocqueville’s designation of America as an “exceptional” nation. Now, he didn’t use the precise phrase, but perhaps this what the right sees.

For what reasons did de Tocqueville consider the United States exceptional?  There was a plethora of reasons including the individual spirit, religious principles, a hard work-ethic, their sense of community, and their desire to severely restrict the government (however well they actually did).

Now here is the problem that conservatives don’t want to face: what is left of the individual spirit? The multitudes rely on and cling to their Mommy government in Washington. Religion is despised and considered a backwards way of thinking.  Look around and you will see the impossibly lazy and overindulged citizen.  They love the greatness of government, which they want to hire as their personal and full time nanny. And when I say “hire,” I mean that they want others to pay for their Nanny government.  I agree with Fred Reed, who recently wrote:

The bleakness of American culture leads one to despair. Subtract technology and nothing is left.

[…]

In all the things that once marked civilization, the United States has become a desert, a waste of self-satisfied, pampered, arrogantly ignorant sidewalk peasants.

[…]

What if one day Mommy, or Mommy Washington, isn’t around to take care of them? Any disruption—riots, for example, that stopped the flow of food trucks into the cities—would cause devastation.

We have become soft, mentally vacuous, helpless, a civilization on the brink. As the US subsides into–what?

Is this it? Look around. Turn on the TV (or save your sanity and turn it off).  Miley Cyrus blares absurdities and close your eyes because the sight is disturbing.  Exceptionalism? Some say we are exceptional in our ideals, even though we have lost it in practice.  But can a people be exceptional in the abstract?  And if so, how does this make us an exception in the world? For can’t all other nations find the few amongst the masses that believe in liberty and responsibility?  A nation that is not exceptional in practice is not exceptional at all.

Moreover, are we even exceptional in our ideals anymore?  Do the masses even have ideals? They have feelings and emotions and celebrities, but none are proof that they have had an intellectual thought, which is required to have an ideal.  In fact, if you do have ideals, you are smeared as an ideologue.

Herein lies the problem: conservatives rightly claim that we are a people on the brink of collapse.  Or, to be far more accurate, we are a people that have collapsed. Decades ago. What we see now are symptoms.  But with all their rightful pessimism, why stick to the phrase?  The argument can be made, I think, that relatively speaking the people that formed this country, and their immediate ancestors, were impressive.  But the counter-argument could also be made that if this constituted exceptionalism, why did we fall off the cliff?  Turns out that the American people, like any people group that gives up their principles, their hard work, their liberties, are susceptible to social destruction from the inside.  Turns out that the American system of government can indeed become a fascist-socialist institution with astounding economic interventionism, discouraging levels of taxation, and degradation of precious civil liberties.

What makes a people exceptional is their practical commitment to what is good.  In this world, the normal is compromise, self-indulgence, short-mindedness, and a great giving in to evil things.  Can any conservative look at this nation and consider its people committed to what is good? Are we really on the right path?  Is the Government which rules over us really be considered a positive force in the world?

How much more collectivism, statism, and cultural progressivism can we take before we admit that the United States is no longer exceptional?  And why is that straw that breaks the camels back somewhere in the future?  Is what you see now not enough to convince you that American Exceptionalism is a statist talking point intended to keep your focus on the livelihood the State which resides in Washington?  These are my questions for my fellow conservatives.

One more thought:

Would you agree with me that the only chance of becoming exceptional once again is to be free from the Nationalist State in Washington?  Perhaps, rather than waving its flag and promoting its name, the means to exceptionalism is the opposite course. What if Jefferson was right that “whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it”?

For those who wonder whether my position is to simply give up: No. But can we proceed without being honest about our situation?  Can the cancer patient live a long and happy life if his mantra is that he is cancer free?

Written by C.Jay Engel

Editor and creator of The Reformed Libertarian. Living in Northern California with his wife, he writes on everything from politics to theology and from culture to economic theory. You can send an email to reformedlibertarian@gmail.com