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Tuesday, March 9, 2010

American Exceptionalism: Is it Nationalism in Disguise?

I’ve been disturbed lately by the increased usage of the phrase “American Exceptionalism.” One longstanding critique of conservatism is that the word “conservative” has no substantial meaning beyond indicating a resistance to change. Conservatives therefore spend too much time trying to backfill an empty concept with whatever ideas they need to pass the popular agenda item of the moment.

Enter “American Exceptionalism” (AE from here on) . Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru state it plainly in a recent National Review article:

What do we, as American conservatives, want to conserve? The answer is simple: the pillars of American exceptionalism.

It should worry conservatives that they need convoluted concepts like AE to bring clarity to their ideology.

The basic idea that there are historical facts that make the United States exceptional in the history of civilization is not what I’m concerned about. Every society has some exceptional quality, something that makes it unique. What concerns me is that a theory of American Exceptionalism must provide a coherent theory of “the exceptional” or else it becomes a mere placeholder for nationalistic fervor. Either America is exceptional because of something it does, or it is exceptional simply because it is American.

In this particular case, Lowry and Ponnuru fill their version of AE with mostly positive stuff:

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.

Which begs the question? Why call it American Exceptionalism? Why not American Individualism or American Liberalism or just simply Libertarianism? Well because:

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.

But how is it exceptional for Americans to “defend themselves by force”? Are we supposed to believe that every other civilization has defended itself without force? or simply surrendered? Moreover, last I checked, religiosity was not particularly unique in the history of mankind.

So if we’re defining American exceptionalism using factors that aren’t particularly exceptional, what exactly are we talking about?  Ironically, American exceptionalism appears to mean liberty … with exceptions made for religion and national security. But then how does this differ from nationalism, the belief that the individual’s life only has meaning within the political and cultural boundaries set forth by the “nation”?

I’ll let you answer that. But don’t use the term “American exceptionalism” in your answer.