All Commentary
Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Exceptionalism is Nationalism


The hot new buzz phrase in conservative circles is “American Exceptionalism.” In this weeks’ cover story of the National Review, Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru make the case that American Exceptionalism is what conservatives are trying to “conserve”.

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

The weakness of modern conservatism has been the tension between the content of its positions and language it uses to describe itself. The term ‘conservative’ implies a philosophy defined in relation to change.  Indeed, many conservative thinkers like Oakschott and Kirk have argued as much, that conservatism is more of a disposition than a set of ideas.

But modern conservatives are not simply concerned with change. Afterall, how can you promote Social Secuirty Reform and School Reform if your only principles is that change should be greeted with caution.

Conservative talk show hosts like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, though, obsess over rescuing the label conservative. We’re “conserving the constitution” they say, or “conserving the revolutionary values”. But this essentially is like saying “conserving the values we like”. The question becomes why not call yourself a “constitutionalist” or a “revolutionist”.

“But Mike,” you say, “what does a word matter, can’t we call it whatever we want?” True, I guess in a day and age when companies brand their products with made up words (Activia!) what does a political philosopher care what his philosophy is called.

Well, it does matter, because words and concepts are resistent to change in peoples minds, you might call them conservative even. There’s a reason companies make up names, they don’t want any baggage that comes with using names that are more common.

The trouble with conservatism is that its ambiguity allows it to be filled up with all sorts of meanings that might be less popular were they called by their more accurate name. For instance, “American Exceptionalism” which could be equated with “Nationalism” can easily be folded into “Conservatism” so long as the right people say it enough times.

So what’s wrong with American Exceptionalism.

It doesn’t sound too bad at first. Lowry and Ponnuru write:

Liberty is the most important element of the creed. To secure it, the Founders set about strictly limiting government within carefully specified bounds.