"American Exceptionalism" is a Flawed Theory

Jack Kerwick

7/8/2014 12:01:00 AM - Jack Kerwick

Townhallam recently published an article by Jonah Goldberg in which the latter identifies patriotism with belief in what he calls “American Exceptionalism” (AE)—i.e. the doctrine that America is the only nation ever to have been founded upon the idea of the “inalienable” rights of all people.

There are (at least) eight reasons why patriots, and conservative patriots especially, should reject AE.

First, AE is an ideology.

Historically, conservatives—real conservatives, not neoconservatives—have treated ideology, regardless of its specific content or aims, as the enemy. The ideologue retreats from the messiness of place and time to the simplicity and certainty of his creed. Conservatives, in stark contrast, know that it is exactly in history, in tradition, that direction is to be sought.

Secondly, AE is vacuous, proving both too little and too much.

As Hegel famously noted, from the abstractness and formality of moral principles no specific, substantive moral actions follow. Thus, an affirmation of “inalienable rights” is perfectly compatible with a potentially infinite range of mutually conflicting policies and actions.

“Inalienable rights” can and have been invoked by birds of many different feathers.

Thirdly, in keeping with this last consideration, AE offers entirely too much for the taking for leftists. Its unqualified affirmation of “inalienable rights”—equal rights—makes it clear for all with eyes to see that AE is, unmistakably, a species of egalitarianism. The invocation of AE, then, expedites America’s decline into the leftist abyss.

Fourth, AE is simply false: America was most emphatically not “founded” upon a principle.

The founding of America is not to be found in a single, identifiable event, but within a tapestry of contingent circumstances spanning well over 150 years. Considered as a legally sovereign or independent nation, America came into being during the last quarter of the 18th century, it is true. But this was scarcely some sort of creation ex nihilo: Americans were a people, and America a country, long before the ratification of the Constitution, and even well before the colonists declared their independence. In fact, the thought, much less the deed, of declaring independence would’ve been impossible if not for the sense among the Crown’s subjects in North America that they already were a distinct country—a “we”—a separate people de facto, even if not de jure.

Furthermore, in spite of the rhetoric of the Declaration of Independence, the men and women who eventually seceded from the Mother country of England were well aware of their shared racial, ethnic, and religious identity. Overwhelmingly, they were white, English, Protestants who sought, and knew they were seeking, to preserve, not Liberty, but their liberties as Englishmen.

This brings us to the next point: Contrary to AE, not only was America not founded upon an idea; the idea in question—the idea of “inalienable rights”—originated long before America came into being.

The idea of “natural law,” the idea of a universal moral order, dates back thousands of years in the West to the ancient Greco-Roman world. The Romans, most notably Cicero, were the first to speak the language of “natural law.” Later, during the medieval era, the term “natural right” emerged, and during the late Middle Ages, William of Ockam spoke of “natural rights.”

So, the concept of natural rights had been in circulation for centuries prior to the “founding” of America.

Even more to the point, as is common knowledge, the concept of natural rights expressed in the Declaration of Independence was the indelible impression left upon Jefferson and his compatriots by such early modern thinkers as John Locke. But, as the conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott once observed, Locke hardly “discovered” the rights to life, liberty, and property about which he wrote. Rather, he distilled them from the time honored English political tradition that he—as well as America’s founders—called home.

Sixth, AE threatens to actually undermine patriotism.

Patriotism is affection for or commitment to one’s own country. The relationship between the patriot and his country is not unlike the relationship between a man and his family: it embodies the morality of particularity. As such, it calls for an attitude of partiality.

From the perspective of AE, however, the patriot is committed to the principles upon which America is founded. Principles, however, are universal, and the morality of universality demands not partiality, but impartiality: the American patriot must be just as committed to serving those peoples and countries that affirm America’s founding principles as he is committed to serving his own. There are no grounds for him to prefer his own country to the countries of others.

But it’s even worse than this: the American patriot does not have a country: He is a citizen of the world.

Conversely, every citizen of the world that embraces America’s “founding principles” is a citizen of America.

This implication of AE covers much distance in explaining the enthusiasm on the part of its proponents for both America’s immigration and foreign policies.

And this is the seventh flaw of AE.

AE serves a specific ideological program. If America is unique among the nations of history in being founded upon a timeless abstract principle or idea, a proposition (or set of propositions) that anyone can learn easily enough, then while there may be prudential considerations for denying the rest of the world entry into America, there can be no moral grounds for doing so. And if America exists for the sake of advancing “inalienable rights”—i.e. the rights of all human beings—then there can be no moral basis for withholding America’s resources, its military might, its blood, economic treasure, and political genius (“Liberal Democracy”), from the rest of the world.

Quite the contrary, in fact: there is a moral imperative for America to expend its resources in order to better the plight of all Earthlings whose “rights” are threatened.

Finally, AE’s champions never tire of extolling America’s “Judeo-Christian” roots. Well, AE may be “Judeo-Christian,” whatever exactly this means. But it surely is neither Jewish nor Christian.

It is pseudo-Christian—which is another way of saying that it is anti-Christian.

From the vantage point of AE, there is indeed a Messiah, a Savior, but it is not Jesus Christ.

It is America.

America is God’s ambassador to the world, selected from the beginning of time to export “liberal democracy” or “Liberty” to the four corners of the Earth.

Yet there is more.

America is, ultimately, an idea, a timeless abstraction that assumed flesh—that became incarnate—in 1776.

This incarnational ideology known as AE, far from being Christian, is more akin to Platonism. Plato held that what’s most real are timeless “Ideas,” “Universals,” or “Forms.” The concrete, sensible “particulars” of everyday life are time-bound and, hence, imperfect “copies” or instantiations of these universal intelligible realities.

AE is Platonist in that its champions view America as the concrete instantiation of the timeless “Idea” of “Liberty,” “Freedom,” or—what always seems to amount to the same thing for the proponents of AE—“Liberal Democracy.”

In many respects, America is exceptional. AE, though, is something else entirely.

As I’ve tried to show, “American Exceptionalism” is a creed that is as fatally flawed theoretically as it is potentially destructive in practice.