Web Only / Features » October 25, 2012
Is America Exceptional?
Jarrett Stepman and Eli Zaretsky, representing the Right and Left, respectively, debate U.S. superiority
'I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.'—Barack Obama
“Of their serious presidential candidates, and even of their presidents, Americans demand constant reassurance that their country, their achievements and their values are extraordinary,” Scott Shane observed in his October 21 New York Times op-ed, “The Opiate of Exceptionalism.”
Mitt Romney and Barack Obama appear to agree. In March, Romney accused Obama of an unpatriotic disbelief in exceptionalism, citing the president’s ambiguous remarks on the subject in 2009: “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” Obama was quick to retort, “My entire career has been a testimony to American exceptionalism.”
The candidates’ one-upsmanship has sparked a broader debate on the subject. Conservatives such as Bill O’Reilly, the late Andrew Breitbart and Jarrett Stepman of Human Events have argued that a lack of belief in exceptionalism is a fundamental flaw of the Left. In “Leftists Continue to Misuse and Undermine American Exceptionalism,” Stepman writes that American exceptionalism is positive, a pride in country, which he associates with the Right. The Left, he argues, tends to be contemptuous of American values and of American patriotism. As an example of an anti-exceptional Leftist, Stepman cites Eli Zaretsky, author of Why America Needs a Left (excerpted in the April edition of In These Times.)
Zaretsky has written a reply to Stepman, “View from the Left,” below. He counters that progressives have a different, deeper form of patriotism that does not rely on American superiority.
Stepman rebutted Zaretsky; his counterargument appears as “View from the Right,” below.
Although the subject of American exceptionalism is indeed, as Stepman argues, a “pivot” around which Left and Right differ, this exchange is notable for another reason. The Obama presidency has been premised on the idea that the historic Left is obsolete and that what is needed is a “problem-solving” dialogue between middle-of-the-road progressives and moderate conservatives. By most accounts, Obama’s search for such a dialogue has failed.
Here, we provide an alternative—a debate between Left and Right, the kind of debate that can perhaps move the country forward in a way that Obama’s efforts have not.
View from the Left
By Eli Zaretsky
In “Leftists Continue to Misuse and Undermine American Exceptionalism,” Jarrett Stepman argues American exceptionalism is one of the “primary pivot points that now divides the political Right and Left in America.”
Stepman discusses my recent book, Why America Needs a Left: A Historical Argument. In it, I contend the Left’s essential contributions to American history have come during periods of crisis, namely slavery, the Great Depression and the 1960s. As Stepman interprets my argument, the Left revels in hard times, since difficulties validate the Left’s negative views of America. And the Right takes hard times as minor disruptions in a blessed and buoyant history, never abandoning its conviction that America has a “special” or “exceptional” destiny.
Stepman is right in one respect: We need a discussion of American exceptionalism. However, Stepman confuses two meanings of “exceptional.” The first is that the United States is sui generis: It does not conform to the usual pattern of national development, especially because it had no feudalism. This was the meaning Alexis De Tocqueville intended when he first coined the phrase in 1831, writing:
The position of the Americans is … quite exceptional, and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one … Let us cease, then, to view all democratic nations under the example of the American people.
The second meaning is that America is “exceptional” in the sense of superior, providing an example for others, the famous “city upon a hill.” In no sense does Tocqueville’s definition suggest this. Tocqueville’s meaning could not be clearer: America is an exception. It does not provide the template for others.
Moreover, the second meaning stands in tension with the first: A nation that is sui generis cannot set an example for others since it does not share their history, and can’t point the way to common solutions. All a sui generis nation can do is lecture others from on high.
Of course, many people do believe America is superior. That belief has inspired some good while also blinding the American people to their own faults, as well as to the virtues of others.
A more useful brand of exceptionalism sees America not as inherently superior, but as uniquely striving toward equality. Historically, this is the Left’s interpretation of exceptionalism.
However, Stepman, who locates American exceptionalism in the Right, refuses to consider whether there is anything exceptional about the Left. Stepman’s antagonism to the Left draws on another famous citation from Tocqueville:
Democracy extends the sphere of individual freedom, socialism restricts it. … Democracy and socialism have nothing in common but one word: equality. … Democracy seeks equality in liberty, socialism seeks equality in restraint and servitude.
Tocqueville’s contrast here between individual freedom and socialism is ill-founded and misleading. In fact, the only freedom worth defending is equal freedom. Unequal freedom is the freedom of some to dominate others. The reason America has needed a Left has been to clarify the difference between unequal and equal freedom.
Slave-owners were adamant in their insistence that their freedom was being interfered with by an intrusive federal government. But it was unequal freedom to which the slaveholders were committed. By contrast, the abolitionists sought to integrate schools, abolish the “Negro pew” in churches and encourage interracial marriages.
Abolitionists began the process of turning the national self-congratulation and boosterism that followed the Revolution into a project: America could become exceptional by ending slavery and accepting the ex-slaves as fully equal citizens. Lincoln adopted abolitionist ideas in his Gettysburg Address when he turned the Declaration of Independence’s words that “all men are created equal,” from an abstract proclamation of natural-rights philosophy, which no one thought contradicted slavery, into a goal: that of achieving the equality of all citizens. The project—what the philosopher Richard Rorty called “achieving our country”—is the real basis of American patriotism: If we are superior, it is because we realize how far we fall short.
The same project was evident in the second American Left, the populists and radicals who came to the fore during the New Deal and World War II.
A modern state would have been created without the leftists of the 1930s. But the Left helped give the new state the meaning of social equality. The New Deal and Franklin Roosevelt are often credited with “saving” liberal democracy. This is not the whole truth. Liberal freedom survived the Depression by appropriating principles of social equality pioneered by the Left.
Finally, in the 1960s, when a New Left and a New Right arose, both were fiercely committed to individual liberty. The New Right criticized and stood aloof from the Civil Rights movement, defending “states rights” and opposing “intrusive government.” But as the Left of the ’30s added social equality to the ideal of racial equality, the New Left of the ’60s added equal participation.
Understanding the United States as pursuing the project of equal freedom, rather than as already having achieved it, has moved the Left toward a better conception of American exceptionalism.
We are at a turning point today and once again need a Left. Stepman’s timeless celebration of private property and markets will get us nowhere.
The Right has never achieved a “critical election,” one that creates a new majority, as the Left did in 1860 and 1932. And the reason for this is simple. Whatever achievements the Right can claim as the champion of freedom, it is unequal freedom that it has championed. The Republican Party and the Clinton-Obama Democratic Party have built a two-tier society in which people who can buy private services (including elections) do so, while those who cannot are shunted into second-class, degraded public services, at best.
Far from acting in an exceptional manner, we have instead created a security state.
We can see why we need a Left by considering the disappointments of the Obama presidency. In his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, Obama said we needed to move in a genuinely new direction, but in his presidency, he failed to lead. Obama defined our economic goal as recovery, obscuring the fact that the crisis was structural. He described his goals in terms of some non-existent “center,” excluding “extremists” of the Left and Right.
No, I believe what the country needs is precisely the kind of debate Stepman and I are having now.
Eli Zaretsky, a professor of history at the New School for Social Research in New York City, writes about 20th-century cultural history, capitalism and the history of the family. His latest book, Why America Needs a Left: A Historical Argument, was published in 2012.
View from the Right
By Jarrett Stepman
The debate over the meaning and value of American exceptionalism is perhaps the greatest political battle of our time, and the national divide echoes the deep schism that tore America apart during the Civil War.
On most issues, there is currently an unbridgeable gulf between the Left and Right, creating gridlock in the American political system.
America’s current problems can’t be solved by taking the middle ground and creating a few “grand compromises.” That strategy didn’t work before the Civil War and won’t save the country today. The path to repair will come down to two competing philosophies, two visions for how the world and the United States are and should be.
My debate with Eli Zaretsky demonstrates several opinions in the ongoing debate between the Left and Right, and, of course, does not represent all opinions on our respective sides.
While Zaretsky states correctly that America has had deep and lingering problems that have had to be corrected in American history, he both misidentifies the source of America’s course correction and dismisses the critical elements that made America not only unique, but great.
Zaretsky states that the origin of the American Left is not in socialism, but in “equality,” and claims the abolitionist movement as a leftist one. Zaretsky is wrong: The Left is disconnected from the belief in equality espoused by the founding generation and anti-slavery advocates.
History proves the Left does not believe in the natural rights doctrine that “all men are created equal,” the principle that became the ideological underpinning of abolition, and has no qualms about grievously violating the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.”
Zaretsky claims Americans in the antebellum era were “adamant in their insistence that their freedom to own slaves was being interfered with by an intrusive federal government.” But slavery was sustained by the closed command economy of the Southern plantation and repressive pro-slavery laws on a widespread, eventually national scale. Restrictive laws regarding slaves were not just instituted on the local or state level, but on the federal as well.
The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 forced government officials living in free-states to return slaves to their masters under threat of fine, and ensured citizens aiding a slave’s escape could be fined or imprisoned.
Senator Charles Sumner from Massachusetts explained the power of government to uphold slavery and the abomination of the national pro-slavery law in his brilliant “Freedom National; Slavery Sectional” speech, delivered in 1852.
In his speech, Sumner praised the founders and American principles, attacking the politicians of his era for turning the American system upside down.
While Sumner may have been radical in speech and tone, his values were based in the natural-rights ideas of the Founding Fathers and in Christian morality that had always been present in American society. The belief that natural rights extended to all mankind did not just belong to Lincoln and men of his era, but reaches back to colonial Americans.
The Left, in contrast, rejects natural rights in favor of “positive rights” or “social justice”. Positive rights obligate, or more correctly, force people to give to and work for others.
These are not liberties grounded in the natural rights philosophy, but in the class-conscious, race-conscious and collectivist ideologies of Karl Marx and, ironically, the ultimate defender of slavery, John C. Calhoun.
The Left does not believe that truths, like the equality of mankind or the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, are immutable and unchangeable.
If there is a modern-day movement that can be compared to the abolitionists, it is the pro-life, anti-abortion advocates on the right who argue abortion is not just morally wrong from the standpoint of religion, but also a violation of the natural rights of life and liberty.
While there is a rational argument to be made that a fertilized egg is not exactly equal to an adult human life, it is also reasonable to state that human life, deserving of all the protections that natural rights should entail, begins well before natural birth takes place. That, of course, only applies if one believes in natural rights as the Founding Fathers and abolitionists did.
It would not be shocking if in 100 years, abortion is seen as a moral stain on American greatness.
Today there is a need for embracing American exceptionalism instead of rejecting it, especially in America’s current age of crisis.
I define American exceptionalism as closely to the generally accepted originator of the term, Tocqueville, would have: the prevailing American values of private property, popular government, laissez-faire economics, individualism and natural rights. These are the values that conservatives have tried to uphold in their attempt to restore and strengthen America.
It is the Left’s “road to serfdom,” as described by the conservative thinker Freidrich Hayek, that conservatives have tried to steer America away from. Conservatives have tried to ensure America remains the land of opportunity, not the land of entitlements.
For instance, Zaretsky argues that Republicans and establishment Democrats built a “two-tier society” in which people who can “buy private services do so, while those who cannot are shunted into second-class, degraded public services, at best.” However, it is conservatives who have lead the charge to get poor and disadvantaged children out of the “degraded” public schools and into better systems of education through the school choice and charter schools. These ideas were first introduced by conservative economist, Milton Friedman. The Left continues to support the “adult interest” of public unions instead of fighting to give American youth a better chance in life.
Zaretsky is right about one thing: America needs a change in direction. However, it isn’t a change toward the soft despotism offered by modern liberalism, and it certainly isn’t in the complete violation of natural rights offered by the hard-Left. It is a change toward embracing the doctrines of individual liberty, limited constitutional government and true equality rooted in the natural rights that were passed down by the Founding Fathers.
Jarrett Stepman is a staff writer at Human Events. He is a graduate of UC Davis, where he studied Political Science.
Jessica Stites is In These Times' Deputy Editor. Before joining ITT, she worked at Ms. magazine and George Lakoff's Rockridge Institute. Her writing has been published in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Ms., Bitch, Jezebel, The Advocate and AlterNet.