The Irony of American Exceptionalism

This week brought the stunning news that Russia has deployed technology that records every phone call made in the United States, keeps it for 30 days, and retrieves segments for listening and long-term storage.

Not really. But the United States has done precisely this to telephone users in an unknown target country. Leaked documents indicate “every single” call there was recorded—not merely metadata that tracks numbers called, but the actual content of conversations.

Consider that inversion a political Rorschach test. There is a breed of American elite whose mood, upon reaching the end of the second paragraph, would instantly melt from outrage to relief. That breed lacks the political virtue par excellence—prudence—and it is getting us into trouble.

Read More

Immigration and the American Exception

liberty
Play

This next conversation is with Richard Samuelson on the constitutional principles that have guided our nation’s approach to immigration, that is, until recently. In an essay in the Summer 2013 Claremont Review of Books, adapted from an academic version published in Citizens and Statesman, Samuelson argues that

Our political institutions strive to treat individuals as individuals, who relate to the government on that basis, rather than as parts of groups, castes, or classes. A regime dedicated to protecting the rule of law and the rights of men–including the right of each individual to make his way in the world, and to keep the rewards he gains for his work and talent–was the key to making America a beacon for wandering peoples, and for immigrants in general.

Things changed, Samuelson observes, with the tremendous growth in government power and its centralized administrative capabilities. This fact alone threatens to fundamentally change our exceptional approach to welcoming new entrants to the country. In short, the federal government relates to Americans not as individuals but as members of divers groups, rent-seeking, special interest, race, gender, the list is long. Consequently, the federal government no longer understands the individual citizen as deserving of equal treatment apart from group membership. If this is true, and much evidence suggests it is, our approach to immigration will be the management of hyphenated groups and not persons “as equal citizens, creating together the government by which we secure those public goods that cannot be secured any other way.”

Friday Roundup, October 25th

  • Twilight of the American Republic: The new Liberty Law Talk presents a different way of thinking about American Exceptionalism. This discussion with author Justin Litke considers how the twentieth century emergence of an expansive American Exceptionalism relates to the frayed constitutional consensus of the American founding.

Twilight of the American Republic

Twilight of the Republic
Play

This next Liberty Law Talk is a conversation with Justin Litke on his new book, Twilight of the Republic. Our conversation focuses on the book’s attempt to situate twentieth century claims of American Exceptionalism within the context of the political symbols and public meanings that are revealed in significant political documents stretching back to the Mayflower Compact and forward to Albert Beveridge’s 1900 Senate speech “In Support of American Empire.” Along the way, we discuss the Declaration of Independence, Federalist Papers, the Constitution, and the presidency of Abraham Lincoln in order to better understand Litke’s powerfully argued claim that the constitutional consensus of our Founding has broken into competing meanings. We are no longer even aware of the prior political tradition of our Founding, Litke contends. As a result, America now authorizes its political actions under various ideologies in both the domestic and international spheres with such policies frequently resulting in deleterious consequences.

Making Free Men and Women

Richard Samuelson’s timely Claremont Review of Books essay, “The Genius of American Citizenship,”  presents the Founders’ argument for the citizenship of American exceptionalism, as opposed to the cultural and economic arguments that have dominated today’s debate over immigration. As Jefferson feared then, citizen identity without a sense of political duty will produce a “heterogeneous, incoherent, distracted mass”—the conditions for centralized bureaucracy we are seeing ever more realized today.

Read More

Diplomatic Decline and Constitutional Ascent

Two recent commentaries on the recurrent question of American decline illustrate the warped terms of American self-conception, the consequent irrelevance of the declinism debate—and the ways in which America’s own political tradition might better inform our understanding of our power in the world.

In one, Harvard’s Joseph Nye argues with some persuasiveness that American power may or may not be fragile in absolute terms but that we are likely to remain ascendant in relative terms.  However, we will be “‘first’ but not ‘sole’”: The likeliest scenario, he projects, is not the rise of another superpower like China but rather “the rise of the rest”—the emergence of a multipolar world in which the capacity to maintain alliances and work with others will be key.

In the other assessment, Rob Asghar rejects the notion of decline altogether, noting, among other reasons, that “today’s trajectory is not tomorrow’s destiny,” that American culture is uniquely conducive to growth and that we are more aware of our own flaws than of our competitors’.

Each of these analyses is persuasive in its way.  Asghar is correct to direct our attention to the bygone days when we were instructed to prepare for submission to our emergent Japanese masters, who it turns out were instead incapable of letting anyone go out of business.  Nye persuasively—more on this in a moment—notes the end of “the unipolar moment.”  Meanwhile, the American culture of creative destruction, which both authors observe, positions the country for continued economic success.

But both also miss a larger question: not how much power America has, but how much power America needs.

Read More

Narcissistic Polity Disorder: Its Diagnosis and Treatment

The recently published fifth edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual contains no diagnosis for Narcissistic Polity Disorder—the book’s scope being confined to the personality disorder of a similar name—but should the editors ever wish to expand into political science, they will find an excellent case study in the interview Senator John McCain gave on CBS’ Face the Nation last Sunday.  It turns out the Egyptian coup, which gave all signs of being a conflict among Egyptians about Egypt, was in fact about—well, us.

Read More

The ‘Nones’ and American Liberty

As well as laying claim to being land of the free and home of the brave, until recently America could boast of a more devout populace than any other Western country. As Seymour Martin Lipset observed in his 1996 study of American Exceptionalism:

 The puzzling strength of organized religion [is] a phenomenon that impressed most nineteenth-century observers and continues to show up… in cross-national opinion polls… These polls indicate Americans are the most churchgoing in Protestantism and the most fundamentalist in Christendom… Compared to West Europe as a whole, Americans place a higher importance on the role of religion in their lives.

Recent polls suggest Americans are becoming more like their European cousins with respect to losing their religion. According to a poll published last October by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, the number of Americans without affiliation to any organized form of religion has grown from 16 per cent of the total population in 2008 to 20 per cent.

Read More

Let the Sunstein In

FDRWatershed election presidents such as Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt do not simply happen on election day. The significance of the election is played out in speeches that illuminate and in policy that transforms. Whether President Obama is a critical election president is yet to be determined, but his references to the Declaration and the Constitution in his second inaugural address make clear his ambition to change our understanding of who we are as a people.

Does it come as a surprise that we have been living under a new Constitution anyway, a “Second Bill of Rights” that has devoured the original document? According to Harvard Law professor and former high-ranking Obama Administration official Cass Sunstein, it’s like discovering we’ve been speaking prose all our lives. In a recent op-ed Sunstein accurately observes that President Obama’s Second Inaugural (not to mention his major actions) faithfully follows Franklin Roosevelt, who first called for a “Second Bill of Rights” in his 1944 State of the Union Address.

Read More

Herbert Hoover’s American Exceptionalism

The idea of American exceptionalism is a strong cord within our history. This is true especially within the philosophy of conservatism. Conservatives from the Puritans to Alexander Hamilton and President Ronald Reagan have championed the philosophy that the United States was divinely created and was a literal “shining city upon a hill,” and a beacon of liberty. As Herbert Hoover wrote “the Founding Fathers consecrated a new republic ‘under the protection of Divine Providence.’”[1] Hoover’s philosophy was deeply shaped by American exceptionalism and the civic religion of the nation, which was defined by the principles of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. He also believed that America’s uniqueness was shaped by its religious heritage and its economic system which encouraged “equality of opportunity.”[2]

Hoover’s belief in American exceptionalism was shaped by his life experience of not only growing up in the small Iowa village of West Branch, but also his successful mining engineer career that took him to several continents. George H. Nash, a Hoover historian and biographer, wrote that “more than any other man who held the American presidency, Hoover was profoundly acquainted with the social systems of the Old World.”[3]

Read More