America Still Exceptional, Just Not as Much

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On Sept. 11 of this year, Russian President Vladimir Putin took to the op-ed pages of the New York Times to “speak directly to the American people and their political leaders … at a time of insufficient communication between our societies.”

The cause of his unprecedented communique was Syria. The Russian president laid out the case for why his government vigorously opposed a military solution, including using its Security Council veto to keep the United Nations from sanctioning war.

Yet the rhetorical fireworks the op-ed touched off had little to do with Syrian diplomacy. In closing, Putin strongly disagreed with a case U.S. President Barack Obama “made on American exceptionalism, stating that the United States’ policy is ‘what makes America different. It’s what makes us exceptional.’ ” Putin warned, it’s “extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation.”

Putin then needled both the American left and right, playing their cherished ideals off against the desire to do something in Syria. First, diversity: “There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too.” Then, providential history: “[W]hen we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.”

The op-ed made uber-hawk Arizona Senator John McCain so angry that he penned his own barbed response and submitted it to Pravda, of all places, telling the Russian people that their president “has given you a political system that is sustained by corruption and repression and isn't strong enough to tolerate dissent.”

Folks have been taking exception to American exceptionalism for a long time. It’s possible Joseph Stalin coined the term when he denounced the “heresy of American exceptionalism” in 1929, though if so it was something of an accident. The important word at the time was not “exceptionalism” but “heresy.”

The Soviet ruler was appropriating an idea with a pedigree and applying it to his own secular faith. Pope Leo XIII had denounced a group of heresies colloquially known as “Americanism” in an encyclical in 1899, and Pope Pius IX did something similar in 1864.

Leaders do not declare heresies for the hell of it. They do so because they perceive a threat to their ethos that needs to be called out, stigmatized and put down. In his new pamphlet “American Exceptionalism: An Experiment in History,” accomplished and controversial political scientist Charles Murray (of “Losing Ground” and “The Bell Curve” fame) notes that Stalin issued his fatwa in response to a very specific argument.

“A prominent American Communist, Jay Lovestone, had argued in 1927 that the advanced capitalism of the United States would prevent the communist revolution from taking place here. Marxism-Leninism could not admit the possibility of such a deviation from the inexorable laws of history,” Murray explains.

Murray argues Lovestone has the better of Stalin on this point. Class consciousness didn’t develop in America, where even quite well-off people described themselves as middle class. While the European left was drifting from liberalism to social democracy and then flirting with fascism and communism, American politics evolved quite differently.

American unions were late to flex their political muscles, initially favoring “more union power but not more state power.” When unions did enter politics, they courted both parties before eventually forming one part of the Democratic Party’s coalition. By contrast, in Britain, organized labor formed its own Labour Party, edged out the Liberals and took over the country.

Murray treats exceptionalism as a “fact of America’s past, not something that you can choose whether to ‘believe in’ any more than you can choose whether to ‘believe in’ the battle of Gettysburg.” Americans from the founding on believed that they were doing something new in the world. Visitors from all over were fascinated by this new experiment and strange people.

“It is April 30, 1789, a sunny spring day, and you are a European who has traveled to New York to see the inauguration of George Washington as the first president of the United States,” Murray begins, inviting readers to examine America through fresh new eyes.

The political scientist aims to take a descriptive and not proscriptive approach to the subject, though he doesn’t disguise his sympathies. He points out what an exceptional setting the sprawling North American landmass provided for diverse European settlers who were used to close quarters, hereditary landlords and heavy-handed religious authorities. The continent attracted exceptional people who came to share a set of, yes, exceptional beliefs about and practices on religion, natural rights, equality, self-government, monarchy, volunteerism, and the infield fly rule.

Readers familiar with Murray’s other works will not be surprised that he ends by asking if American exceptionalism is on the wane and answering yes. This decline can be blamed partly - but only partly - on America’s outsized influence abroad.

Monarchy is now seen as something of a throwback. Representative government has taken root in many places even if it has produced different results in different soils. American notions of rights and equality have similarly spread abroad, though locals tend to thoroughly screen these things to remove anything too threatening to their own traditions.

Yet Murray marshals evidence to show that Americans are less industrious, less community minded, less religious, and more class segregated than they once were. Oh, “America still has exceptional aspects,” he grants, “but we are no longer the unique outlier that amused, amazed and bemused the rest of the world from its founding through the first half of the twentieth century.”

That was the American Century, hands down. This one is still up for grabs.

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