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Liberalism and the American Exception

Blogging at World Affairs, David Rieff has written several recent posts in which he explores, and severely criticizes, the idea of American exceptionalism and its influence on the conduct of American foreign policy. Along the way he also has some flattering things to say about my own examination of the idea in several posts over the past nine months. But he also voices some concerns about my position. As he writes,

Linker is only willing to call for [the] modification [of exceptionalist thinking], not its abandonment. It is not, he wrote in another essay on the subject, “that patriots and politicians should abandon their faith that American power can play a positive role in the world. It is that they should act with caution in applying that power.” And he quotes approvingly [Reinhold] Niebuhr’s invocation of Lincoln, who managed to successfully “invoke the idea of American theological exceptionalism while avoiding the vices it so often encourages.” Linker goes on to praise President Obama for learning this Niebuhrian lesson as he “combines military action with efforts to rein in the country’s theologically inflated vision of itself.”

In Rieff’s view, my modified, Niebuhrian version of American exceptionalism is clearly a “more nuanced, more realistic, more humane, and more modest iteration of the exceptionalist creed and its corollary, the faith in America’s good intentions in the world,” than the one that echoes throughout so much of American history and that reached a kind of apotheosis with the “triumphalist version” affirmed by the Bush administration after 9/11. And yet, Rieff concludes, with considerable disappointment, that my vision of America and its role in the world is not a “radical departure” from that creed.

He’s right about that—though I also think that my writings on the topic have been less clear than they might have been on this point. Given the importance of American exceptionalist thinking to our country’s self-understanding and stance toward the rest of the world, its centrality to my criticism of Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru’s recent essay on the topic in National Review, and lingering questions about the extent to which liberals affirm, or should affirm, such thinking, I believe there's reason to revisit the topic in search of greater clarity. 

The first thing to note about American exceptionalist thinking is how crude it often is. The problem is not just, as Rieff rightly points out, that it presumes and encourages historical ignorance or amnesia. More fundamentally, those who espouse the rhetoric of exceptionalism often haven’t even figured out what they mean by the concept. Do they mean merely that America is distinctive in various ways, and worthy of admiration for certain of those distinctive qualities? This, in itself, isn’t a particularly controversial claim, since every nation is distinctive in particular ways, and some of those marks of distinction are admirable. But of course this isn’t all that champions of American exceptionalism mean when they deploy the term. In most cases, what they also mean is that America as a nation is uniquely virtuous, or better than, other nations. This is where things begin to become ridiculous.

The first thing to said about the latter view is that . . . we would think so, wouldn’t we? Going back to Aristotle, if not before, thinkers have noted the obvious truth that human beings are poor judges in their own cases. When reflecting on ourselves, self-love and other passions distort and bias our judgment, leading us to exaggerate our virtues and deny our faults. It is hardly surprising, then, that Americans tend to forget or downplay the importance of the morally dubious, and even at times morally outrageous, things our country has done over the years. We nearly exterminated the indigenous population of North America; we kept human beings as slaves for two-and-a-half centuries; we denied the descendants of those slaves full civil rights for another century after that; we made all sorts of mischief (and sometimes much worse) in Latin America and Asia in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; and much more recently, we invaded and toppled the government of a sovereign nation on the basis of mistaken intelligence and then horribly mismanaged the occupation for years, precipitating a sectarian civil war that left many thousands dead and many more thousands displaced.

Those are the indisputable facts. To recognize and take them into account when judging our nation is not to single us out for opprobrium. That would be American exceptionalism in reverse—an example of the Chomskyite tendency to treat the country as singular in its moral monstrousness. The truth is that in many ways the United States is not exceptional at all. The world is a nasty, vicious place, and we’ve contributed our share of nastiness and viciousness over the years.

And yet America is also distinctive, and distinctively admirable, in many ways. In my view, the most distinctive and admirable of all our qualities is our liberalism. Now let me be clear: unlike Lowry and Ponnuru, who identify American exceptionalism with the laissez-faire capitalism favored by the libertarian wing of the Republican Party, I do not mean to equate the ideology that dominates one of our country’s political parties with the nation’s exemplary essence. On the contrary, the liberalism I have singled out is embraced by nearly every member of both of our political parties—and indeed by nearly every American citizen. Liberalism in this sense is a form of government—one in which political rule is mediated by a series of institutions that seek to limit the powers of the state and maximize individual freedom: constitutional government, an independent judiciary, multiparty elections, universal suffrage, a free press, civilian control of the military and police, a large middle class, a developed consumer economy, and rights to free assembly and worship. To be a liberal in this primary sense is to favor a political order with these institutions and to abide by the political rules they establish.  

The United States is obviously very far from being the contemporary world’s only liberal nation. In what sense, then, is America exceptional? In the sense that we believe, in part for religious reasons, but also out of humanistic principle, that the benefits of political liberalism, which our nation achieved first in human history, can and should be enjoyed by every country, and by every person in every country, in the world. This conviction—an almost missionary compulsion to champion liberal-democratic self-government—is what most makes America exceptional. It is the core of our civil religion—and the goal that ought to guide our actions in the world.

Is this an endorsement of the thuggish imperialism Rieff detects in the American past and present and apparently fears in the American future? Not at all. Despite what one might conclude from the disastrous presidency of that liberal moralist George W. Bush, the imperative to support and encourage liberalism abroad does not necessitate stupidity. On the contrary, it demands intelligence and sobriety about how best to affect liberal change in divergent places at different historical moments. It demands that we temper our longing to fulfill our liberal duties with a clear-headed assessment of the possible unintended consequences of our actions. It demands that we remain forever mindful of the efficacy, as well as the limits, of our power (both hard and soft). It demands, in sum, that we combine grandly idealistic ends with cunningly realistic means, just as Niebuhr called on us to do, and as Lincoln showed us how to do. 

That we have often failed to achieve this synthesis is evidence of human (and American) imperfection as well as of the recalcitrance of a complicated, heartrending world. (Niebuhr thought it was also evidence of original sin, which is possible, though it's equally possible to make sense of tragedy in rigorously secular terms.) The proper response to these failures is redoubled resolution to do better, to be smarter, to choose more efficacious means, in the future. It is most certainly not to give up on the ends, as Rieff appears prepared to do.