Back in September, Russian President Vladimir Putin called out President Barack Obama for carrying out a foreign policy based in American exceptionalism. Around the same time conservatives in the GOP argued that President Obama was abandoning American exceptionalism, pushing a secular and even socialist agenda that leads him to apologize for American greatness. According to Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru, “The survival of American exceptionalism as we have known it is at the heart of the debate over Obama’s program. It is why that debate is so charged.” Mitt Romney repeated this same line during his failed bid to unseat the President, arguing that President Obama “doesn’t have the same feelings about American exceptionalism that we do.” American exceptionalism—long a sociological concept used to describe qualities that distinguished American cultural and political institutions—has become a political truncheon.
Now comes Peter Beinart who writes in the National Journal that the conservatives are half correct. It is true that American exceptionalism is threatened and in decline. But the cause is not President Obama. Beinart argues that the real cause of the decline of exceptionalist feeling in the United States is conservatism itself.
The core of the first part of Beinart’s argument concerns a generational shift regarding the place of religion in American society. That younger Americans are fundamentally changing their attitudes toward religious life is a theme Beinart has written about often. In short, one pillar of American exceptionalism has been its religiosity. America has long been the most religious of the western democracies. But the current younger generation is an exception.
For centuries, observers have seen America as an exception to the European assumption that modernity brings secularism. “There is no country in the world where the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America,” de Tocqueville wrote. In his 1996 book, American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword, Seymour Martin Lipset quoted Karl Marx as calling America “preeminently the country of religiosity,” and then argued that Marx was still correct. America, wrote Lipset, remained “the most religious country in Christendom.” But in important ways, the exceptional American religiosity that Gingrich wants to defend is an artifact of the past. The share of Americans who refuse any religious affiliation has risen from one in 20 in 1972 to one in five today. Among Americans under 30, it’s one in three. According to the Pew Research Center, millennials—Americans born after 1980—are more than 30 percentage points less likely than seniors to say that “religious faith and values are very important to America’s success.” And young Americans don’t merely attend church far less frequently than their elders. They also attend far less than young people did in the past. “Americans,” Pew notes, “do not generally become more [religiously] affiliated as they move through the life cycle”—which means it’s unlikely that America’s decline in religious affiliation will reverse itself simply as millennials age. In 1970, according to the World Religion Database, Europeans were over 16 percentage points more likely than Americans to eschew any religious identification. By 2010, the gap was less than half of 1 percentage point. According to Pew, while Americans are today more likely to affirm a religious affiliation than people in Germany or France, they are actually less likely to do so than Italians and Danes.
Beinart’s point is that the younger generation is less religious and thus less tied to one of the core components of American exceptionalism than previous generations of Americans. That he is right is apparently beyond dispute. And it is not unimportant.
The deflation of religion removes one of the pillars that has long-distinguished American life. For Tocqueville, religiosity was necessary in a democratic country, as it gave the people a moral language to restrict the unimpeded longings of individualism. Religion also feeds the confidence and sense of purpose lends to the American project its jeremiad-like quality. And this is nowhere better illustrated than in Philip Freneau’s 1795 poem “On Mr. Paine’s Rights of Man:”
So shall our nation, formed on Virtue’s plan,
Remain the guardian of the Rights of Man,
A vast republic, famed through every clime,
Without a kind, to see the end of time.
The religious roots of American exceptionalism are well established and form the central argument of Deborah Madsen’s book American Exceptionalism. Madsen traces the doctrine to 17th century Puritan sermons and poetry, including Peter Buckley’s famous “Gospel-Covenant sermon” that proclaims,
We are as a city set upon an hill, in the open view of all the earth; the eyes of the world are upon us because we profess ourselves to be a people in covenant with God, and therefore not only the Lord our God, with whom we have made covenant, but heaven and earth, angels and men, that are witnesses of our profession, will cry shame upon us, if we walk contrary to the covenant which we have professed and promised to walk in.
According to Madsen, this religious sense of distinction and purpose translated easily to a rationalist project as well. Benjamin Franklin embraced the exceptionalist rhetoric but covered it in a rationalist patina, arguing the “providence” is a “rational principle that controls the operation of the world.” For Franklin, American newness meant that it was “unhampered by the complexities of European history and unburdened by a sophisticated class system and structure of inheritance.” Thus, Madsen writes, America “offered an unrivalled opportunity for the establishment of a democratic society based on rational principles…. Franklin represents the American errand as the creation of a secular state that is purified of the corruption of European politics and a social structure based on inherited title.”
By the time Abraham Lincoln addressed the nation on the battlefield at Gettysburg, the vision of the United States as a unique and exemplary democracy marked by a distinct approach to freedom and equality had established itself in the nation’s psyche.
The United States of America was understood not simply to be one country amongst many, but it was “a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” The survival and success of the United States was hardly a local matter, but was a grand experiment testing whether “any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.” Americans understood that America mattered as an example for the world.
Seymour Lipset summed up the idea of American exceptionalism in his 1996 book American Excptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword.
The United States is exceptional in starting from a revolutionary event, in being “the first new nation,” the first colony, other than Iceland, to become independent. It has defined its raison d’être ideologically. As historian Richard Hofstadter has noted, “It has been our fate as a nation not to have ideologies, but to be one.” In saying this, Hofstadter reiterated Ralph Waldo Emerson and Abraham Lincoln’s emphases on the country’s “political religion.”
For Lipset, the “American Creed can be described in five terms: liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism, and laissez-faire.” Exceptionalism, he argues, doesn’t mean American is better than other countries. It means that America “is qualitatively different, that it is an outlier. Exceptionalism is a double-edged concept.”
There have always been opponents of what Godfrey Hodgson calls The Myth of American Exceptionalism. And there is the question of how fully different races and classes have embraced the idea of American exceptionalism. But overall, the myth has had some basis in sociological reality. Americans were more religious than other democratic and liberal states. Americans believed they had more economic mobility, and saw their country as the first truly multi-ethnic and multi-racial democracy; one that developed in fits and starts towards an ideal of equality over 200 years.
So what does it mean when this idea of American exceptionalism is in retreat? Beinart traces the increasingly suspicious attitudes of the young to traditional tenets of American exceptionalism in foreign affairs and also in economics.
When conservatives worry that America is not as economically exceptional anymore, they’re right. A raft of studies suggests that upward mobility is now rarer in the United States than in much of Europe. But if America’s exceptional economic mobility is largely a myth, it’s a myth in which many older Americans still believe. Among the young, by contrast, attitudes are catching up to reality. According to a 2011 Pew poll, young Americans were 14 points more likely than older Americans to say that the wealthy in America got there mainly because “they know the right people or were born into wealthy families” rather than because of their “hard work, ambition, and education.” And as young Americans internalize America’s lack of economic mobility, they are developing the very class consciousness the United States is supposed to lack. In 2011, when Pew asked Americans to define themselves as either a “have” or a “have-not,” older Americans chose “have” by 27 points. In contrast, young Americans, by a 4-point margin, chose “have-not.” According to the exceptionalist story line, Americans are all supposed to consider themselves “middle class,” regardless of their actual economic fortunes. For seniors, that’s largely true. According to a 2012 Pew study, they were 43 points more likely to call themselves “middle” than “lower” class. Among young Americans, by contrast, the percentage calling themselves “middle” and “lower” class was virtually the same.
Perhaps the most interesting generational change Beinart identifies is what he calls the loss of American civilizational self-confidence, which he ties to our loss of religious feeling.
[A]s conservatives suspect, Americans’ declining belief in our special virtue as a world power really is connected to our declining belief in our special virtue as a people. And the young are leading the way. A 2013 poll by the Public Religion Research Institute found that while almost two in three Americans over 65 call themselves “extremely proud to be American,” among Americans under 30 it is fewer than two in five. According to a Pew study in 2011, millennials were a whopping 40 points less likely than people 75 and older to call America “the greatest country in the world.”
Young Americans, in fact, are no more “civilizationally self-confident” than their European counterparts. When Pew asked respondents in 2011 whether “our culture is superior” to others, it found that Americans over the age of 50 were, on average, 15 points more likely to answer yes than their counterparts in Britain, France, Germany, and Spain. Americans under 30, by contrast, were actually less likely to agree than their peers in Britain, Germany, and Spain.
It is easy to worry about the effects of the loss of exceptionalism in America, but hard to deny the truth that America is, today, increasingly less exceptional than in the past. Beinart is worried and rightly so. For what would a country be that had no common ideals? It would be a geographic entity held together by fear and bureaucratic inertia.
So Beinart holds out the hope that, in the end, Americans will reinvigorate their mythic exceptionalism. His prescription is a war on inequality that will return our faith to America as the land of economic mobility. If we can break down the Republican coalition with the plutocratic one percent and between Republicans and religionists, we could re-inspire both religious and economic exceptionalism that have undergirded so much of the progress toward social and racial justice in American history.
What Beinart’s hoped for return of American exceptionalism forgets is that historically what most distinguished America from other nation-states in Europe and elsewhere was its uniquely federalist and decentralized and constitutional structure—something that has long been abandoned and is a distant memory in today’s national security state. Not only Tocqueville in the 19th century but also Hannah Arendt in the 20th century saw in the United States a unique and exceptional country, one that for Arendt was fundamentally different from all European countries. The difference, for Tocqueville, was in America’s incredible multiplication of distinct power centers at all levels of government and society. Arendt agrees, arguing,
The great and, in the long run, perhaps the greatest American innovation in politics as such was the consistent abolition of sovereignty within the body politics of the republic, the insight that in the realm of human affairs sovereignty and tyranny and the same.
Arendt understood that what truly made America exceptional was its decentralized system of power, that the states did not surrender their powers to the Federal government, but that that Federal government should check the powers of the states and the considerable powers that still remained with them. By multiplying power sources, the American constitutional republic created a system that both prevented one sovereign power from acquiring tyrannical power and, equally importantly, insured that local power structures would persist that would give individual citizens reason and incentive to engage in the American practice of democratic self-government.
Arendt’s love for America, as she expressed it in her last interview, was for a country that refused to be a nation-state. “America is not a nation-state and Europeans have a hell of a time understanding this simple fact.” As a country and not a nation, America was comprised of a plurality of persons and groups that each could found and support their own institutional bases of power. Politics in America had no center, but proceeded according to the contest of local and dispersed groups. And what unites all Americans is one thing: “citizens are united only by one thing, and that’s a lot: that is, you become a citizen of the United States by simple consent to the Constitution.” The Constitution in the United States is not just a scrap of paper. I it “a sacred document, it is the constant remembrance of one sacred act, and that is the act of foundation. And the foundation is to make a union out of wholly disparate ethnic minorities and regions, and still (a) have a union and (b) not assimilate or level down these differences.” It was this view of the United States as a country that did not require the assimilation or leveling down of meaningful differences that so impressed Arendt. It was American pluralism free from a nation-state that Arendt found so exceptional.
In the same interview, however, Arendt expressed her fear that the exceptional American pluralism that she found in the country was coming to an end. And the culprit, she identified, was the rise of the national security state.
National security is a new word in the American vocabulary, and this, I think, you should know. National security is really, if I may already interpret a bit, a translation of “raison d’etat.” And “raison d’etat,” this whole notion of reason of state, never played a role in this country. This is a new import. National security now covers everything, and it covers, as you may know form the interrogation of Mr. Ehrlichman, all kinds of crimes. For instance, the president has a perfect right… the king can do no wrong; that is, he is like a monarch in a republic. He’s above the law, and his justification is always that whatever he does, he does for the sake of national security.
Arendt expressed a similar worry about the rise of a national security state in American in 1967, when she wrote:
There is no reason to doubt Mr. Allan W. Dulles’ statement that Intelligence in this country has enjoyed since 1947 “a more influential position in our government than Intelligence enjoys in any other government of the world,’ nor is there any reason to believe that this influence has decreased since he made this statement in 1958. The deadly danger of “invisible government” to the institutions of “visible government” has often been pointed out; what is perhaps less well known is the intimate traditional connection between imperialist policies and rule by “invisible government” and secret agents.
If American exceptionalism is about religious freedom and religious passion, if it is about equal rights to participate in government, if it is about populism, and if it is about a moral vision of a “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” then American exceptionalism is incompatible with the increasingly large, centralized, and bureaucratic security state that has emerged in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
Whether the security sought is national or economic security, the demand that a central government secure our freedoms lives in tension with the basic desire for freedom understood as self-government. It is the loss of that American tradition more than any other that underlies the waning belief of Americans in their exceptionalism. And for that loss, both parties are at fault.
While Beinart misses the connection between national security and the decline of American exceptionalism, his presentation of that decline is convincing, important, and troubling. His essay is well worth your time.