Tocqueville was the first author to apply the adjective exceptional to America, but the compliment—if he meant it as a compliment—was a backhanded one, referring narrowly to circumstances that “concurred to fix the mind of the American upon purely practical pursuits.” Certainly, he had nothing in mind comparable to the notion of “American exceptionalism” that formed in the 1920’s, the smug, self-congratulatory postwar decade, proud that America had saved the world for democracy and made James Gatz stinking rich. Other countries have thought themselves “special” in some way, even simply “the best,” but that is something else again. Imagine a brash youth in more or less polite society button-holing all and sundry to announce to everyone who will listen that he is an exceptional person, gifted with exceptional moral qualities and practical abilities, and entitled to special consideration of his views and enterprises. Like most such young men (they are a proliferating breed nowadays), this one, upon closer consideration, would likely be found quite an ordinary fellow. The same goes for America. America is exceptional only in the sense that she considers herself exceptional, and expresses that self-assessment publicly.
If America really were an exceptional nation, her constitutive parts would be exceptional, too, starting with her public men and women. An exceptional nation would be ruled by statesmen, not merely the better sort of politician. But America is virtually devoid of statesmen, while the politicians that swarm in her capital cities and across her broad and fruitful lands, sea to shining sea, are plainly no better than those of the other civilized democracies. While the causes of the progressive destruction of America are many, the degraded American political class is the most important and most obvious one.
Still, American politicians are not the American people. Surely they are the best on earth—the most idealistic, the most enlightened, the most progressive, the most dynamic, the most religious, the most wholesome, the most decent. Yet it is they who elect the American politicians. Certainly, democratic politicos can be very cunning, very persuasive, very believable, as full of lies and trickery as a liberal theologian. But an exceptional people should be able easily to see through the virtual finery and the cosmetic surgery to the naked flabby flesh underneath.
In fact, America has grown measurably less “exceptional” over the past three quarters of a century—part of what used to be called the American century—as her industrial economy has weakened, her social structures decayed, her educational system collapsed, and her military failed in every war it embarked on from 1945 down to the present faltering strategy to “degrade” the Islamic State in Iraq. Americans’ success at subduing and developing a continent and creating fabulous wealth in the process encouraged them to suppose themselves capable of succeeding spectacularly at any task they might decide to put their hand to. In reality, Americans since the founding generation have shown as much inattentiveness as enthusiasm in regard to matters of state, partly from lack of interest in history and what used to be called general ideas, and partly because their preoccupation with “practical objects” encouraged them to ignore politics as substantial intellectual debate and concentrate instead on the combative sporting element of party politics. (Sir Henry Maine made the same complaint about the democratic British electorate in the second half of the 19th century, when he observed that the contest between the Liberal and Tory parties had devolved into “a never-ending cricket match between Blue and Yellow”.)
Americans have typically been indifferent to nearly everything that is not American, or American inspired, or in imitation of America. Their indifference has allowed American diplomats to ignore their first responsibility, to advance the national interests of the United States in the world, and to promote instead the global financial interests of their wealthiest backers and the ideological obsessions of their academic and in other ways overeducated supporters by signing on to international free-trade agreements, facilitating the arrival of scores of millions of Third World immigrants and “refugees” in the “homeland,” catering to the ethnic and nationalist loyalties of poorly assimilated immigrants, clearing the ground upon which the White House (regardless of its current occupant) plans to erect new liberal-democratic states out of the Mesopotamian sands and the African jungles, reeducating the world according to the Gospel of Leo, and pluming their own credentialed egos.
Foreign governments look to the United States in the 21st century for more money and for a superpatsy willing to bear the brunt of the dangerous and costly work Western governments insist “needs” to be done in hellholes like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Ukraine. The triumph of “exceptional” diplomacy has been to replace prudent self-interest and realpolitik with other-directed policies and liberal ideology as the mainstay of Western diplomacy. While this may indeed be exceptionalism of one kind or another, it is not the sort that promotes the strength and survival of any nation, exceptional or otherwise. America has paid a huge price over the last century for her self-indulgent embrace of the exceptionalist myth, and that myth promises to cost her more still in the future.
It is unclear whether the concept of American exceptionalism is an elitist idea or a popular one. Probably it is a combination of both. Certainly the Founding Fathers believed they were creating something new in political history, perhaps even something special, but a claim of “exceptionalism” would surely have caught in their throats. As sophisticated and highly educated gentlemen, men intellectually of the Old World taking charge in the New, they did not live in a soap bubble. Still, their constituents in certain ways did. And as American democracy in the 19th century became increasingly democratic (a process of “democratizing democracy,” as someone has said), better developed economically, and much wealthier, Americans (like Mark Twain traveling in Europe) grew progressively more conscious of their imagined superiority in relation to the Old World, its ways, and its people, an attitude naturally reflected by the “exceptional politicians” elected from their midst. Also, a tendency in American Protestant thought from its Puritan beginnings in New England—a tendency easily misinterpreted by uneducated people as putting narrow morality above broad intellect—likely helped to make the concept of exceptionalism appealing to the ignorant by encouraging a moralistic demeanor, suspicious of intellectual rigor, during the Great Awakening and in the early decades of the new democratic republic.
From her founding the United States had the invaluable double advantage, as Tocqueville noted, of her geographical isolation from the parent civilization and her European cultural and religious heritage—the best of two worlds, in brief. At her back, stretching westward (after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803) to the Pacific Ocean, lay a continent equal to her ambitions: a three million square mile quarry containing the finest virgin marble and awaiting exploitation and development by scores of millions of future Michelangelos and Berninis; titans of frontier agriculture, finance, commerce, and industry, nothing and no one to oppose them but a scattered fistful of the native Bronze Age tribes. The second advantage was political: The new republic had a major part in the most dynamic revolutionary age the world had known until then, an event that promised an expansion of political and social freedoms as limitless as the continent itself. Still a third, left unmentioned by Tocqueville (who arrived in America almost before the fact), was economic: The year 1800, coming 11 years after Washington’s First Inauguration, is the date commonly used by historians to signify the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, whose benefits the United States enjoyed during the first two thirds of the 19th century while suffering relatively few of what economists call its “externalities,” by comparison with Great Britain, France, and Germany. Her good fortune here was the result of America’s youth, her economic and social flexibility, and her geographic space, which prevented severe overcrowding in the new industrial cities and offset the new industrial wastelands by vast tracts of agricultural land and virgin wilderness, allowing her industrial capacity and national wealth to grow at such a pace that by the end of the century they rivaled Britain’s at the cost of perhaps half or less the social misery. In 1789 Americans set out to create a thriving modern democracy—admirable in many ways, but hardly exceptional in historical terms—and they accomplished the task in less than a hundred years’ time.
The French political philosopher Pierre Manent has described the development and succession of political “forms” in Western history, from the city to the empire to the nation-state down to the formless postmodern era. “At a certain time,” Manent writes,
Europeans decided to do something new, something absolutely unprecedented, which appeared as the modern, which they called modern, and by which they distinguished themselves or separated themselves from everything previous. The very idea of the modern thus refers to a proposition, to a project that was embraced in hope by a larger and larger part of European opinion, to an enterprise that progressively rose in power before winning all of Europe and finally the whole world. This is what happened beginning at least in the seventeenth century. Something radically new was trying to come forth; then it came forth, defined itself, and imposed itself ever more imperiously.
This project was modernity, concentrating on political freedom and the rights of man. The United States was a relatively late result of this project, in which the Framers were sophisticated partners. (This is not to concede that America is what neoconservatives describe as a “proposition nation.”) “After the [modern] revolution,” Manent continues, “in the first half of the 19th century, there is a reflection on the best ways to put the principles to work, and there is an analysis of the effects of the new order, sometimes expected and unwanted.” Manent argues that during the postmodern era, the era of the religion of humanity and of human rights, the modern form has been effectively abandoned as the nation ceased to represent the Western political ideal and was replaced by the idea of a borderless world of undifferentiated humanity and of sameness, a world centered on “values” and “facts” that have replaced “active and concrete association” with the identification of the West with the “other”—no one to fight with, no one to love; a world in which “action consists in the strange suspension of action” in the belief that “our inaction will become more and more irresistible for ourselves and for those around us.” As a Frenchman and a European, Manent seems to underestimate how much of the initiative for the postmodern project came from America, rather than from the Continent.
Freemasonry, socialism, communism, anarchism, syndicalism, fascism, and nihilism are European inventions; Transcendentalism, Thoreau, Whitman, Christian Science, Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, Timothy Leary, and Transhumanism are American phenomena. (Rousseau and Nietzsche, who called on individuals to revolutionize themselves instead of their societies and live under a law of their own making, arguably belong with these.) Historically, European reformers have aimed to “put their principles in common,” as the Greeks said: to make reform a civic project. True to the spirit of American individualism, American enthusiasts have preferred to locate their intellectual and spiritual discoveries at the individual level, or that of the company of the happy few. Self-help movements, self-renewal, self-invention and self-reinvention, self-transformation, and self-transcendence originated for the most part in America, inspired by the characteristically American assurance of endless horizons, unrestricted capacities, complete malleability, metamorphosis, and unlimited possibilities at the disposal of all Americans. Europeans have imitated these American attitudes to a limited extent, but one has the impression their hearts aren’t really in it. In this respect, the difference between Europe and the United States is similar to the differences between the imaginative visions of two novels, Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Huxley’s Brave New World, the first a European dystopia, the second an American one. The authors of both books were Englishmen, but while Huxley published his in 1937, five years before he moved to the American Southwest where he remained for most of the second half of his life, he was a more accurate prophet than Orwell proved to be: Huxley’s insight into (and apparent affinity for) the Californian brand of civilization allowed him to imagine how the future nightmare would bear the American stamp, not the European one.
The United States in the 21st century is Pierre Manent’s modern project raised to a higher magnitude. Having set forth two centuries ago with brash confidence to create an unparalleled country the likes of which the world had never seen nor scarcely imagined, she is now well along in the attempt to create a parallel universe, with the enthusiastic cooperation of the Silicon Valley wizards who expect to replace reality with the virtual kind, diabolical doctors who manipulate human genes as if they were microchips and human tissue as if it were latex, and multiculturalist theorists who hold that a man is a woman is a man is an hermaphrodite, the Ethiope is Rudyard Kipling, and East and West not only are not twain but never unmet in the first place. If this alone is sufficient to validate America’s claim to exceptionalism, then indeed she is exceptional—for the present at least, before the rest of the West, having accepted the challenge, catches up with her.
“Only what is not is beautiful,” said Rousseau. Exceptional America agrees, and is doing her best to prove him right.