Do those who seek a transformation of American society believe or disbelieve in American exceptionalism? We can assume that they do not love the country they seek to transform. After all, how can you love anything or anyone you deem to be in need of a fundamental transformation?
Questions abound as the Biden Administration goes about behaving as though its presidential candidate won a mandate in 2020 on the order of 1932 or 1964—or even 2008. Speaking of 2008, a few of those abounding questions seem to coalesce. So here we go.
Is Joe Biden’s first term really the third term of Barack Obama? If so, or if not, is today’s Democratic party focused primarily on American national interests or on the interests of something called the international community? In other words, is the Democratic party of the 2020s a national party or a post-national party?
If it really is the latter, is the Biden-Obama (as opposed to Obama-Biden) administration essentially about the business of trying to achieve what candidate Obama promised to achieve on the eve of his 2008 victory. Recall his now infamous pronouncement that his campaign was on the verge of “fundamentally transforming the United States of America.”
Lastly, do those who seek such a transformation believe or disbelieve in American exceptionalism? We can assume that they do not love the country they seek to transform. After all, how can you love anything or anyone you deem to be in need of a fundamental transformation?
Early in his first term President Obama was asked if he did believe in American exceptionalism. His answer, while brief, spoke volumes. Yes, he replied, he did so believe just as Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism and Brits believe in British exceptionalism.
In other words, since every country is exceptional in some way there is nothing exceptional about American exceptionalism. Since citizens of every country think that there is something exceptional about their own country, what’s the big deal about something called American exceptionalism? It’s simply the case that every country is exceptional in its own unexceptional way. By inference, President Obama seemed to be telling his questioner and the rest of us that he did not believe that there was something fundamentally different, that is to say, exceptional about this country.
But wait a minute. Maybe candidate Obama really did believe in some version of American exceptionalism when he told his supporters of the impending transformation. Certainly, this could be read to mean that the senator thought that there was in fact something unique about America at that historical moment, something that his presidency would be devoted to making sure would not be the case when he left office.
Given his critique of the United States and his penchant for European social democracies, what he seemed to be saying was that his goal was to remake the United States into just another European social democracy. That did seem to be his promise. If so, it was a promise unrealized—or a promise deferred until now. For Obama and Biden, the Trump presidency promises to be nothing more than a brief interlude.
Still, it might be argued that prior to his 2008 election Barack Obama had bought into American exceptionalism, if only to the extent that he found himself poised to set about making sure that that exceptionalism little more than a distant memory.
So just what is at the heart of our exceptionalism? I would argue that it is not the proverbial American dream so much as it is that which made the American dream possible for so many over the past two hundred plus years. In brief, American exceptionalism has been the American experiment in action.
For starters, that would be the American experiment in self-government. But it really is a good deal more than that. It has also been an experiment in limited government, especially a limited federal government. More than that, it has been an experiment in a limited central government over a huge piece of territory.
The central idea of the founders was to create a new national government that would have jurisdiction (but not great power) over not simply a great swath of land, but also over a free and virtuous citizenry. To be sure, not everyone was free in 1776 or 1787. But Jefferson’s “empire of liberty” would gradually—and painfully—be transformed, yes transformed, into a nation, and a nation devoid of slavery and filled with opportunities.
The key to the founders’ vision was virtue. And the key to virtue was religion, since the founders believed that virtue was impossible without religion. The recently rediscovered and revived John Adams said it best: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people; it is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
This is not, I hasten to add, the version of American exceptionalism that either President Obama or President Biden or today’s Democrats seem to be touting. Nonetheless, they must believe in some version of this now almost ancient notion. The only alternatives are either to deny that we are any different or accept the inevitability of an American decline.
Let’s go back to England and Greece for just a moment. It’s interesting that President Obama chose to single out those two countries in responding to his questioner. England, Greece, and the United States, each one an empire of sorts. And each one doomed (?) to decline and fall?
If so, one more question abounds: Is today’s Democratic party concerned about America’s decline? Or perhaps it seeks to hasten it? Or maybe, just maybe, Biden and Obama and company really do believe in a version of American exceptionalism.
How so? Maybe they believe that we really are different, that we are somehow exempt from history and economics. Maybe they believe that we aren’t Greece and could never become Greece. Or that we aren’t England and could never become England. Or that we can be successfully transformed into a centrally run, centrally organized administrative state. If so, we really would be quite exceptional.
Better than a century ago John Adams’ great-grandson, Brooks Adams, wrote a prescient book titled The Law of Civilization and Decay.One of the first progressives, Theodore Roosevelt read it, pondered it, and worried over it. Progressives like Roosevelt sought to advance centralization, but Adams warned that this was ultimately a recipe for national decline and disaster. Hence Roosevelt’s worries. But modern progressives aren’t worried at all. Maybe they have convinced themselves that we’re simply too big to fail. But maybe they simply believe in their naïve, even pollyannish, version of American exceptionalism that exempts us from history. If so, they are in for a rude awakening—and sooner rather than later.
And the rest of us? Ah, that is the ultimate question that abounds. The rest of us need to assert and revive the original understanding of American exceptionalism before it is too late.
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The featured image is courtesy of Pixabay.