Is America Exceptional?

Last week it became clear to the world that there was emerging a diplomatic alternative to controversial US military intervention in Syria. While the public and the political class had already opposed the strike, President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry and everyone else now turned their attention toward Russia and its president, grateful for a simpler solution to the Syrian dilemma.

Vladimir Putin’s brief editorial piece in the New York Times, most of which was spent asking Americans to reject military action, came a few days after the revelation, at this moment of retreat. If Putin was attempting to persuade the public, he was wasting his time—Americans strongly preferred a diplomatic solution. If he was attempting to sway the president and his cabinet, he would have found it as effective to speak with them personally or through diplomatic channels, as he has now done.

Mr. Putin was probably sending a different message. This is clear in light of his final paragraph, which was not a conclusion to the foreign policy article he had written above. His message was the following opinion, related only tangentially to his piece:

I carefully studied [President Obama’s] address to the nation on Tuesday. And I would rather disagree with a case he made on American exceptionalism, stating that the United States’ policy is “what makes America different. It’s what makes us exceptional.” It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. 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. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.

I will come to the reasons for Putin’s condescension in a moment. But it would be useful, first of all, to examine why anyone cares about the idea of “American exceptionalism” at all, by remembering a few selected superlatives.

America is a relatively new nation. In political terms, however, the United States is the oldest continuous government on earth (leaving aside the microstate San Marino). Since the end of the Revolutionary War, every transition of its power has been peaceful–even the secession of the South following Lincoln’s election did not threaten the federal government or the presidential office. The ideological upheaval of the 19th and 20th centuries did not shake America, and Marxism never infected its government.

The first formal, written constitution was America’s, in 1787. The United States was the first effective liberal democracy, and the first to write in inviolable law the personal freedoms of speech and religion. America’s revolution was more than the first of its kind–it was also uniquely successful by comparison to later movements in France and other parts of Europe. The American Revolution, almost alone, was not characterized by an excess either of liberalism or conservatism, demonstrating in practice the ideals and virtues immortalized in words by America’s fathers.

By any reasonable metric the United States is the most powerful political entity in history. Of the dozen or so superpowers that have existed over the last few millennia, however, America has been the least tempted by conquest, rarely taking advantage of its opportunities to permanently control foreign lands (the Philippines as the main exception). On the other hand, the extent of America’s economic aid to post-war friends and enemies is staggering, considering Western Europe, Japan and the parties to more recent conflicts.

It is almost unnecessary to point out the economic, technological and cultural importance of this New World republic, at least to us who are communicating via a worldwide network created in the US, using American software and electronic devices invented by Americans. The essence of our modern, post-industrial world is American, as any of us non-Americans can admit to ourselves when we look around.

There are other exceptional nations. Great Britain, out of whose empire America was born, has perhaps influenced the world more than any other nation in the last 500 years—and it certainly has a great deal to do with America’s greatness. Otto von Bismarck was correct when he predicted on his deathbed in 1898 that nothing would shape modern history more profoundly than the fact that “the North Americans speak English.” Canada is included in this class of extraordinary Anglophone countries.

Japan’s forty-year rise, following a catastrophic war, was rightly named a miracle, and only a handful of countries have equalled the feat. The Scandinavian countries, the Low Countries and Switzerland, to pick a few salient examples, have managed to maintain extraordinarily peaceful and prosperous societies for at least half a century. Even within this peculiar class of nations, however, America is an exception. There is something to be said for greatness.

Philosophizing on equality and moralizing about modesty, the way Mr. Putin did last week, is nothing rhetorically new. These methods do, however, have the intended effect on Americans, who tend to avoid assertions of their own exceptionalism, so as not to appear the ugly, ego-blinded American.

As someone who has lived in the US for a period and has made efforts to study its history, I can offer an opinion on whether it is an exception. And as a Canadian, I can safely offer an opinion that is favourable to the idea. In a world where cultural cynicism, political arbitrariness and economic narrowness have always been the rule, America was the first, and remains the greatest, exception. Russia, in the company of so many other nations, is not, and has not ever been.

Perhaps Mr. Putin knows this. Maybe he went to the trouble of sending a message to America last week in an effort to dampen his internal anguish. His sadness (and perhaps his envy) is secured by the fact that no one, and certainly no American president, will ever write letters to Russian newspapers to tell them their country is nothing special–there would be no need to state the obvious.

Only extreme success, or abject failure, would really invite impassioned criticisms of a nation’s notability. But America is by no means a failure—that America attracts so much second-world contempt is a witness of its greatness.

America’s flaws, including its great flaws, while not sufficient to make the country unexceptional in our imperfect world, are real. And like everything mortal, America, and its unique vitality, cannot be permanent. But, “whenever the dissolution of the Union arrives”, as John Jay wrote in 1787, “America will have reason to exclaim, in the words of the poet: Farewell! A long farewell to all my greatness!


Is There Still a Place for Social Conservatism?

Traditionalist British thinker Edmund Burke, who might today be described as socially conservative.

Traditionalist British thinker Edmund Burke, who might today be described as socially conservative.

Social conservatism has been out of favor with Western academics for a long time, but more recently the disapproval of the traditional has become truly popular. With a few exceptions, public opinion has moved to the left on social issues over the last two generations, and most profoundly on those issues that relate to sexuality. (Social conservatism often implies certain views on culture, race and class, but it is usually characterized by its approach to sexual issues, at least in the last few decades.) Large majorities in most developed countries now embrace political positions that were almost undiscussed twenty years ago. It is worth asking whether social conservatism will persist, and whether it would do us any good if it did.

The scarcity of social conservatism in the intellectual world forces its sponsors to consider carefully their conviction to the worldview. Recently I came to terms with my identity as a social conservative, after a period of rejecting the label.

As a teenager, I had always taken the conservative view on social issues I had considered. I remember polling my high school social studies class as a fifteen year-old as part of an assignment, proud to find I was one of three students who opposed the impending change to marriage laws. I loved to argue with peers, and while I was good at it, I began to wish there were better defenses for my beliefs. On euthanasia, abortion and even prostitution I often felt compelled to defend traditions for which there were not at first appealing justifications. I began to suspect that perhaps intelligent people couldn’t be socially conservative.

So the feeling I had on deciding I was socially liberal, as I did when I was around eighteen, was of relief. I felt at ease, now able to set aside the opaque biases and prejudices of my old beliefs, and to embrace a morality that was more simply justified and explained. By abstracting away from reality a little, a whole new world of ethical reasoning opened up, where the limits of morality were only those that I (or “society”) arbitrarily placed upon it.

The intellectual leap to relativism was made easier by the fact that I had been surrounded by those ideals my whole life, having grown up in a place and time where progressive social values seemed to dominate popular theory (if not practice, as they tend not to do in suburban Canada).

This consensus, which has grown perhaps with the help of a new wave of libertarianism, has moved quickly, and as an ideology it is unusually unforgiving to its startled opponents. Statements on social issues by leaders of government in Canada only fifteen years ago would scandalize our new sensibilities. Nowadays there are belittling labels used to describe those whose social vision lags behind the avant-garde.

To understand the reasons for this shift, as well as to explain my personal reasons for returning to social conservatism, it is necessary to examine the culture war as a conflict not only of values, but of visions, to borrow a concept from writer Thomas Sowell. While values, or moral preferences, can certainly change, I am skeptical that they ever reverse themselves on a societal scale in any short period of time, as they at first appear to have done since the 1990s.

It would be difficult to dispute that most major ideologies, including conservatism and progressivism, ultimately value social welfare above most everything else. This is almost definitional to political ideologies. So while values clash at points, there must be a difference in the respective visions—in other words, as Sowell wrote in A Conflict of Visions, in each feeling or “sense of how the world works”. In the progressive vision, humans are most moral when generally free to invent their own moral philosophies, using their abilities to reason. In the conservative vision, people are not independently intelligent or sensible enough to do so, and would do better, as a rule, to bend to tradition, authority, and emergent social norms, and as an exception, to reason.

While liberals tend to think of humans as essentially unconstrained in their ability to intentionally move society forward, except to the extent that they allow society to restrict them, conservatives are more skeptical, crediting people only with the ability to be effective parts of a decentralized system, whose success is not purposed or created by anyone in particular. For this reason liberals seek morality in reason, and conservatives in wisdom. Importantly, liberals look for the causes of problems, while conservatives tend to seek the particular explanations for success.

My reconciliation with my social conservatism was not really a shift in values, as reflected by the fact that decisions in my personal life never really changed throughout the period of my movements in worldview. It was something subtler: the realizations (which I made in practice before in theory) that most of us require social norms and authority in order to act ethically, that we are not very good at moral reasoning, and that reality is more subtle than anyone’s individual capacity to understand.

This skepticism, however, made me more optimistic than less. Individuals do not have to be angels in order to be a part of collective triumph and social progress. Social norms can take the place of analytically expensive institutional or governmental policies. The constrained vision, the conservative worldview, means that our best hope for a virtuous society is in collectively doing the ordinary things we are already designed (but sometimes less inclined) to do: accepting personal responsibility, raising good families and offering meaningful service to people who are near us.

Accepting this newly old-fashioned vision of the world, where the health of a society depends on such particular things as familial stability, led me once more to appreciate the virtues of temperance, chastity and sacrifice that characterize social conservatism. Learning how to raise good families, for example, probably does not require anything special in the way of deductive reasoning. It is not a new concern. It is an old question to which we have answers in the way of an enormous body of tradition. We would probably do better to add to that body of wisdom incrementally, than to attempt to create new and universal moral theories by abstraction.

This cautiousness will be the role of social conservatism in the decades and centuries to come, in the Western intellectual universe. Social conservatism has existed, at least with respect to most of its particular prescriptions, for thousands of years. Because of this characteristic endurance, I will not be among those surprised when it does not evaporate in the face of progressivism, no matter what the character of progress currently happens to appear.