November 20, 2004


Do Ideas Matter in America? (Wilfred M. McClay, November 2004, Wilson Quarterly)

In his classic study, Childhood and Society (1950), the psychologist Erik Erikson observed that “whatever one may come to consider a truly American trait can be shown to have its equally characteristic opposite.” Though a similar ambivalence can be found in many national cultures, traceable to a variety of causes, Erikson insisted that the bipolarity was especially pronounced in the modern American instance. In none of the other great nations of the world, he contended, were the inhabitants subjected to more extreme contrasts than in the United States, where tensions between individualism and conformity, internationalism and isolationism, open-mindedness and closed-mindedness, cosmopolitanism and xenophobia were powerfully felt.

Sweeping generalizations of that sort about “national character,” American or otherwise, have come to be regarded as artifacts of the 1950s. They’ve been superseded by doctrines that emphasize pluralism and social heterogeneity and stress the “inventedness” of the modern nation-state. But there is plenty of evidence for the cogency of Erikson’s dictum, which is nowhere more vividly illustrated than in the paradoxical role of ideas in American culture. One can make an equally plausible case that ideas are both nowhere and everywhere in America, that they have played a uniquely insignificant role in shaping America or a uniquely commanding one.

So which of the two assertions is the more accurate? At first blush, one would have to acknowledge that there is a strong basis for the familiar view that Americans are a relentlessly action-oriented people, constituents of a thoroughgoing business civilization, a culture that respects knowledge only insofar as it can be shown to have immediate practical applications and commercial utility. Alexis de Tocqueville voiced the theme early in the 19th century: To the extent that Americans cultivated science, literature, and the arts, he remarked, they invariably did so in the spirit of usefulness, not out of any high regard for the dignity of thought itself. His observation presaged what would become a consistent complaint of intellectuals from Walt Whitman to Matthew Arnold to Sinclair Lewis to George Steiner today: America is a philistine society, interested only in the arts of self-aggrandizement and enhanced material well-being, reflexively anti-intellectual, utterly lacking in the resources needed to support the high and disinterested curiosity that is the stuff of genuine cultural achievement.

A variation on this theme, also sounded early on by Tocqueville, was that America embodied a fresh and distinctive theory of government, even though its citizenry couldn’t begin to articulate what that theory was. Tocqueville claimed that there was no country in the civilized world where less attention was paid to philosophy—and yet Americans seemed enthusiastically committed to a particular, and very modern, philosophical method. Their country, he quipped, was the place where “the precepts of Descartes are least studied and best applied,” since it was the place where everyone believed that one should “seek the reason of things for oneself, and in oneself alone.” Yet the range of ideological possibilities in America was narrow, with comparatively little space between the supposed opposites of “left” and “right” and relatively little deviation from fundamental liberal principles. The very notion of intellectual debate as a process of public wrangling about alternative ideas of the political and social order tended to be regarded as anathema, even dangerous.

In 1953, the historian Daniel Boorstin went so far as to argue that the absence of debate over American political theory was one of the nation’s chief virtues. The unpremeditated “givenness” of American political institutions constituted for him the genius of American politics and defined the difference between the placid stability of American politics and the ideology-ridden horrors that had so recently erupted in European politics. “Our national well-being,” said Boorstin, is “in inverse proportion to the sharpness and extent of [our] theoretical differences.” So breathtaking a statement formulates on a national scale the powerful, if largely informal, everyday American social taboo against discussing either religion or politics in public. The taboo makes for a considerable measure of social peace, but it would be hard to imagine a deeper devaluation of the role of ideas.

Small wonder that Boorstin became one of the principal exponents of the “consensus” view of American history that was prevalent at midcentury: A rough but stable ideological homogeneity, built upon the cultural and economic premises of liberal capitalism, encompassed nearly the entire American people. Contemporaries of Boorstin who were associated with this view, such as Richard Hofstadter and the political scientist Louis Hartz, had a less positive regard for the alleged homogeneity—yes, they sighed, Americans all think the same way, and more’s the pity—but they did not challenge its basic outline. Nor, for that matter, was there much fundamental disagreement to be found in the writings of the consensus theorists’ immediate predecessors, such as historians Vernon Louis Parrington, Charles Beard, and Frederick Jackson Turner. Although all of these scholars saw conflict rather than consensus as the most salient characteristic of American history, they conceived the conflict primarily as one between rival material interests, in which ideas and ideologies played, at best, a supporting or derivative role.

Thus, a well-established tradition, shared by intellectuals and non-intellectuals alike, holds that ideas have been largely irrelevant to the nation’s practical concerns, and therefore tangential to the real business of American life. [...]

In the face of all this evidence, can one seriously entertain the opposite side of the Eriksonian paradox—that ideas have played a commanding role in Amer­ican history? Indeed, one can, for the idea of America itself has remained powerful and alluring and multifaceted. If we do not readily perceive the pervasiveness of ideas in American history, it is for the same reason that deep-sea fish do not perceive the existence of water. Ideas provide the very medium within which Amer­ican life is conducted. From the start, the nation’s history has been weighted with a sense of great destiny and large meaning, of visions found not on the fringes of the story but at its very core, actively shaping the minds of those who make the history and those who write about it. One cannot tell the story without reference to the visions.

Talk about “the idea of America” is likely to be dismissed these days as a species of “American exceptionalism.” But invoking that familiar catchphrase simply fails to do justice to the matter. The concept of America has always carried large, exceptional meanings. It even had a place in the European imagination long before Columbus. From Homer and Hesiod, who located a blessed land beyond the setting sun, to Thomas More and his Utopia, to English Puritans seeking Zion, to Swedish prairie homesteaders and Scotch-Irish hardscrabble farmers and Polish and Italian peasants who made the transatlantic voyage west in search of freedom and material promise, to Asian and Latin American immigrants who have thronged to these shores and borders in recent decades—for all of these, the mythic sense of a land of renewal, regeneration, and fresh possibility has remained remarkably deep and persistent.

Though almost everyone is convinced that America means something, there are disagreements—sometimes quite basic—about what that something is. For example, is the United States to be understood as a nation built upon the extension of European—and especially British—laws, institutions, and religious beliefs? Or is it more properly understood as a modern, Enlight­enment-based, postethnic nation built on abstract principles such as universal individual rights rather than with bonds of shared tradition, race, history, conventions, and language? Or is it rather a transnational and multicultural “nation of nations,” in which diverse sub- or supranational sources of identity—race, class, gender, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sexual identity, and so forth—are what matter, and only a thin and minimal sense of national culture and obligation is required? Or is it something else again?

Each of those propositions suggests, in its own way, that American history has a distinctive meaning. Americans of years past actively sought a broad, expansive, mythic way to define what distinguished the nation. Consider this short list of appellations America has accumulated over the years: City upon a Hill, Empire of Reason, Novus Ordo Seclorum, New Eden, Nation Dedicated to a Proposition, Melting Pot, Land of Opportunity, Nation of Immigrants, Nation of Nations, First New Nation, Unfinished Nation, and, most recently, Indispensable Nation. Other nations sometimes earn names of this sort, but they are not so numerous, and they lack the universalistic implications that complicate the sense of American exceptionalism.

Nor should one neglect the religious dimension of Americans’ self-understanding, which continues to be powerfully present, even in the minds of the nonreligious. The notion that America is a nation chosen by God, a New Israel destined for a providential mission of world redemption, has been a near-constant element of the national experience. The Puritan settlers in Massachusetts Bay’s “city upon a hill” had a strong sense of historical accountability and saw themselves as the collective bearers of a world-historical destiny. That same persisting conviction can be found in the rhetoric of the American Revolution, in the vision of Manifest Destiny, in the crusading sentiments of Civil War intellectuals, in the benevolent imperialism of fin-de-siècle apostles of Christian civilization, and in the fervent speeches of President Woodrow Wilson during World War I.

Few presidents after Wilson cared to make a direct appeal to Americans’ sense of chosenness by God as a justification for foreign policy, and the disastrous intervention in Vietnam provided an especially severe chastening of such ambitions. But Wilson’s belief in America’s larger moral responsibility—particularly its open-ended obligation to uphold human rights, defend democracy, and impart American-style institutions, technologies, and values to the rest of the world—did not vanish with him. Indeed, by the time of the second American war against Iraq, that aspect of Wilson’s legacy had become the preferred position even of American conservatives, and in the oratory of George W. Bush, arguably the most evangelical president in modern American history, the legacy’s quasi-religious dimension seemed to have survived intact. “The advance of freedom is more than an interest we pursue,” the president declared last May. “It is a calling we follow. Our country was created in the name and cause of freedom. And if the self-evident truths of our founding are true for us, they are true for all.”

To be sure, other strains of American thought have operated, including a sober realist tradition grounded in John Quincy Adams’s famous assertion that the United States does not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy. There has been a reflexive, if shallow, reluctance in many quarters to “impose our values” on the rest of the world, although even in the protests of the critics it’s implicit that the temptation and the power to do so are somehow uniquely American. There’s a counterstrain, too, represented by the radical political views of the influential linguist Noam Chomsky, that envisions the United States as a uniquely pernicious force in human history, unexcelled in its guilt rather than its virtue. One could say that this is American exceptionalism with a vengeance—but exceptionalism nonetheless.

All of which goes to show how difficult it has been for Americans, and others, to think of the United States as “just another nation.” The idea of America, and of its national destiny, clings as tenaciously as ever to the nation’s self-consciousness, and if only by virtue of the influence of this one large idea, the second half of the Eriksonian paradox would seem to hold. That many Americans have believed steadily in their nation’s special mission is a fact of American history. In the 20th century it became a fact of world history, and by the early years of the 21st, it had almost come to seem a pattern for universal emulation.

So because America has had a broad and enduring consensus about the core ideas formally adopted at the Founding--ideas it has felt no compunction about imposing across the globe--and has had rather little interest in alternatives--except for the brief and disastroius flirtation with socialism during the New Deal/Great Society period--people say ideas don't matter to us? Isn't it simply a case where our old ideas have been sufficient to make us a great nation and our, therefore, being incurious about the fads that lesser nations try out because they're in decline, stagnant or have never risen?

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 20, 2004 9:19 AM
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