July 21, 2010


Exceptional Down to the Bone (James C. Bennett, June 21, 2010, National Review)

American exceptionalism took on institutional and legal form with the Revolution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution. These milestones certainly make us exceptional, but they should be understood in the context of the cultural foundations that preceded them, which gave rise to a constitutional republic and have kept it going for over two centuries. The lesson is that American exceptionalism is primarily cultural, and only secondarily constitutional or economic or technological or military. Our rule of law, our economic might, our technological dynamism, our military power, all rest on cultural foundations that have taken form over four centuries in North America, and have deeper roots going back to England.

Almost all the further differences between the U.S. and other English-speaking nations are matters not of culture, but of narrative. By narrative, we refer to the way people talk about and understand their country and its history, the words and phrases they use to understand themselves. This is not to say that narrative is trivial. Culture rarely makes anybody walk into a recruiting station and volunteer for a war; it’s narrative that does. But narrative evolves from generation to generation and from circumstance to circumstance. Every generation’s understanding of what it means to be an American has been different from that of the previous one, back to the generation of 1776, which had grown up certain that to be a good American was to be loyal to king and empire.

The American narrative has developed in stages. From our multiple founding populations we inherited a variety of styles for a free and voluntaristic society (including one that relied heavily on slavery). These were fused at the time of the Revolution into a republican universalism expressed in Anglo-American Enlightenment language of natural rights and liberty. Subsequent events added a patriotic pride in American achievements, and the Civil War linked the Declaration’s principles to the expansion of rights within America. Wilson and FDR turned republican universalism outward to play an assertive role in foreign affairs, and Ronald Reagan harnessed this impulse to the cause of defeating the Soviet empire in the Cold War.

We are conflicted about the universalist narrative because we are divided between an inward-looking and an outward-looking understanding of universalism. The former says “anybody can become an American,” while the latter says “anyplace can become America.” At present, the former proposition is widely accepted, at least with the caveat that we should strongly promote assimilation, based on a record of success over two centuries. The latter has been a problematic aspect of foreign policy in many eras, including our own. [...]

To the extent that we do look abroad, it’s most useful to look at other English-speaking countries for both good and bad examples — but even there, it’s important to be mindful of the whole context. For example, advocates of government health provision often point to Britain and Canada as models, but they rarely discuss the much less pro-plaintiff civil-law systems in those countries, which do much to limit malpractice costs.

The differences between America and other English-speaking countries are real, but often exaggerated. This is partly because of what anthropologists call “ethnographic dazzle” — the obsession with obvious surface-level differences. It is also an artifact of journalistic incentives: Reportage on, say, Anglo-American differences is news, whereas an account of the similarities is the ultimate dog-bites-man story.

From a global perspective, the politics of the English-speaking world are more similar than different, exactly because of the underlying cultural commonalities. This is both good news and bad. It is highly unlikely that America will ever become as dysfunctional as East Germany; however, it is quite possible that we could become as dysfunctional as 1979 Britain.

The U.S. has created a particularly robust form of Anglosphere culture that has been remarkably successful at assimilating millions of immigrants. The idea that anyone can become an American has proven to be true most of the time. (It has also proved to be a warning to continue encouraging immigrants and their children to adopt American culture.) Openness to immigration, with the requirement of robust assimilation, has worked for us, and it can continue to work. So, with some caveats, we can say that it is generally true that “anyone can become an American.” But the outward-looking variety of universalism in U.S. foreign policy, the idea that anyplace can become America, has been a mixed bag.

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 21, 2010 5:03 PM
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