Thursday, September 1, 2011

American Exceptionalism, the Left, and Obama

What is American exceptionalism?  And, what is Obama's and the American left's view of it?  Shelby Steele has the answer in a well-crafted essay in the Wall Street Journal.
American exceptionalism is, among other things, the result of a difficult rigor: the use of individual initiative as the engine of development within a society that strives to ensure individual freedom through the rule of law. Over time a society like this will become great. This is how—despite all our flagrant shortcomings and self-betrayals—America evolved into an exceptional nation.
Steele's link between this "difficult rigor," essentially the American character, and our own exceptional standing as a global leader is aptly made and far too often not discussed or even considered by many.  Our own commitments to hard-work, sacrifice, innovativeness and ingenuity, individuality, and, amongst other attributes, the rule of law, have played an enormous role in developing the United States as a singularly powerful and desirable (in the terms of other people and nations wanting to be like us or join us) nation.  However, many in America, particularly on the left, do not agree with these values and especially our exceptionalism.  Steele outlines how America's imperfect history has become, for some, a cloak of repulsiveness over America's current successes and the values that helped us achieve them.
At home the values that made us exceptional have been smeared with derision. Individual initiative and individual responsibility—the very engines of our exceptionalism—now carry a stigma of hypocrisy. For centuries America made sure that no amount of initiative would lift minorities and women. So in liberal quarters today—where historical shames are made to define the present—these values are seen as little more than the cynical remnants of a bygone era.  
So we Americans cannot help but feel some ambivalence toward our singularity in the world—with its draining entanglements abroad, the selfless demands it makes on both our military and our taxpayers, and all the false charges of imperial hubris it incurs. Therefore it is not surprising that America developed a liberalism—a political left—that took issue with our exceptionalism. It is a left that has no more fervent mission than to recast our greatness as the product of racism, imperialism and unbridled capitalism.
This self-loathing is bad enough as is.  It is never practically or emotionally commendable to look in the mirror and hate what you see - this is why psychologists make quite nice salaries helping individuals understand that their flaws or historical missteps do not obscure their true value.  But as so often occurs in individuals, Steele correctly argues that this systematic recasting of American values and exceptionalism as morally defunct has lead to the undermining of the very greatness of the American way.   

Since the '60s we have enfeebled our public education system even as our wealth has expanded. Moral and cultural relativism now obscure individual responsibility. We are uninspired in the wars we fight, calculating our withdrawal even before we begin—and then we fight with a self-conscious, almost bureaucratic minimalism that makes the wars interminable.
America seems to be facing a pivotal moment: Do we move ahead by advancing or by receding—by reaffirming the values that made us exceptional or by letting go of those values, so that a creeping mediocrity begins to spare us the burdens of greatness?
In Steele's analysis, this is not just a historical force of the left, but a very real problem of the current administration, who's leaders were raised in the heyday of this sort of political thinking.  Now, as leaders of the very institution they were raised to detest, they are torn between pursuing their responsibility of advancing America's position and being true to the elixir of principles they imbibed as youth.

Mr. Obama came of age in a bubble of post-'60s liberalism that conditioned him to be an adversary of American exceptionalism. In this liberalism America's exceptional status in the world follows from a bargain with the devil—an indulgence in militarism, racism, sexism, corporate greed, and environmental disregard as the means to a broad economic, military, and even cultural supremacy in the world. And therefore America's greatness is as much the fruit of evil as of a devotion to freedom. 
As a president, Barack Obama has been a force for mediocrity. He has banked more on the hopeless interventions of government than on the exceptionalism of the people. His greatest weakness as a president is a limp confidence in his countrymen. He is afraid to ask difficult things of them.
All-in-all, this leaves America and the left in a very precarious position.  How do we trust a leadership that wants to "take the country down a notch" or wants to "lead from behind"?  How can the people be comfortable with representatives that were raised on an opposition ideology, who have fixated on what is wrong, not what is right with our system?  But most importantly how can those who ascribe to such beliefs reconcile the fact that their ideology is in many ways at odds with the responsibility of ruling?


  1. I disagree with the interpretation of "American exceptionalism" as one of national greatness. The U.S. is not qualitatively different on a per capita basis to other Anglo-Saxon immigrant nations like Canada or Australia. They are economically successful and free for largely the same geographical and cultural reasons.

    The reason the U.S. is a world leader while the former Dominions are not is purely down to population. 300 million Canadians would be as great and powerful as the Americans today. There aren't so many Canadians or Australians largely for geographical reasons (much, much less good land to welcome immigrants throughout their histories).

    Of course there are differences. Canada has the Quebec issue, the U.S. has a far stronger nationalism (and a powerful, all-encompassing and religion-like national ideology), there is the pervasive slavery/race issue and the country is more ostensibly hostile to "collectivism". None of these are all that "exceptional" and in my opinion none can be said to be the source of America's national power. Every country with a strong nationalism believes itself to be exceptional and in this respect the United States is perfectly unremarkable.

    Self-criticism is not self-hatred. There are evils and weaknesses in every country. The true patriots are those who are willing to face up the failings of their country - recognition is the first step towards correction - even being accused of being anti-country. All countries are imperfect and their failings should then be recognized by patriotic citizens, Amierca is no exception.

    As to seeing these traits in Obama, I don't think this is much more than Republicans projecting their fantasies (e.g. Dinesh D'souza). I would like to see on what substantive policy issues there is evidence of Obama's hatred of the United States other than his being more polite to foreigners than his predecessors. In terms of involvement in foreign wars (Libya, Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq) it's hard for me to see any substantive change in America's "exceptionalism" or supposed Obamanian (self-)hatred of American power.

  2. You're certainly right to point out that "self-criticism is not self-hatred". I absolutely agree that Americans (and others) need to be able to be reflective in order to improve themselves and fix past wrongs. But there is a difference between dwelling on wrongs and always looking for them, even inventing them when they no longer exist and pushing forward while still fixing one's flaws. Self-flagellation is not a good trait.

    As to Obama, there isn't enough space here to rehash everything but I think he has gone a step behind humility and wears his embarrassment, apologism, and discomfort on his sleeve. Politeness isn't a problem - it is diplomacy. I think in his policies and actions, both domestic and foreign, he has shown little confidence in the values that have made us strong (whether you call that exceptional or not is another issue) and far too often dismissed them, as Steele points out, for being the cause of our flaws. The administration explicitly distrusts so much (if not all) of what has made us great - the individual, our allies, private-markets, our confidence, independence, etc etc.

  3. What "self-flagellation" do you see Obama doing? It seems to me the criticism of Obama is basically reduced to his (hardly unprecedented) critique of capitalism as it exists in America. Are all government intervention (of which the Republicans are incidentally just as guilty) or criticism of the dysfunctions of the American economy "unpatriotic"?

    Personally, I believe FDR, LBJ and Teddy Roosevelt were patriots, and that Obama's presidency is, if we have a just a pinch perspective, quite obviously a much weaker expression of that progressive tradition. The Roosevelts were if anything far, far more critical of business than Obama. Obamacare, more or less his only big accomplishment, is a far cry from the New Deal or Great Society.

    What do you think of claims of the exceptionalism-greatness of American culture-society in comparison to comparable societies like Canada or Australia?

  4. Look I think Obama's foreign policy is rife with such "self-flagellation" alongside much "ally-flagellation" to coin a phrase (see Israel). Likewise, I think Obama directly and indirectly wears the typical badge of the left, what I like to call the "moral supremacy of the underdog" (or some would call the David-Goliath syndrome) where anyone with power (businesses, whites, males, military, etc) have a negative moral stigma attached to them. Obama's policies (and the left in general) go after these institutions without discrimination. But while these institutions have sometimes done wrong, they're not innately bad and have often been the leaders of US success. Attacking them just because of their position (eg. the class warfare and demeaning of Wall Street) is self-flagellation, not nuanced criticisms of wrongdoing.

    As to patriots, I didn't use the term. I'm not questioning whether Obama (or the left) truly believe they are helping America (I think they do) but whether their philosophy and actions are right for America. I don't buy into they argument that Obama WANTS to hurt America, even if I believe he IS hurting the country.

    As to comparisons to other countries, I am not convinced of these relativistic claims that everyone is exceptional. The US is clearly the global leader, the strongest militarily, arguably the most powerful economically (slipping in this regard), and culturally the biggest influence. Debating where this comes from is certainly worthwhile, but that it is exists dubious in my mind. Sure Canada and Australia are great countries and have many positive aspects (they did come from the same birth mother as the US, not that that is sufficient or even necessary), but they more follow the US's lead than set the agenda. I don't mean to diminish contributions from others, there are certainly many and I don't think the US could be what it is without them (European political thought for one) but for the past 100 years the US has risen to the top and been able to synthesize and disseminate its system - that's exceptional in my mind.

  5. How is Obama's "class warfare" and "demeaning Wall Street" worse than what the Roosevelts and LBJ did?

    What exactly has Obama done against Israel beside asking that settlement expansion stop? Did he do anything during the Gaza War? Has he halted the billions of dollars in aid every year?

    What "self-flagellation" has Obama done overseas? I know it is "rife", but where has this actually happened?

    I think you pose the "exceptionalism" question wrongly. One can be powerful and still be comparable to other countries. No one questions the power, America has an "exceptional" position. But why is this so? You claim it is because of some qualitatively exceptional American trait. I state America is basically comparable to Australia and Canada (visible in political continuity/democracy/per capita).

    If you are "exceptional" in the world not because of a qualitative trait, but because there are 300 million of you (quantitative), then your claim to exceptionalism is severely weakened. If there were 300 million Frenchmen or 300 million Australians I expect their influence on the world would be comparable to America's.

    (Just as, for instance, traditional Chinese hegemony in East Asia is not based on "exceptionalism" but numbers.)

    Of course, it is perfectly possible that there are so many American particuliarities that they could constitute an "exceptionalism" and even that this could be the source of American power. I don't think this should be an assumption, I don't think it's been demonstrated, and I don't think people who (allegedly!) don't share this assumption should suddenly be disqualified from office.

  6. I made no comparison to LBJ or Roosevelt, so I'm not sure where a discussion of "worse" comes from. I understandably don't support much of what they did.

    As for Israel, he's undermined them. He's undermined their bargaining position and he's caused a lot of distrust amongst the populace. I personally also think he's actually made peace more difficult by changing the reality and starting point of negotiations to a point that is untenable for both sides.

    "Self-flagellation" is evident in his speeches, his kowtowing (and his bowing), and his actions. For instance, he wears on his sleeve the embarrassment he feels for past US actions when he fails to support allies and tries to work with enemies (Syria, arguably until very recently, Iran during the Green Revolution). I think his desire to lead from behind is much a product of this.

    As to exceptionalism, I don't dismiss that numbers are a factor. But I think there are many factors that contribute to our exceptional position. But let's be careful not to overinflate the value of population. If such was the case, as you seem to say, then this world would be controlled by China and India, not the US. And how would you explain tiny Britain's one-time hegemony over most of the globe?

    Exceptionalism in my mind is a product of the fact that our system by and large is the best. Sure we're not perfect and we can do a lot of improving and, yes, other systems might have this or that attribute that is better. But that is part of the beauty of the American way, its flexibility, its desire to grow, learn and incorporate. I think our power and position is a reflection of this, not a definition of what makes us exceptional (its proof it you will). I think it is why we are so influential and so long lasting (certainly as modern regimes go).

    Now to be clear, I don't think we need to remain exceptional or at least alone in this regard (arguably we're not in many ways as much of the West has joined us - although that is a more nuanced argument) because I think others can adopt our system - much as we adopt the best of other systems. Maybe its more intellectually true to say that it is the "American way" not America that is exceptional, in my opinion. With the "American way" referring to a broader set of ideological, systemic, cultural, and institutional factors. But I do believe, frankly that there is a ultimate correctness - a universality if you will - to many of the principles that define the American system and way. [Again just to reiterate not yet perfected, but I do believe in progress and we will get there if we take the right steps - maybe, if you will, to become more exceptional.]


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