Shining_City_Upon_Hill_America

 

There has always existed the narrative that the United States had be blessed by providence and thus held a special role in the development of humanity. However, by accepting the notion of being exceptional, the American mind became burdened with the turmoil of deciding how to best serve their divine mission. The consequence of possessing such an indecisiveness, two simultaneous worldviews developed which resulted in an almost perpetual war for the soul of America. This has been catastrophic for world peace and security. In order to end this battle and thus enable a more peaceful existence, American Exceptionalism must be understood.

In order to understand the concept of Exceptionalism, this thesis will take an historical overview to its origin, meanings and repercussions of the duel-identities of America, this thesis will be separated into four sections. Firstly, the foundations of Americanism will be understood by examining how the US came to the realization of their uncommon destiny. Secondly, the predecessors of what would later create two distinct worldviews will be investigated. Thirdly, the two current brands of exceptionalism, Neoconservatism and the Old Right will be deconstructed. And finally, the current climate of American Exceptionalism will be examined to see if the United States is any closer in becoming the Shining City on the Hill.

What is Exceptionalism?

It was within the aftermath of the American Revolution that the existence of America came to be universally regarded as a watershed moment in human history. According to Seymour Lipset, this conclusion can only be reached when a comparative civilizational lens is used in contrasting the attributes of the Old World of Europe and the New World of Americanism[1].

As stated by G.K Chesterton, the US was the only nation to be founded on a creed. This faith espoused the ideas of liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism and capitalism. It was essentially a rejection of the norm found in Europe, such as Tory conservatism, statist communitarianism, mercantilism and noblesse oblige of the monarchical, state-church-formed cultures[2]. It was these values that was reflected in the foundations of the young nation, with the Founding Fathers deciding to embrace the republican system of check-and-balances, limited powers, separation-of-powers, decentralization, competition and the rule of law.[3] Furthermore, unlike the Old World, where the traditional source of authority came in the form of a monarch, the it was the Constitution that dictated the law of the land[4].

It was this uniqueness, in combination with the civilizational foundations of Christianity, that enabled the belief that the American Way of Life possessed messianic qualities. As asserted by Sanford Kessler, Tocqueville thought that Christianity was ultimately responsible for the revolution, as it upheld the principle that ‘all members of the human race are by nature equal and thus the American Revolution was divinely ordinated to establish democracy as the governing force in world affairs’[5]. This analysis resonates with Robert Bellah, who states that it was believed that by submitting to the Will of the Lord, the actions of the American civilization would ultimately be doing God’s Work[6]. I content that this mindset was steeped in biblical overtones, as it made Americans view their nation as the ‘New Israel’ and therefore themselves as the new ‘Chosen People’. This tendency became no more evident than during the Civil War, where biblical parallels were superimposed upon the Northern perspective: the war came to be viewed as necessary to attain redemption for indulging in the sin of enslavement, the fratricidal element was seen as following the steps of Cain and Abel and the death of President Lincoln was him being martyred for the restoration of the relationship between America and the Grand Architect[7]. I submit that this interpretation of events saw the American narrative transform from espousing Enlightenment ideals into a civil religion. The consequences of such a philosophic transformation will help explain the transformation of the nationalist American Republic into the global American Empire.

Interestingly the notion of American Exceptionalism has modern origins. It was stated in Marxist thought that the most industrialized capitalist economies would be the first to fall to socialism. However, unlike the Russian example, the United States proved itself to be the exception to the rule by refusing to collapse. Given the alleged undisputed logic of Karl Marx, the fact that the US was the embodiment of capitalism and showed no signs of a communist revolution, perplexed communists everywhere. However, it was concluded by the leader of the American Communist Party, Jay Lovestone, that due to the combination of a lack of radicalism and a political system that frustrated any third party from gaining momentum the traditional tactics of communism will not work. This was condemned as hearsay by the Kremlin and Lovestone was expelled[8].

The Two Faces of America

Although the ideology of Exceptionalism was instinctively felt among the hearts-and-minds of the American people, I argue that it was not until Americanism was put into practice that the division of the American worldview became apparent. In order to comprehend how this occurred, I have selected the Administrations of George Washington and Woodrow Wilson.

‘…Beware of Entangling Alliances…’ – George Washington[9]

The Presidency of George Washington was extremely important to the history of the American Republic, as it set the precedent for all future presidents. I would state that the decisions made by President Washington established exactly which brand of Exceptionalism was to be adopted and therefore how America should act upon the world stage.

It was soon after the birth of the American Republic that Washington found himself at yet another historical crossroads. It was Revolutionary France that found herself at war with Great Britain and sought the assistance of America. He was faced with the choice in participating within the geopolitical affairs of Europe or to seek neutrality. It was Thomas Jefferson who urged that America should assist France in their hour-of-need and thus repay them for helping America gain independence from Great Britain. This was countered by Alexander Hamilton, who warned that to side with France would open a Pandora’s Box and ultimately make America a satellite of France by entangling it with the further contests, broils and wars of Europe.[10] Unknown to Washington at the time, his decision would establish the definition of Americanism for centuries to come. It was the fear that was expressed by Hamilton that made Washington confirm his natural instinct to remain neutral. He essentially walked a centrist path between nationalism and internationalism, which advocated self-interest yet upheld the right of self-determination of others.[11] As he further explained during his Farewell Address, he did not seek an isolationist America, but an independent one. This could only be achieved by adhering to his warning against ‘entangling alliances’ and seeking ‘good faith and justice towards all nations…and to have as little political connection as possible’.[12] I would add, although Washington adopted non-interventionism, the Hamiltonian-Jeffersonian clash revealed that the twin destinies of America that are still being fought over today.

Another point-in-time that fortified the definition of Americanism was found in Independence Day speech of John Quincy Adams. As Secretary of State, he declared that since being admitted into the assembly of nations, America had consistently spoke the language of liberty, justice and equality and had always respected the independence of others while asserting and maintaining its own[13]. By choosing to abstain from interfering into the affairs of others, Adams essentially stated that America chosen to act as a beacon of inspiration and therefore had no ambition to go aboard searching for monsters to slay[14]. I contend by echoing the advice of Washington, Adams had fortified the idea that the Jeffersonian worldview would result in the United States becoming pulled into foreign wars and ultimately turn fall to the temptations of tyranny.

“The world must be made safe for democracy” – Woodrow Wilson[15]

Although the policy of non-interventionism had guided America for the first two hundred years, it was not until the rise of Woodrow Wilson that saw the US adopt a radicalized form of Jeffersonian-interventionism. It was Thomas Jefferson that envisioned America spearheading an international ‘Empire of Liberty’.[16] This idea was revealed by his urging an alliance with the Revolutionary France. By initially inferring the French Revolution as another example of humanity rebelling against the Old World, he saw Washington’s stance of neutrality to be a betrayal of American principles[17]. However, as France transformed into the Napoleonic Empire, Jefferson abandoned his idea for a worldly utopia and declared neutrality[18]. However, I argue that the idea of America adopting global imperialism had not died with Jefferson’s change of mind, but found new life President Woodrow Wilson’s brand of liberalism.

This argument finds agreement with Vibeke Schou Pedersen, who states In Search of Monsters to Destroy, that the alternative America was indicated when Wilson declared that the ideas that America espouse were not confined to a single nation, but were universal in nature. Therefore, America had the divine duty to spread its message across the world.[19] Interestingly, Pedersen points out that this type of Exceptionalism would lead to the nothingness of the United States. By recreating the world as a Pax Americana, the distinct characteristic will be no longer considered ‘American’ but ‘global’ and therefore America will virtually cease to exist.[20] By upholding such a worldview, Wilson gave the civil-religion of Americanism an evangelical-missionary quality, where the sacred mission was no longer to act as an inspiration to others to follow, but forcibility convert them into believing the American Dream. By entering and winning the Great War, Wilson later argued that in order to make the world safe for democracy, America had to abandon its national interests for global needs and thus embrace its providential destiny.[21] Although his ideas were persuasive, the US Congress retained its belief in realist republicanism and voted against such a prospect.

It was during the interwar period that saw the swansong of traditional Exceptionalism. With the memories of WWI fresh in the collective psyche, when Hitler ravaged Europe the majority of Americans saw fit to stay out of another European war. However, after the Battle of Britain began, FDR slowly moved towards the Wilsonian outlook. In response to this, the American First Movement was born. Its principles on national defense, that American democracy can be only be preserved by keeping out of the European war and aiding warring nations weakens national defense and threatens to involve America in war abroad.[22] However, once the Attack on Pearl Harbor occurred, any dispute about participation vanished.

By the end of the Cold War, having firmly consolidated itself as the undisputed champion of freedom and liberty, the US faced yet another historical crossroads: either return the its foundations or be seduced by the opportunity to create a world empire. It chose the ladder.

A House Divided

With the collapse of the godless Soviet Union, it was believed that America proved itself worthy of its divine mission and thus was allowed to reach the ‘End of History’.[23] By arriving to this conclusion, Wilsonian-liberalism was embraced by the entire political spectrum and any argument for non-interventionism was dismissed as reactionary.

“You Are Either with Us, or with the Terrorists” – George W. Bush[24]

 Although Neoconservatism is known as a variant form of conservatism within the Republican Party, it would be inaccurate to regard it as an outright Republican stance, as its origins can be found within the liberalism of the Democratic Party.

Although Neoconservatism had come to prominence during the George W. Bush Presidency, its roots can be traced back to the 1970s with the split within Liberalism. As Justin Vaisse explains, its origins can be traced back ‘The Vital Center’ doctrine of Arthur M. Schlesinger, who combined social liberalism and anticommunism, which functioned to offer a left-wing alternative to conservatism and international socialism.[25] In the fight against communism, this brand of liberalism supported the notion of possessing military superiority at all times.[26] It was this period that saw Middle America become disillusioned with liberalism and saw Richard Nixon ascend into the White House. This event saw the dual reaction that would eventually cause a split within liberalism itself: The Democratic Party moving increasingly to the left and rise of a new group of liberal intellectuals becoming formed.[27] It was not until the mid-1970s where these intellectuals moved rightward and supported the conservative movement which accumulated in abandoning their own President Carter for the Reagan Revolution. They quickly occupied key foreign policy posts and advocated winning the Cold War via military assertiveness and moral clarity as it would validate their worldview in the pages of history.[28]

With the collapse of the USSR and the declaration of the ‘End of History’, it appeared that that Neocon outlook had won the contest of ideas with President Bush Snr declaring the ‘Big Idea’ of an interconnected world based off the values of Americanism such as: liberal-capitalism, democracy, complex interdependence and security.[29] However, when Bill Clinton onto the political scene, the Neocons were initially pleased, due to viewing Bush as having been weak on Iraq. This was reflected by some helping draft speeches for Clinton, attacking President Bush for ‘coddling dictators’ and spoke greatly about universal human rights.[30] However, when Clinton entered the White House, they quickly became disillusioned when he did not use full force in Bosnia and in the Balkans. Such shades of national independence drove them to look for another administration to enact their idealism.[31] By taking their ideas of globalism forward, it was decided that democracy was not only to be supported everywhere but, via military interventionism, it must spread across the globe. The reason for this was the fundamental belief that realism allowed tyrannical regimes to exist, therefore America would indirectly sin by allowing their existence to continue.[32]

I would argue that the civil-religious aspect of American Exceptionalism became more pronounced after the 9/11 Terror Attack. With the perpetrators being religiously motivated, a ‘Clash of Civilizations’ dimension entered the equation of maintain world peace. The attacks acted as the flashpoint of the next ideological world war: A conflict that pitted the Christian-inspired global hegemon against the international threat of Islamic terrorism.[33] Furthermore, these attacks seemingly vindicated their criticism of isolationism, as dismissed the signs of a growing threat. I would submit that upon discovering its new raison d’etre of fighting the War on Terror, with the zeal of the recently converted, Neocon-America went to espouse its Exceptionalism with any form of dissent was condemned as being unpatriotic and thus heretical. With American now completely under the consensus of interventionism, in order to destroy the alternative worldview of Islamic terrorism, Vice-President Dick Chaney declared that “We have to work, though, on the dark side…” This saw the Bush Administration authorize constructing detention centers outside the US, where torture and other inhume interrogation techniques would be enforced and a policy of extreme rendition was also sought[34].

“…it is the constitutional position, it is the advice of the Founders to follow a non-interventionist foreign policy…”

– US Congressman Ron Paul, Republican Primary, 2007[35]

Although the Washington brand of Exceptionalism was driven underground for a period of time, it was still being advocated by those who were predominately considered to be on the paleoconservative branch of the Republican Party, with the two main advocates being former presidential contenders Pat Buchanan and Ron Paul.

It was Buchanan who reminded America of their traditional outlook during the times of the 1990s where he challenged both fellow Republican, President George Bush Snr and later President Clinton, during the Presidential Campaigns of 1992 and 1996. It was in his detailed book A Republic, Not an Empire that traced the history of US foreign policy. By doing so, it came obvious that the true face of American Exceptionalism was one that attempted to live up to its ideals of nationalism, republicanism and enlightenment-idealism through example. In representing the legacy of Washington, Buchanan condemned the Neocons as usurpers of the Republican Party and the American identity: He branded the Neoconservatives of the 1970s being advocates of Trotskyism that later matured during the Regan years.[36] I find agreement in this assertion given their universal outlook echoes the intentions of World Revolution. Furthermore, it appears that the Buchanan analysis vindicates the warnings of Hamilton, where he says that the Neocon Agenda seeks to ensnare the nation into a series of wars that are irrelevant to America’s national interest. However, the cries of Buchanan went unheeded and when his presidential aspirations came to a close, the mantle of the isolationism passed onto fellow Republican, Congressman Ron Paul.

It was during the 2007 Republican presidential primaries debate that Ron Paul not only reasserted the criticisms and stances of Pat Buchanan, but inserted the element of the Jeremiad into national conversation. The Texas Congressman, echoing the redemptive story of Christianity, preached that America had been seduced by the prospect of world empire and began to interfere into the internal affairs of others. This was eventually met with the punishment of blowback, which resulted in frequent geopolitical failures, increased anger and resentment towards America. Therefore, only by returning to adhering to the council of the nation’s Founders and return to being a non-interventionist republic that America can redeem itself from the sin of lusting after world empire. According to Jason Edwards, this worldview was essentially the position of internal nation-building and seeking the impossible feat of achieving an ever-perfect union. Although, perfection cannot be attained in this moral world, despite the objections of the utopian advocates of Wilsonian-liberalism, the United States can once again fulfill its true role being exceptional and lead the world by representing the potentiality of Man.[37]

Another 2008 presidential candidate that also spoke of another America was Senator Barrack Obama. According to Phillip Gorski, the brand of Exceptionalism does find agreement with the traditionalist mindset, such as the Revolutionary War as a struggle for a political freedom, the founding documents were imperfect given that slavery was allowed to exist[38]. It was during Democratic primaries, like Ron Paul, he managed to distance himself from the conventional approach of supporting the Neocon agenda by indicating a return to isolationist policies such as withdrawing from Iraq, investing into military spending in order to uphold the notion of ‘strength through peace’, spearheading an international effort to destroy all weapons of mass destruction and that championing the self-determination of all nations.[39] However, this proved to be inaccurate as Obama had even admitted that his worldview was predominately of the tradition of the bipartisan outlook of Bush I, Kennedy and Reagan[40]. I would submit that this was essentially 21st Century Wilsonianism, and explained that his legacy was to at the very least contain the American Empire rather than deconstruct it. The neoliberal Obama Presidency basically represented the continuation of the Neocon Bush Doctrine. This saw this expansion of the War on Terror, which resulted in supporting the concept of regime change and the assassination of Libya’s leader Muammar Gaddafi. This also saw.[41]

“Make America Great Again” – Donald Trump[42]

The status of American Exceptionalism today appears to be slowly returning to the Washingtonian definition.  With the election of Donald Trump, Buchanan-Paul worldview, that America has indeed overextended itself and must return back to its nationalist foundations, seems to be in a position of power. Furthermore, as indicated by his Presidential campaign slogan ‘Make America Great Again’ he had shadowed Ron Paul’s Jeremiad argument. By claiming that America needs restoration, I would surmise that the US has been punished by the burdens of empire and thus must readopt its republican ethos.

In regard to the concept of Exceptionalism itself, Trump has been very public in condemning the very term, stating that it immediately insinuates the America is better than other countries and thus creates insult and resentment within the minds of others.[43] Furthermore, he has gone so far to state that even if America was exceptional, the American Dream has been dead for many years, and was killed by the unofficial neocon-neoliberal alliance.[44] It appears that Trumpism, by putting ‘America First’ can make America exceptional once again. This will be achieved by adopting the abovementioned principles of the America First Movement. The political manifestation of these ideas has come in the form of an agenda that recalled the advice of the Founders: Hamiltonian economics, returning to the realist foreign policy of national alliances and thus a halt the US from upholding the current liberal world order[45].

Conclusion

In conclusion, the American Exceptionalism concept has constantly plagued America. It appears that the two worldviews have battle for the soul of the nation, with each side attaining a temporary victory of the other. Although the brand of Americanism that seeks to impose itself across the world has succeeded in replacing the isolationist consensus, it appears that the momentum has swung back to the Founders worldview. Given the unintended consequences that results from attempting to achieve the Jeffersonian utopia, I argue that a return to the nationalism of Washington would pacify geopolitical tensions and thus achieve a relative amount of world peace.

 

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[1] Seymour Martin Lipset, “American Exceptionalism Reaffirmed,” in Is America Different? A New Look at American Exceptionalism, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991), 1.

[2] Seymour Martin Lipset, American Exceptionalism, Norton & Company, (United States, 1996), 31.

[3] Seymour Martin Lipset, “American Exceptionalism Reaffirmed,” in Is America Different? A New Look at American Exceptionalism, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991), 8.

[4] Seymour Martin Lipset, American Exceptionalism, Norton & Company, (United States, 1996), 39.

[5] Stefan Kessler, “Tocqueville on Civil Religion and Liberal Democracy”, The Journal of Politics, Vol. 39, No. 1, (1977) 128.

[6] Robert Bellah, “Civil Religion in America,” Robert Bellah Archives, http://www.robertbellah.com/articles_5.htm,

[7] Robert Bellah, “Civil Religion in America,” Robert Bellah Archives, http://www.robertbellah.com/articles_5.htm, p. 7

[8] Seymour Martin Lipset, “American Exceptionalism Reaffirmed,” in Is America Different? A New Look at American Exceptionalism, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991), 2-3.

[9] John Avlon, Washington’s Farewell, Simon & Schuster (United States, 2017) .

[10] John Avlon, Washington’s Farewell, Simon & Schuster (United States, 2017) 191.

[11] John Avlon, Washington’s Farewell, Simon & Schuster (United States, 2017) 195.

[12] John Avlon, Washington’s Farewell, Simon & Schuster (United States, 2017) 184.

[13] John Quincy Adams, “She Goes Not Abroad in Search of Monsters to Destroy,” The American Conservative, Last Modified July 4 2017, http://www.theamericanconservative.com/repository/she-goes-not-abroad-in-search-of-monsters-to-destroy/

[14] John Quincy Adams, “She Goes Not Abroad in Search of Monsters to Destroy,” The American Conservative, Last Modified July 4 2017, http://www.theamericanconservative.com/repository/she-goes-not-abroad-in-search-of-monsters-to-destroy/

[15] Peter Kuznick, The Untold History of the United States, Gallery Books, (United States, 2012) 7.

[16] Richard Immerman, Empire for Liberty, Princeton University (United Kingdom, 2010) 5.

[17] Patrick Buchanan, A Republic, Not an Empire, Regnery Publishing Inc., (United States, 1999).

[18] Patrick Buchanan, A Republic, Not an Empire, Regnery Publishing Inc., (United States, 1999).

[19] Vibeke Schou Pedersen, “In Search of Monsters to Destroy? The Liberal American Security Paradox and a Republican Way Out”, International Relations 17, no. 2: 219.

[20] Vibeke Schou Pedersen, “In Search of Monsters to Destroy? The Liberal American Security Paradox and a Republican Way Out”, International Relations 17, no. 2: 220.

[21] Peter Kuznick, The Untold History of the United States, Gallery Books, (United States, 2012) 7.

[22] Patrick Buchanan, A Republic, Not an Empire, Regnery Publishing Inc., (United States, 1999) 271.

[23] Francis Fukuyama, End of History and the Last Man, (Free Press, 2006).

[24] George W. Bush, Address Before a Joint Session of the Congress on the United States Response to the Terrorist Attacks of September 11, The American Presidency Project (Online) http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/youtubeclip.php?clipid=64731&admin=43

[25] Justin Vaisse, Neoconservatism, Harvard University Press, (United d Kingdom,2010) 7.

[26] Justin Vaisse, Neoconservatism, Harvard University Press, (United d Kingdom,2010) 12.

[27] John Ehrman, The Rise of Neoconservatism, Yale University Press, (United States, 1995) 33.

[28] Justin Vaisse, Neoconservatism, Harvard University Press, (United d Kingdom,2010) 188.

[29] George H. W. Bush, President George H. W. Bush’s Address on the Invasion of Kuwait September 11 1990, Miller Center of Public Affairs, University of Virginia (Online/YouTube) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7iUX3yP9M8g

[30] Justin Vaisse, Neoconservatism, Harvard University Press, (United d Kingdom,2010) 233.

[31] Justin Vaisse, Neoconservatism, Harvard University Press, (United d Kingdom,2010) 232.

[32] Justin Vaisse, Neoconservatism, Harvard University Press, (United d Kingdom,2010) 224.

[33] Justin Vaisse, Neoconservatism, Harvard University Press, (United d Kingdom,2010) 239.

[34] Peter Kuznick, The Untold History of the United States, Gallery Books, (United States, 2012) 504.

[35] Ron Paul, Ron Paul Courageously Speaks the Truth, Republican Presidential Candidates Debate, Cover Centre (Online/YouTube) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G7d_e9lrcZ8

[36] Pat Buchanan, The Old Right and the Future of Conservatism, buchanan.org, achieved antiwar.com, viewed 3 October 2017 https://web.archive.org/web/20081008152357/http://www.buchanan.org/pa-00-0225-raimondo.html

[37] Jason A. Edwards, “Debating America’s Role in the World: Representative Ron Paul’s Exceptionalist Jeremiad.” American Behavioral Scientist 53, (2011) 256.

[38] Philip S. Gorski & William McMillan (2012) Barack Obama and American Exceptionalism, The Review of Faith & International Affairs, vol.10, no.2, 46.

[39] Ian Beier, A Critical Perspective on Barack Obama’s Foreign Policy during the 2008 Presidential Election (University of Nevada, 2010).

[40] Peter Kuznick, The Untold History of the United States, Gallery Books, (United States, 2012) 566.

[41] Peter Kuznick, The Untold History of the United States, Gallery Books, (United States, 2012) 600.

[42] Charlie Laderman, Donald Trump: The Making of a Worldview, (United States, 2017) 87.

[43] Donald Trump, Trump say he doesn’t believe in “American exceptionalism, (Online/YouTube) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=72wM6cqPS-c

[44] Donald Trump, Trump American Exceptionalism, (Online/YouTube) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kRgEaJ7dbQw

[45] Charlie Laderman, Donald Trump: The Making of a Worldview, (United States, 2017) 7-10.

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