American Exceptionalism Revisited
Tibor R. Machan
A fairly prominent perception across the globe is that America has had certain exceptional features. While these are mixed in with various traditional ones, they still manage — or have managed — to make the country unusual in human history. The American revolution, for example, is widely taken to have undermined a central element of the ancient regime, namely, top down government. Instead of the government being sovereign — in charge of the realm — it was to be individual citizens who assumed the right of self-government. Indeed, that is what marks the difference between subjects and citizens.
As with other elements of public affairs, the switch from the ancient to the modern regime had not been complete. America became a mixed system, economically and otherwise. For example, while serfdom was pretty much abolished, so that no involuntary servitude was legally permitted in the country, taxation, the confiscation or extortion of resources from the citizenry, persisted throughout the country. So, to a significant extent citizens remained subjects, at least as far as their work and resources are concerned. If one works, one’s earnings aren’t deemed to be one’s private property to belong, in large measure, to society (to be used by the government as it sees fit). Changes as radical as what the American Revolution involved, at least as spelled out in the Declaration of Independence, are easier to announce than to implement. The country, accordingly, is still a mixed system in which top down government persists, never mind that the revolutionary rhetoric flatly contradicts that idea.
With America’s relatively open borders and immigration policies, and with the minimal requirement that new citizens swear allegiance to the Constitution (something very easily faked and betrayed), the citizenry never was sufficiently loyal to the original revolutionary ideas. Many became Americans only nominally, “in name” only. (For example, the bulk of the academy where I have done most of my work for the last forty five years is outright hostile to the spirit and letter of America’s exceptional political philosophy! Indeed, it tends to make use of both First Amendment rights and academic freedom primarily to undermine, even ridicule what makes the country exceptional!)
The only way that the exceptional tradition could be preserved and enhanced is by means of popular loyalty. Yet because education is conducted mainly by intellectuals who aren’t fond of the exceptional elements of the country and are, in fact, part of a system that is alien to them — forced education, forced funding of education, tenure at taxpayers’ expense, monopolistic decisions about textbooks, etc., etc. — there is hardly any resistance to the efforts of educators/intellectuals to return the country to the ideas of the ancient regime. So statism is now the status quote in America.
Unless this is changed, unless the original ideas so well summarized in the Declaration of Independence are revived and expanded, America will lose its distinctiveness and embrace the idea that government is the ruler of the realm, not the citizenry. It would have to end that way but the likelihood is considerable. Nor need it be a permanent regression but if permitted, it will take centuries to resume the developments of which American exceptionalism is a central feature. Indeed, the one thing that is a silver lining to all this is that many people across the globe have actually learned quite well the lesson taught by America’s recent history. Unless eternal vigilance is indeed maintained in support of human liberty, it will be lost.
What is the major obstacle to advancing the American political tradition? It is the idea that “we are all in it together.” Communalism or tribalism or modern socialism are put in juxtaposition to the idea of a fully free, individualist, capitalist or libertarian society. Individuals are seen in these as cell in the larger body of society, entirely subservient to the whole. Society or humanity is seen, as Karl Marx put it, “an organic whole (or body).” Individuals must be made to fall in line with the society, which means with the often self-anointed leaders of a country who make use of the collectivist vision for the sake of realizing their personal vision, something they find very appealing even while the citizenry is ambivalent about it.