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Saturday, February 5, 2011

Two Views of American Exceptionalism

Harvard professor Harvey Mansfield writes in The Wall Street Journal:

Tocqueville thought America to be singular quite apart from the favorable circumstances permitting it to grow and flourish on its own without much interference from Europe. In the introduction to his book, he said he saw in America "more than America . . . an image of democracy itself." Special to America was not only that it believed in democracy and practiced it as best it could, as if straining to fulfill the demands of a theory of democracy. Rather, the theory or the "image" was shown in the practice of democracy, because America was democracy complete and as a whole, the material and source of its image.

In speaking of democracy in America—the title of his book—Tocqueville confirmed and went beyond what Alexander Hamilton said on the first page of the Federalist by way of explaining American Exceptionalism. Hamilton wrote that America was deciding by its conduct and example the question of whether good government could be thoughtfully chosen or was just a matter of chance. America was special because it would answer a theoretical question never before answered, not by thinking up a new theory but by means of its own practice. Tocqueville agreed and then actually found the new theory in its practice. His book on America told the rest of the civilized world what to expect in its future, as America was unique in displaying a complete democracy. It was not unique in being superior to all other peoples for all time, as implied in the boastful, irritable American patriotism Tocque ville found so objectionable.

In The Nation, Greg Grandin writes:

In the hands of Palin, Beck, et al., American Exceptionalism boils down to little more than a synonym for the tautology “we are powerful because we are God-blessed; we are God-blessed because we are powerful.” Yet sweep away the congratulatory cant about a “city on a hill” and “light unto the world” and you will find two fundamentals that do in fact underwrite US uniqueness: a stronger stress on individual rights, particularly property rights, than that found in other democracies (particularly social democracies), balanced against an equally strong commitment to anti-populism, meant to diffuse the passions generated by a too extreme pursuit of individualism. I’m sure those familiar with other areas of US foreign policy can point to other examples, but I’ve found repeated instances, running from the American Revolution through the cold war, where US political elites defined their brand of sober republicanism against what they labeled an irresponsible variety in Latin America, which not only trespassed against private property in the name of social justice but whipped up a crowd to do so.