“I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”
When Barack Obama said this in 2009, a lot of conservatives—me included—rolled up our sleeves and got our whacking sticks.
Now, there’s a legitimate argument that we were unfair to Obama if you read his quote in full. But that’s beside the point. It’s also true, as I’ve argued countless times, that this whole framing of “American exceptionalism”—starting with the question from Ed Luce—was misguided. American exceptionalism in its original meaning never referred to American foreign policy leadership or the idea that America was better than everyone else, as Luce implied. The word “exceptional” has come to mean “superior”—“exceptional students,” “exceptional rice pudding,” etc. But the obvious core meaning of the word is different—an exception to the norm. In a Seinfeldian way, you could call someone’s very ugly baby “exceptional” and the parents would take it as a compliment even if you meant something different. Going back to Alexis de Tocqueville or the German political scientist Werner Sombart or even the Communist Jay Lovestone, the idea behind the term was that America was just different from other advanced nations. We were more religious, more violent, more skeptical of government, more bourgeois, and less class-obsessed than our European counterparts. That last bit—not being obsessed with class—was seen as central by many theorists. The legacy of centuries of feudalism made socialism much more attractive to Europeans, while Americans (the white ones at least) descended from people who wanted a fresh start in the New World.
But again, that’s all beside the point, or at least beside my point. Even if American conservatives were being unfair to Obama, they were nonetheless expressing a view of America as different to—and, yes, in their telling, better than—Europe. Not everyone argued that we’re better according to some objective metric (though many did); some merely noted that we’re better by subjective metrics. In America we do things our way, and we like it better than the way they do things over there.
I think the reason so many of us flew off the handle was that Obama seemed to be confirming an idea that had already jelled in the conservative mind: that Obama’s version of progressivism treated America and American culture as a kind of problem to be fixed by policy (remember all that “bitter clingers” stuff?). In Europe—and China according to Tom Friedman—political elites were more enlightened and sophisticated and imposed optimal policies from above, in both foreign and domestic policy. This is a very old idea—I’ll get to that in a moment—but it had new salience under Obama.
Indeed, a month before Obama’s remarks, Mark Steyn had written a cover story for National Review titled “Prime Minister Obama,” which asked, “Will European statism supplant the American Way?” One could argue—and many did—that the American right was suffering from a severe case of “Europhobia.” Some of it built on Robert Kagan’s 2003 book, Of Paradise and Power, in which he famously proclaimed that “Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus.” But Kagan’s (excellent) book was simply the latest in a very long tradition of American conservatives believing that America was what put the “new” in the New World.
Which brings me to this very old idea.
I don’t think it’s remotely controversial to say that America was founded on a kind of anti-Europeanism. Yes, yes, the Brits—or at least many of them—insist they are not part of Europe, but from early American eyes Britain was definitely part of the Old World. This wasn’t an explicitly conservative thing in the 18th or most of the 19th century. “I know nothing so charming as our own country,” Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1788. “The learned say it is a new creation; and I believe them; not for their reasons, but because it is made on an improved plan. Europe is a first idea, a crude production, before the maker knew his trade, or had made up his mind as to what he wanted.” The hostility to “entangling alliances,” Jefferson’s term, was built not just on foreign policy realpolitik but also on the deeper assumption that we have a good thing going here and the last thing we need to do is import Europe’s mess to our shores.
At the end of the 19th century, this general consensus started to change. A whole generation of American intellectuals and academics were heavily influenced by German thought and many were trained in German universities. Otto von Bismarck’s “top-down socialism” inspired the fledgling crop of American political scientists, a new academic discipline at the turn of the century. Bismarck’s approach, according to liberal historian Eric Goldman, became “a catalytic of American progressive thought.” A young Woodrow Wilson wrote that Bismarck’s Prussia was the most “admirable system … the most studied and most nearly perfected” in the world. When the American Economic Association was formed, five of the first six officers had studied in Germany. At least 20 of its first 26 presidents had as well. In 1906, a professor at Yale polled the top 116 economists and social scientists in America—more than half had studied in Germany for at least a year.
Longtime readers know where I’m going from here. American progressives believed that their ideas transcended national boundaries. Progressivism was a global movement. “We were parts, one of another, in the United States and Europe,” proclaimed progressive journalist William Allen White. “Something was welding us into one social and economic whole with local political variations. It was Stubbs in Kansas, Jaurès in Paris, the Social Democrats in Germany, the Socialists in Belgium, and I should say the whole people in Holland, fighting a common cause.” When Jane Addams seconded Teddy Roosevelt’s nomination at the Progressive National Convention in 1912, she declared, “The new party has become the American exponent of a world-wide movement toward juster social conditions, a movement which the United States, lagging behind other great nations, has been unaccountably slow to embody in political action.”
Fast forward to the 1930s, and you have intellectuals of the left treating all sorts of Marxist, socialist, and progressive movements like one giant philosophical smorgasbord. Many American liberals—the new term for progressives after they ruined that brand—looked to Russia, Italy, and even in some cases Germany for policy inspiration. Rexford Tugwell, a prominent member of FDR’s Brain Trust, described Italian fascism as “the cleanest, neatest, most efficiently operating piece of social machinery I’ve ever seen. It makes me envious.” “We are trying out the economics of Fascism without having suffered all its social or political ravages,” declared New Republic editor George Soule. Throughout the preceding decade, The New Republic, under its founder Herbert Croly, ran numerous articles extolling Mussolini’s “experiment.” Charles Beard, arguably the most important progressive economist of the era, said that Mussolini’s Italy was consistent with the “American gospel of action, action, action.” Beard also warned against being too fastidious about the harshness of Mussolini’s tactics:
It would be a mistake to allow feeling aroused by contemplating the harsh deeds and extravagant assertions that have accompanied the Fascist process (as all other immense historical changes) to obscure the potentialities and the lessons of the adventure—no, not adventure, but destiny riding without any saddle and bridle across the historic peninsula that bridges the world of antiquity and our modern world.
Of course, the Soviet Union loomed larger in the imagination and admiration of many on the left. But that’s a more familiar tale, at least to people with a minimal understanding of American history (I dwelled on the fascism stuff only because I’ve heard so many dumb things being said of Italian fascism in the last couple days that I thought it was worth offering this corrective.) Suffice it to say that the Soviet Union was a source of immense inspiration for American progressives even before Lincoln Steffens returned from Russia in 1919 and declared, “I’ve seen the future and it works!” And long after New Deal intellectual Stuart Chase asked, “Why should Russians have all the fun of remaking a world?”
During the Cold War, the anti-European sentiment was subsumed and transformed into anti-communism. But you can see as many points of continuity as of change. America added “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance to highlight our differences with foreign, atheistic communism. The fight against the Red Menace was framed as a battle to protect the “American way of life,” which is just a more folksy way of saying “American exceptionalism.” And for good and ill, modern American conservatism—and the conservative project more broadly—was born of this idea. To one extent or another, it informed nearly every ideological and political fight between the right and left for more than a century, on domestic and foreign policy.
All of the highfalutin culture war arguments going back to the 1960s revolved around left-wing intellectuals regurgitating left-wing philosophers and academics from Europe. If you’ve ever heard right-wingers—including me—complain about Frankfurt School Marxists or “cultural Marxism,” you know what I’m talking about. The one thing conservative intellectuals spoke in nearly one voice about was that the whole crop of existentialists, postmodernists, structuralists, hermeneuticists, Marxists, and critical theorists were either foreigners or worshippers of foreign ideas that had no place in the American way of politics. Yes, we looked to some foreigners, too. Most were British or Scottish, but there was the occasional Frenchman or Austrian. But Montesquieu and Hayek, for instance, were part of our pantheon precisely because they leant heft to the vision of the Founders. And in America, to be a conservative meant conserving the broad tradition of the American enlightenment, which was a continuation of, and improvement upon, the English, French, and Scottish enlightenments.
American nationalism, until very recently, was a leftish idea. FDR was a nationalist. The American nationalist movement was a populist-socialist movement (as I explained here). Even isolationism, an idea that many claim (incorrectly in my view) is a core conservative tenet, was really a fight over American exceptionalism. Right-wing isolationists argued that America was a shining city on a hill that shouldn’t get dragged into foreign muck. Right-wing interventionists argued that America was a shining city on a hill and the only way to protect it was to engage the enemy (Huns, commies, jihadis, whomever) over there so we don’t have to fight them here. Left-wing isolationists typically started from the premise that we’re no better than these other countries—or that we’re worse—so we have no right to impose our will or system on anybody.
So why the long history lesson? Because all of a sudden, this whole idea is under assault by people claiming to represent authentic conservatism. I confess to being partly motivated by personal pique. I’m constantly told I’ve changed my positions because of my irrational Trump hatred. But I still believe in American exceptionalism in both the rah-rah and the analytical sense (unlike Trump, who champions American nationalism, but not American exceptionalism). And I really can’t emphasize this enough: Virtually every conservative of any prominence or influence from, I dunno, 1960 to 2015 felt pretty much the same way. I didn’t leave conservatism, self-described conservatives left me.
No, not all of them. Since I’m running long, I’ll spare you all the ways that national conservatives sound like the German historicists who influenced American progressives a century ago, or how all of their Dwight Schrute-like lectern pounding about industrial policy and bringing independent institutions to heel sounds very much in the mold of corporatism—the economic doctrine of fascism. I’ll also forgo recounting all the name-checking of Marcuse or mentioning the cult of Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, which seems to occupy the headspace for many on the right that Russia and Italy did in the ‘20s and ‘30s or Cuba or Sweden did in the post-war era. I do wonder if anyone has come back from one of these Hungarian junkets and declared, “I’ve been to the past—and it works!” Not surprisingly, Steve Bannon—who has described himself as a “Leninist”—is a fan of self-proclaimed “superfascist” Julius Evola. Compact magazine is running pieces in praise of critical theory, because of course they are. And let’s take pass on dwelling on the sick and twisted boosterism of Vladimir Putin, who has convinced some on the right that he’s one of “us” because he hates America or gays or NATO as much as “we” do. But I will say, you knew the GOP was taking a strange turn when people started wearing T-shirts that said, “I’d rather be a Russian than a Democrat.”
Gladden Pippin has an interesting interview—conducted in Hungary, of course—with a “post-liberal” conservative Italian comrade who explains that “our conservatism has two pillars. One is the Roman Empire: our conservatism was born with the idea of the mos maiorum of the Roman Empire. And in the second respect, our conservatism was born with the idea of the Catholic Church.” Again, interesting stuff, but I think everyone can agree that’s useful information for constructing Italian exceptionalism, not American exceptionalism.
But since we’re on the subject of Italy, let’s talk about the reaction to the election of Giorgia Meloni, who has roots in some neo-fascist parties. For now, I’m not joining the liberal freakout over her election for a host of reasons we can surely discuss another time. I’ve just heard too many people on MSNBC discuss Mussolini’s fascism—which was very bad—as if it was indistinguishable from Hitler’s Nazism to join that riot of ignorance. Meloni has said things I don’t like and things I agree with. She has troubling associations and reassuring ones. But a Europhilic member of the Aspen Institute who only got 1 in 4 votes in the election and who supports aiding Ukraine, doesn’t exactly scream, “Let’s invade Ethiopia!” to me.
My objection here is simply that the cheering is a sharp break with conservatism as we knew it. I highly doubt all of the people gushing about Meloni’s victory know very much about her, and I’m sure they have even less of an idea of what she’ll actually do. I suspect nearly all that these Republican politicians and Twitter radicals know can be boiled down to a few flimsy facts. She gave a clever speech, she calls herself a conservative, and liberals are freaking out that someone with ominous-sounding ties to fascism has won an election. In short, like so much in right-wing land these days, she’s a hero because the people who hate her are villains. And in us-vs-them world, that’s enough.
For instance, here’s Kevin Roberts, the president of the Heritage Foundation.
There’s so much I could say about this. But I’ll be brief. For starters, the Heritage Foundation is, by any sane reckoning, an elite institution and it admits as much to donors. Second, this us-vs.-them framing implies that the “everyday people” of Italy have more in common with the “everyday people” of America, which is 31 flavors of nonsense for all sorts of reasons, not least that Italians aren’t Americans. Conservatives used to understand that the old Marxist idea that members of the working class were united against the ruling class regardless of nationality—“Workers of the world unite!”—was folly. But now, “Everyday people of the world unite!” is the rallying cry of a leading conservative think tank?
Now, I can’t put “conservative” in scare quotes the way I’d like to, because I think Heritage can still claim to be conservative. But let’s have no illusions: It’s not the same kind of conservative it used to be. Heritage used to champion American exceptionalism with gusto. As Heritage co-founder and longtime president Ed Feulner put it, “And while, in the heat of political battle, we naturally focus on the differences between liberals and conservatives, and their contrasting visions of our country’s future, it is important to remember that regardless of party or political philosophy, we are Americans, we love our country — and we are patriots.” In 2019, Heritage even founded the Feulner Institute for American Exceptionalism, which seems to have had as much impact as the Goldberg Institute for Healthy Living—neither organization even has a website.
If these populist, corporatist, nationalist, ultramontane, oh-so-European ideas succeed in replacing conservatism as we once knew it, they will be called conservatism. But as Friedrich Hayek argued, this conservatism will be “Old World conservatism,” because the conservative in America is necessarily a defender of the liberal tradition of the founding.
In 1996, Patrick Buchanan was read out of conservatism by Heritage, the American Conservative Union, and other institutions because he represented European conservatism. As David Keene, the then head of the American Conservative Union (which runs CPAC) said, Buchanan is “articulating policies that are more reminiscent of European than American conservatism, who is challenging many of the economic foundations of the conservative movement and philosophy and who, therefore, is a disquieting figure to many traditional conservatives.” Ed Feulner was more succinct: “What he’s been saying is goofy. Huey Long is not one of us.”
At the National Conservative conference, which was in part a Buchananist revival meeting, Kevin Roberts reportedly said, “I come not to invite national conservatives to join our conservative movement, but to acknowledge the plain truth that Heritage is already part of yours.”
Don’t tell me I’m the one who’s changed.