Why American Exceptionalism Is Different From Other Countries’ ‘Nationalisms’

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Mobs are toppling statues of American heroes. America and America’s past are on trial. People are protesting and rioting over the very ideas of what America stands for.

The future of the country depends on what Americans do next.

It depends on how Americans answer some direct, but not so simple, questions: Who are we as Americans? What does it mean to be American?

The Meaning of the American Founding

To answer these questions, we have to start with the American founding. It gave America its ethos, its characteristic spirit and culture.

The American ethos has a firm philosophical foundation. It comprises a set of philosophical ideas on which the American Founders relied to create the system of government that we enjoy to this day.

The Founders had a very distinct idea of the moral order. They believed that morality and government should be in accordance with what they called “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” Natural law is universal and thus morally binding on all mankind.

Since natural law was universal, to go against it was to go against human nature itself. The purpose or “end state” of nature was what the Founders broadly understood as happiness, and in order to be truly happy, one had to be good. Happiness was understood as living a virtuous life.

Washington, Adams, and other Founders said repeatedly that freedom could not be enjoyed without virtue. Without it, one would get nothing but tyranny based on power and selfishness. Governments must be instituted to protect the natural rights and liberties of their people.

This is where the idea of limited government comes from. Governments must be limited, and their powers constitutionally enumerated, as they are in the Constitution, to protect liberties and rights.

That’s why the Founders used checks and balances in government—to stave off tyranny.

Also key is the American idea of equality before the law. They did not think about social equality as we often do today, where everyone is supposed to be equal in income and in social status. The Founders assumed that individuals had different talents and opportunities, and wanted to ensure that, to the extent possible, the law treated everyone equally.

What, Then, Is American Exceptionalism?

That brings me to the idea of American exceptionalism, which is, I believe, the answer to the question of what America’s national identity is and should remain.

It’s grounded in America’s founding principles: natural law, liberty, limited government, individual rights, the checks and balances of government, popular sovereignty, the civilizing role of religion in society, and the crucial role of civil society and civil institutions in grounding and mediating our democracy and our freedom.

We as Americans believe these principles are right and true for all peoples, not just for us.

But if the principles are universal, how are Americans different? How are we exceptional?

We believe that Americans are different because our creed is both universal and exceptional at the same time. We are exceptional in the unique way we apply these universal principles.

There is no other country in the world that embodied the blend of classical philosophy, Christianity, and even Enlightenment ideas in the unique way America did in the founding of the republic from 1776 to 1789. It was an exceptional (meaning uncommon) mix of liberty, limited government, natural rights, and religious liberty that made the American founding unique.

America is the only country in the world that derives its legitimacy from natural rights and natural law.

I really do not mean “exceptional” in a normative sense, but in a descriptive sense, of what was different and unique.

Some people doubt the importance of the American creed in defining America. Wanting to make America fit into the larger narrative of nationalism, a celebration of the nation and the nation-state as a general matter, they downplay the creed as mere words, supposedly not strong enough to carry the patriotic history of the American nation.

If the creed does not matter to Americans, what, then, is so special about America, really?

Is it our ethnicity? Well, that does not work, because there is no such thing as a common American ethnicity. Even in the beginning, Americans were a mixture of English, Scots-Irish, Highland Scot, German, African, Native American, French, Dutch, and other ethnicities.

Is it a specific religion? We are indeed a religious country, but no, we have freedom of religion, not one official religion. 

Is it our culture? Yes, but how does one understand American culture without the American creed and the founding principles?

To understand what makes America unique, just look at the immigrant experience. People from all over the world come here and become Americans not just by learning English, or by buying land, but by living the American creed and the American dream. By adopting our history.

Another benefit of American exceptionalism is that it’s self-correcting. When we fail to live up to our ideals, as we did with slavery before the Civil War, and during the era of Jim Crow, we can appeal as Lincoln did to our “better nature” to correct our flaws.

There is no American identity without the American creed. But the creed is more than a set of abstract ideas. It’s shared cultural experience, based on living out the creed, across space and historical time in a specific place called America.

Is American Exceptionalism a Form of Nationalism?

There is a push afoot to ground American conservatism in the concept of “Nationalism”—with a capital N.

It implies that as a “nation,” America is just like any other nation. There is nothing particularly exceptional about America because, in this way of thinking, America derives its legitimacy not from the people or from its form of government, but from that the fact that it’s a mere nation like any other.

The whole point of American exceptionalism is to provide moral and political legitimacy to the very idea of “America First”—to keep the moral legitimacy of the specialness that the nationalists hope to claim, without all the terrible historical baggage of the idea.

The problem is that adopting the mantle of Nationalism would weaken America’s claim to being an exceptional nation. It would make us just a nation like any other. But most importantly, it would undermine our claim to belonging to a nation that is grounded in principles that are universal—that is, true not just for Americans, but for all human beings.

American exceptionalism is built on our founding principles, not cultural and ethnic differences. Americans recognize their varied ethnic and cultural origins, but come together as Americans.

Nationalism is often defined by a sole cultural or ethnic reference, regardless of the form of government. The democratic nation-state, on the other hand, grounds its legitimacy and its sovereignty in democratic governance, and in the American experience, in a government that reflects the principles of natural law.

The American founding was grounded in natural law, not in the idea of the nation-state.

It’s not language, ethnicity, or even ideology that makes us great and good. It’s our creed and how we have woven it into our culture, way of life, and our form of government.

The Two-Front War on America

As powerful as this idea of America is, it’s under threat from two very different directions—the progressive left and certain circles of the New Right.

The left has been making war on America for decades. It’s the familiar charge that America is irredeemably tainted by racism and that our Founding Fathers were slave-owning hypocrites. Our written Constitution is outdated and needs to be “living,” which means its text and original intent cannot only be ignored, but intentionally overthrown. Natural rights have been replaced by the group rights of gender and other identity groups. The left is culturally Marxist and socialist in its economics.

The philosophical ideas behind this war on America are these: (1) Natural law is a myth—there are no fixed truths (relativism); (2) rights are not fixed by natural law but invented and change over time, defined as seeking ever new forms of individual expression based on appetites, desires, and preferences; (3) history is progressive, always marching toward some undefined goal of ever greater personal liberation (historicism); and, finally, (4) individual freedom is a radical undertaking, completely devoid of personal responsibility and the founding notion of virtue, and always focused on personal pleasures, needs, desires, and experiences.

Meanwhile, on the right, there’s a movement that is questioning and even rejecting the very notion of the American founding. And some of its ideas—especially the outright rejection of liberty and the principle of freedom—are finding their way into the “new Nationalism” of conservatism.

Robert Reilly refers to this as the “poison pill” thesis of the American founding. The American founding was doomed from the very beginning because the Founders, under the nefarious influence of John Locke, imported the poison pill of liberalism (liberty) into our founding documents and our mindset. Over time, this original idea of liberty morphed into the progressive liberalism of today. The evil philosophers are Locke and his ilk from the Enlightenment.

But the history is all wrong. The Founders borrowed from Locke’s ideas of rights. They had little or no interest in his theories of knowledge that so bother some conservatives today. The New Right is reading its particular interpretation of Locke back into history and erroneously applying it to Founders like Madison and Jefferson.

This is worse than just bad history—making up something that did not happen.

It’s precisely the mistake made by all historical revisionists. It’s reading current ideology back into history and pretending the true meaning then is only what we think it is now.

Atheistic philosophers like Friedrich Nietzsche and Marxists like Herbert Marcuse were widely influential in the American academy for the past 60 years—far more so than Locke was—and it’s from their influence that we can see the strange striving of the left for personal liberation as a goal of the social collective.

Whether from the left or the right, all the bad ideas of the modern age are at play here—relativism, historicism, and bad faith.

I cannot conceive of a conservative American cause without the patriotic cause of liberty. It would literally be rejecting one of the central ideas of the American Revolution. Without liberty, the country would lose its moorings and eventually drift into authoritarianism. The radical individualism and libertinism of today is derived not from the founding, but from cultural Marxism and the radical individualism of identity politics.

If we turn on our own founding, we will lose the very principles and convictions needed to defeat radical progressivism.

That’s why these debates matter. They’re about the American identity. They’re about American liberty. They’re at the very heart of what it means to be an American.

This article is adapted from Kim Holmes’ Aug. 6 lecture.

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