I regret to say that this is another post on “American Exceptionalism” – to my mind, the most bogus ideological construct since Theodore White likened the Kennedy administration to the Knights of the Round Table. ”American Exceptionalism” is truism gussied up as philosophy. Of course America is exceptional in some respects. So is every other nation. Nor is there any political or intellectual figure who seriously proposes (or can be seriously be construed as proposing) to obliterate all differences between America and rest of the world. Object to universal health care or defend America’s military extravagance if you will: Inflating the merely exceptional into the “Exceptionalist” will add nothing to your arguments but bombast.
Yet to hear conservative intellectuals carry on, you would think that “American Exceptionalism” was the most groundbreaking political idea since universal manhood suffrage. No less an eminence than Harvard’s Harvey Mansfield takes up the idea this weekend in The Wall Street Journal. If Mansfield can’t make sense of it, then, depend on it, none of the lesser lights of the conservative movement can either.
Mansfield begins portentously. Asking how much Alexis de Tocqueville learned by actually visiting America (as opposed to contemplating it from afar), and by what method, Mansfield writes:
These questions [regarding Tocqueville] engage the assertion known today as American Exceptionalism, a recent issue between Republicans, who trumpet it as the justification for American patriotism, and Democrats, who deprecate it as nothing special, unless it is special to be leader of all other unexceptional countries.
The “assertion” (it is not anything so pitifully monosyllabic as a “claim” or “point,” mind you) is known today as American Exceptionalism. In previous eras, it was presumably known by different names. Whatever it was called before, say, Obama took office, Mansfield leads us to understand that the question of American Exceptionalism has perennial significance — so much significance, indeed, that one must consult the immortal Tocqueville to understand it.
For all the importance he attributes to American Exceptionalism, however, Mansfield nowhere deigns to define it. Suppose that of instead of, “These questions engage the assertion known today as American Exceptionalism,” Mansfield had written simply, “These questions help us figure out whether America is different.” The latter statement accurately translates Mansfield’s Really Smart Person Talk, yet hardly calls for a close reading of Tocqueville. You don’t need to read Democracy in America to notice that, yes, America does of course differ from other countries. To define American Exceptionalism — the idea that America is in some ways unlike other countries — is to reveal just how banal it really is.
Mansfield goes on to contend that Democrats deprecate “American Exceptionalism.” If he had tuned into President Obama’s State of the Union address, he might on the contrary have heard the following:
We [Republicans and Democrats] have fought fiercely for our beliefs . . . That’s what helps set us apart as a nation. . . .
We believe that in a country where every race and faith and point of view can be found . . . That, too, is what sets us apart as a nation.
At stake right now is . . . whether we sustain the leadership that has made America not just a place on a map, but the light to the world.
America still has the largest, most prosperous economy in the world.
What’s more, we are the first nation to be founded for the sake of an idea — the idea that each of us deserves the chance to shape our own destiny.
What America does better than anyone else is spark the creativity and imagination of our people.
Recent events [in Tunisia] have shown us that what sets us apart must not just be our power — it must also be the purpose behind it.
That’s seven claims of American Exceptionalism already. There are dozens more: I only stop excerpting them because they consume perhaps a third of the entire State of the Union address. Moreover, the very examples Obama cites of America’s alleged uniqueness are the ones that conservative intellectuals warn are under attack — in particular, that America has a quasi-religious mission to spread its ideas to the rest of the world. Mansfield’s coolly self-assured claims to the contrary, Democrats not only endorse American Exceptionalism but have made it the core of their governing philosophy.
Very well, perhaps Mansfield is not the most reliable observer of contemporary politics, to put it mildly. No matter: He’s the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Government, not Political Punditry. Surely his performance will surely improve when he plunges not beyond his depth but stays within his area of expertise.
Alas, that is not the case. Mansfield argues that Tocqueville believed in “American Exceptionalism” yet Mansfield’s evidence proves the opposite. He concedes that Tocqueville didn’t think much — indeed, Tocqueville barely even seems to have noticed — the unique intellectual achievement of the Founders. Ignoring theory, Tocqueville looked instead at how Americans actually practiced democracy. Mansfield quotes Tocqueville’s own summary of what he found (or thought that he had found): America was “more than America . . . an image of democracy itself.” Or, as Mansfield puts it, “America was democracy complete and as a whole, the material and source of its image.”
In other words, Tocqueville saw America as unique because America had taken the practice of democracy the furthest. One doesn’t have to get very far into Tocqueville to learn that he believed that the whole world was moving in America’s direction — i.e., away from tradition and aristocracy and toward equality of condition. If Tocqueville saw America as a living model of democracy, then it follows that Tocqueville did not see America as very exceptional at all. Americans were in Tocqueville’s view merely the most advanced. Under a Tocquevillian interpretation of the present, Americans could not even boast of that, for the world now brims with democracies. To save American Exceptionalism, one must either downplay the very features that Tocqueville found so notable, or else recharacterize them as American idiosyncracies rather than (as Tocqueville saw them) byproducts of equality.
Mansfield’s ends his attempt to build a Tocquevillian theory of “American Exceptionalism” with this baffling swipe at the social sciences:
Tocqueville asks intelligent questions of intelligent people and presses them to face their contradictions and explain themselves; he thinks and learns as he surveys. Today’s survey researcher asks bland questions of average respondents, has an assistant code the responses, restates and manipulates them mathematically, and then interprets them according to a model that he can persuade his professional colleagues to accept. Which method produces the better result? To answer the question, consider that Tocqueville addresses the question of American Exceptionalism, the question of what America is all about, while social science assumes it is meaningless or answerable and evades it.
Mansfield has spent a lifetime in the academy, but his description of the social sciences is unrecognizable. Asking “bland questions of average respondents”: is this really how economists proceed? Linguists? Psychologists? International Relations theorists? Not at all. At best, Mansfield has characterized a single research program — namely, the study public opinion — and somehow confused the (minuscule) part for the (vast) whole. Tocqueville’s methods are not even obviously superior to those of pollsters. So most people have trouble coming up with cogent philosophical reasons for their beliefs and actions. What of it? As any economist could tell you, cognitive resources, like most others, are scarce. If Americans in Tocqueville’s day could not justify their institutions to an imperious Frenchman, then that may prove only that they have better things to do with their time. If Mansfield was trying to vindicate some alternative social science agenda (presumably, his own), he failed.
Perhaps the idea of “American Exceptionalism” has simply dulled his wits, as it has those of so many of his allies.