It turns out that I have a different view of American exceptionalism as compared with some other reliable sources. I went to Wikipedia.org to look at their entry on American exceptionalism. And I looked at Andrew Bacevich’s book, The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism. I also pulled up a variety of quotes about “American exceptionalism” which probably added extra flavor to this essay.
Wikipedia sees American exceptionalism as erupting from three attitudes. The first attitude is about “Americanism,” and that comes from “liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, republicanism, democracy and laissez-faire for business.” The second and third attitudes imagine a providential role for the United States. The U.S. is to act both as a beacon and a leader of other nations. The U.S. will be a political force that can transform other nations into the American ideal of government. American exceptionalism also means having faith that the American system can withstand the erosion of power that has happened throughout history to other nations.
Both Bacevich and Wikipedia mention Alexis de Tocqueville in their discussion of American exceptionalism because de Tocqueville noticed the American preoccupation with “purely practical objects” and “commercial habits.” He considered the American example to be unlike that of other democratic nations because even though each person was trying to get more economic success, they remained civilized. He said that “the position of Americans is therefore quite exceptional.” It may be that de Tocqueville invented the term American exceptionalism or that he used a term that was already familiar.
Andrew Bacevich believed that the American preoccupation with getting and having has become an obsession centered upon maintaining material wealth. And the desire to always have “more” has caused harms. He traced the expansion of the American military with the consumer culture of the twentieth century. He noticed that CIA operations weren’t about setting a moral example but about obtaining a strategic or a material advantage. Bacevich believes that American exceptionalism now has led America to political and economic profligacy. It has led us into unjust wars, into enormous sacrifices of wealth and human lives. “Cheap oil and cheap credit” have sustained a consumer economy that has led us into political entanglements in the Middle East.
I didn’t always give much credence to the idea of American exceptionalism. But when I researched my book, Political Catsup with Economy Fries, I eventually found a political and economic relationship that was exceptional in the early Republic. Here’s the arc of my reasoning:
No one knows the future. History is made up of a series of contingent events that no one could have predicted. Sometimes a new idea that seems insignificant at first can make a huge difference over time. The invention of double entry bookkeeping in Italy in the thirteenth century was an idea like that because it was a crucial step in the birth of capitalism. And the invention of capitalism and its combination with liberalism changed European economic fortunes away from feudalism. As feudalism was displaced, a dynamic new relationship between the power of politics and the power of economics was born from fractional lending and capital investments. The political dynamic of city states was swept away and nation states grew into something that the world had never seen before through improved diplomacy and banking.
Classical liberalism (1776-1861) was the first American political ideology. And the other American political ideologies, modern liberalism (1861-1944) and neoliberalism (1944-present) weren’t really liberal at all. Classical liberalism had roots in the Enlightenment and respected both rationalism and humanism. Modern liberalism was pragmatic instead of rational and it was a mild form of socialism that used income taxation and regulation but didn’t nationalize industries. Neoliberalism wasn’t rational either but opportunistic instead; it has been government sponsored corporatism and it has expanded taxation and regulation on small capital holders to provide advantages to global industries that cross national boundaries.
The origin of American exceptionalism comes from the classical liberal idea that political freedom requires economic freedom. By doing that–keeping government from stealing the economy’s power, a revolution in the relationship between politics and economics occurs such that each becomes an independent center of power. And that power creates a synergistic partnership that fueled American invention during the first and second half of the Industrial Revolution. Allowing people to keep their economic wealth fuels innovation and spreads prosperity. And that’s where American exceptionalism comes from–it comes from freedom. Freedom from taxes and freedom from regulation under a limited government. Unfortunately, in the twentieth and twenty-first century, neoliberals have been taxing and regulating small capital holders like crazy. They want to destroy American exceptionalism and reduce the perturbations of technological change in markets. For neoliberals, only the largest corporations should be free from taxation and regulation.
Wikipedia and I both put the origin of American exceptionalism in the early Republic. But I emphasize free markets differently than the idea of laissez-faire which is sometimes interpreted to mean economic freedom for business only instead of for individuals and businesses. Like Bacevich, I think that Middle East military operations have been a failure. And I don’t believe that the U.S. should expect other nations to be like us. But unlike Bacevich, I put little credence in the idea that ordinary Americans who wanted economic prosperity led us down the path of financialization. Financialization probably got going in order to stimulate an economy harmed by fiscal debt in a political atmosphere that permitted even more fiscal debt. People outside of government and banking didn’t have the power to influence Federal Reserve policies that led to financialization.
I don’t believe that heavy taxation and more than a million regulations are good for America in an atmosphere of unlimited fiscal debt. And I believe that national debt approaching 19 trillion dollars harms the nation’s political and economic security. And I don’t think that the neoliberal plan for expanding corporations across national borders is working to increase prosperity. Foreign operations have increased global financial instability because of hot money flows. There’s a lot of capital growth but declining wealth in the easy credit system of debt and malinvestment. Isn’t it time to reconsider the ill-conceived neoliberal plan to globalize, financialize and neoliberalize the whole world? What is the incentive to continue?
Sources: Andrew Bacevich, The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism, (Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Co., New York, 2008) 15-66.
Wikipedia, “American Exceptionalism,” enwikipedia.org/wiki/ American_exceptionalism, accessed 11 Feb 2016.