Did you ever take one of those quizzes where they give you a list and ask, “Which one doesn't belong?” Well, I have a list like that right here, courtesy of Rush Limbaugh, who put it in his November 2008 newsletter, the issue being what defines “full-throated conservatism”:
0 limited government
o low taxes
o strong military
o individual liberty
o rugged individualism
o American exceptionalism
o preservation of the founding documents and the founding principles
o free markets
o free speech
o free people
So, which one doesn't belong? By which I mean, not which one is inconsistent with the standard concept of “conservatism”, but which one serves as a kind of contradiction – a fly in the ointment, if you will – threatening to cancel out some or all of the others? The answer, in my opinion, is “American exceptionalism”, and I'll try to explain why.
First, consider the origins of what is called “American exceptionalism”. Surely the “American experiment” is historically unique in many ways, although it shares many features with other countries, past and present. Its founding was explicitly based on many “Enlightenment” concepts and ideals, which were nonetheless linked – at least in public pronouncements and documents – with the idea of a benevolent, if somewhat distant, God. God's approval of the American experiment was assumed, and His continued support was prayed for on regular occasions. Now, did this mean (to the Founding Fathers) that all other nations were godless, or not blessed? What's more likely is that the United States was simply considered to be, if you will, the most highly-evolved society ever devised, and, as such, deserving of special consideration by the Supreme Being – not that other nations were necessarily benighted, but that they had – as we say today -- “issues”, and traditions, and customs, and various sorts of inertia that kept them from “being all that they could be”. America, on the other hand, represented a new start, and one without baggage. (I don't believe this to have actually been the case, but let it go for now.)
So we have a basis in both faith and reason for American exceptionalism – in faith because, at that time, those in charge were still serious about their religion and its implications for the secular order – i.e. in the translation of morals into ethics, and thence into government and politics. There was not the fragmentation we have now, where each of these things is in a different pot and no one seems to think there is anything wrong with it. (Consider, for example, that a denial of one's faith is considered an essential qualification for high office these days.) And, in reason because, although the “Enlightenment” had not yet been carried to an extreme and reduced to absurdity – that had to wait for the French Revolution – the method of choice with which to do this translating included (relatively) objective considerations of history, economics, morals, and human nature, even going back to the ancient Greeks, and taking large doses from the Renaissance. Consequently, faith and reason were considered to be complementary, and expected to remain so – again, in sharp contrast to the conventional wisdom of today, which dictates that one must choose one or the other, and ne'er the twain shall meet.
But what, then, does exceptionalism – as defined above -- have to do with conservatism? Simply that the perpetuation of the American system – its success – is considered to depend on the preservation – conservation -- of the original balance of faith and reason. This is why conservatives are so critical of liberals, because the latter seem to possess very little of either quality. And on those rare occasions where convincing faith is shown, it is generally not accompanied by reason (logic, objectivity, etc.)... and vice versa.
But then, who, or what, put the “ism” in “exceptionalism”? Was it ever enough for Americans to sit over here, oceans away from the strife of the Old World, and enjoy their Enlightenment-based society unhindered, without particularly worrying about whether anyone else had gotten the same idea? Granted, we did much to aid and abet the French Revolution... but when that quickly turned sour and the French lost no time replacing their king with an emperor, we might have started having serious second thoughts, as did the British. We also inspired notables like Simon Bolivar, but I don't think that level of inspiration quite rose to the level of “foreign policy”, at least not as it is practiced today, with our intelligence agencies and military actively involved in “regime change” all around the world. In short, it seems to me that the basic notion was to live and let live – and that if other countries persisted in their less-than-enlightened forms of government, well, maybe they simply had different tastes than we did... or maybe they weren't as highly evolved. So give them time. Which is to say, the idea of exceptionalism, while, in theory, contained many components that would be of value elsewhere, did not take on a missionary zeal or military aggressiveness for quite a while – perhaps because we simply could not afford it, but let's give ourselves the benefit of the doubt.
All of this changed drastically, and almost overnight, when we entered into “the war to make the world safe for democracy” -- World War I (originally the "Great War", which has much more of a ring to it). Suddenly our ideals were found, upon further review, to have implications for not only well-wishing and passive foreign policy, but for active economic policy and military strategy. And paradoxically, this also marked a turning point in the exceptionalist idea, because, after all, if democracy – and not only democracy, but our particular brand of democracy – is not only the best system for us, but the best for any nation on earth, then it's no longer “exceptional”, is it? I mean, it stays exceptional for only as long as it takes for us to spread it over the globe, at which point it's no longer exceptional, but just normal. (I wonder if Limbaugh thought of this?) Of course, the United States would always be the first among equals – the elder brother, as it were, of all other democracies; this goes without saying. And perhaps that would be enough of a remnant of exceptionalism to satisfy the most fervent patriot; I don't know. But in any case, the implication is that to be a conservative you not only have to maintain loyalty to the original concept of what America is all about, but you have to work tirelessly to bring its blessings to the heathen, i.e. to the un-”enlightened”. And this is precisely what many of today's conservatives believe we are doing – or trying to do – in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. It is not enough to defeat them militarily; they have to be changed – and not changed simply to avoid future conflicts, but simply because, as Martha Stewart would say, “it's a good thing.” And furthermore, if they show less than enthusiastic interest in our program for them, it certainly isn't our fault. They “really oughta wanta” do things our way, and we're glad to convince them of that... up to a point, after which the convincing stops and the shooting starts. And this, in turn, makes one wonder if “spreading democracy” is really what we're talking about as much as “projecting power”. Our civilian and military leaders are talking, right this minute, for example, about reducing our “expectations” as to what sort of society Afghanistan ought to become as a result of our invasion and occupation. It may be enough to let it revert to its historical, “medieval” model, as long as that does not include the Taliban. Or, it may eventually be enough to include the Taliban, as along as they don't completely tyrannize everyone else, and allow girls to attend school, etc. Or.... get the picture? It seems that, as time goes on, we care less and less about the form of foreign governments as long as they are on our side, or at least neutralized. But we have to keep talking the “democracy” talk, because that's one of the few publicly-acceptable reasons for going into other countries in the first place. The day has not yet arrived when an American politician can stand up and say, “We're invading Buttistan because (1) it will create jobs, (2) we need to try out our new weapon systems, (3) the war industries want us to, (4) Israel wants us to, (5) I've always wanted to be a “war president”, (6) maybe we can convert them to Christianity instead of whatever heathen mumbo-jumbo they believe in now, and (7) it's fun.” Yeah, I don't think that would exactly wash with the voters. So we have to talk about “WMD”, as if some third-world fleabag can lob an ICBM at us at a moment's notice... and about “defending the American way of life”, which is code for “oil”.... but mainly about “spreading democracy”, even though no one, at this late date, has the slightest idea what that would entail. Are we trying to spread 1776-style democracy? (In which case, charity should begin at home.) Or democracy as currently practiced in the U.S., which bears about as much resemblance to what the Founding Fathers had in mind as MTV bears to a barn dance? Or democracy as practiced somewhere else, which might actually be a better version than what ours has evolved into? But hey, why quibble? These are just words, after all. All those inked thumbs make for a good photo op, but we're the ones who say whether they can vote and when, and who they can vote for (and who is allowed to win). So the whole thing becomes a farce – and “American exceptionalism” nothing more than a stuffy way of saying, “We're the biggest and baddest, and we pity the fool who gets in our way.”
So getting back to Rush's list – there is nothing about any of the other items on the list that implies, or necessitates, the inclusion of “American exceptionalism”. If we are truly exceptional, it's because we've adhered to the other points on the list... and if we haven't, we're not exceptional. So the term has no legitimate independent meaning as a motivating concept or goal of conservatism. And, the pursuit of the concept as it presently manifests itself is clearly eroding the other points. Consider what has happened just since 9-11, which – it can be argued – was “blowback” from our current idea of exceptionalism and how we implement it:
0 limited government – a totally lost cause, owing to what is needed to support a perpetually-at-war state and one whose military misadventures have driven it into bankruptcy;
o low taxes – also a lost cause, for the same reasons;
o strong military – commendable enough if one is truly talking about “defense”, but easily-abused when “defense” becomes “war” for dishonorable or delusional motives;
o individual liberty – the first casualty of war, as it has been said – and in the case of perpetual war, the result is perpetually-eroded liberty;
o rugged individualism – OK if it's only in your head, but just try living it out on a daily basis – e.g., try living “off the grid”, economically;
o preservation of the founding documents and the founding principles – Well, the documents are nicely preserved at the National Archives, but the founding principles, I'm afraid, have foundered on the rocks of empire-building;
o free markets – With the economy largely in the hands of the government, even the _appearance_ of free markets isn't going to last much longer;
o free speech – It still works if you're below radar, but try it on the national airwaves. (Can you say “Fairness Doctrine”?)
o free people – If all the above is lost, what is left?
So is the above an obituary for conservatism? What it _should_ be is an obituary for Neoconservatism, which, by embracing a distorted notion of American exceptionalism, has severely eroded all the other points and put true conservatism in a position of great peril. Ideally, of course, the citizenry, and the voters, should be capable of making that distinction, but few have shown any sign of wanting to or being able to. Instead, true conservatism is being "package-dealed" into the national dumpster by the failures of the Neocons -- and guess what, they're not finished yet. How many of them do you think got on a bus out of Washington, DC last week? Damn few I'd say. They are still in positions of considerable power and influence... so their errors will likely persist, but now they'll be disguised as Obama-ism rather than conservatism. This could be a good thing, in a way, as it will give real conservatives some breathing room to regroup and start to make their positions better known, without the Neocon noise factor. That is, if they can even be heard above the sound of the American economy being flushed down a gigantic toilet by the people who were supposed to protect it.