Advancing a Free Society

American Exceptionalism

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

This invocation in the Declaration of Independence of egalitarianism, individualism, liberty, and the natural right to reject monarchical rule has became known as the American Creed. Early colonists drew guidance and inspiration from the doctrine and gave meaning to the concept of American exceptionalism. In the nineteenth century, Alexis de Tocqueville considered this set of founding ideas as the source of American exceptionalism and observed that “The Americans are in an exceptional situation, and it is unlikely that any other democratic people will be similarly placed.”

Since Toqueville, the concept of American exceptionalism has become part of our country’s political lexicon. Recently, it has emerged once again as Republicans, Libertarians, and conservatives more generally seek to distinguish themselves from the current White House leadership. Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts who has declared his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination, took on the issue a few months ago, saying: “I refuse to believe that America is just another place on the map with a flag. I believe that America is an exceptional nation of freedom and opportunity and hope.” Joining the conversation, Congressman Ron Paul (L-TX) has said: “There’s been talk lately about American exceptionalism…. I think we certainly live in an exceptional country, we have been blessed, it’s been the greatest country [with the] most freedom, most prosperity.  My concern is [that] I’m afraid we’re losing it. I’m afraid we’ve given up on our devotion to liberty.”  Newt Gingrich, former speaker of the House and now a Republican presidential contender, and his wife, Callista, have narrated a new documentary on this theme titled A City Upon a Hill: The Spirit of American Exceptionalism.

In the face of inequality, race, and rights, the political fault line in the American Creed between individual rights and responsibilities and egalitarianism is accentuated. Conservatives are particularly vulnerable to this complicated political reality and would be wise to acknowledge it when discussing exceptionalism.

In the natural tension between egalitarianism and individualism, these two isms compete for primacy but they also reinforce each other in the U.S. political system. Egalitarianism was the philosophical foundation upon which the civil rights movement of the 1960s built its ideas, arguments, moral platform, and appeals to U.S. citizens. But the party of Lincoln and the broader conservative movement lost ground on the egalitarianism component of the American Creed in the 1960s, partly because presidential candidate Barry Goldwater was portrayed as an extremist and a racist by the media and the left. Goldwater’s reputation became the Republican Party’s reputation. The situation was exacerbated by the Republican focus on individualism, especially during the hard economic times of the postwar era and as blacks sought a seat at the lunch counter.

Even in the face of criticism within their own ranks, Republicans have always sought to reconcile individual rights and egalitarian responsibilities. Secretary of Labor George Shultz implemented the Nixon administration’s effort to ensure jobs for skilled black construction workers through the Philadelphia Plan, which was controversial among some Republicans and other conservatives who argued that it was biased against whites. The plan set numerical goals and timetables for increasing the contracts given to black construction workers, and over time it came to be seen as an affirmative action plan. Laurence H. Silberman, solicitor of the Department of Labor in 1969-70, helped create and defend the Nixon administration’s racial employment goals. By the late 1970s, however, he had a change of heart and wrote: “The orders [from the Nixon administration as well as federal courts] required employers found guilty of discrimination to hire in accordance with a set ratio of whites to blacks, whether or not new black applicants had suffered discrimination. Thus was introduced a group rights concept antithetical to traditional American notions of individual merit and responsibility.”

But it should be remembered that the GOP faced head on the often intractable issue of redressing racism in the workplace. This put Clarence Mitchell, an official of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, in the uncomfortable position of opposing a major government initiative on inequality, race, and rights. His objection was based on the premise that the White House had made a deliberate effort to break the alliance between blacks and labor.

However one views the Philadelphia Plan and similar policies that followed it, the fact remains that the GOP has engaged vigorously in infusing the American Creed into public policy. This part of the Republican Party’s history is usually absent in contemporary discussion of American exceptionalism precisely because it is so nuanced and perhaps because we are entering a presidential election year.

Inspired in part by the Tea Party, some Republicans are now invoking American exceptionalism as a means of referring back to the creed that inspired and guided the Founding Fathers. That lofty discussion has had the positive effect of encouraging U.S. citizens to learn about the birth of their country. At the same time, it carries with it the potential for obfuscating the hard political reality of the conflict between egalitarianism and individual rights and responsibilities. The American Creed has produced a truly American political schism that cannot be dismissed simply by invoking the founders. As A City Upon a Hill clearly demonstrates, America is exceptional because, from the earliest days of the republic until now, its citizenry, including new immigrants, have accepted this tension. As more U.S. citizens engage in the conversation, the GOP – on the basis of its experience in demonstrating commitment to the American Creed – will be in a unique position to impart a comprehensive narrative about the tenets of the Declaration of Independence and the significant challenges of implementing them. Doing so will move Republicans a long way toward building the broader coalition that is necessary to recapture the White House.

(photo credit: Blue Sun Photography)