Since the crushing, truly humiliating defeat that it suffered with the election of Donald J. Trump to the presidency, neoconservatism, at least temporarily, experienced a dramatic reversal of fortunes.
It isn’t, of course, that neoconservatives have gone away; and it certainly isn’t the case that they have lost power and influence in any substantive—as opposed to symbolic—respect. Still, the sort of standard GOP/neocon agitprop that prevailed during the George W. Bush days, and even into the Obama era, has been less audible in the Age of Trump.
We should not, however, be misled by this into thinking that some of the distinguishing ideas of neoconservatism don’t continue to inform American domestic and, especially, foreign policy. In fact, there is a real sense in which some of these ideas inform the contemporary cultural consciousness.
Within the ideological solar system that is the neoconservative view, there is one idea specifically that is arguably the sun around which all of the others revolve. This is the idea that America itself is an idea—or what is otherwise known as the doctrine of “American Exceptionalism” (AE).
What can it mean to say that America (or anything) is an idea or concept or “proposition?” An idea is an intangible or incorporeal sort of thing. Ideas, in other words, are without bodies, nonphysical. They are without borders. In principle, then, any given idea can be discovered and, hence, endorsed by anyone, irrespectively of culture or history. One may become consciously aware of an idea at a specific juncture and courtesy of culturally and historically-specific circumstances; but the idea itself, considered as an idea, needn’t owe anything to the contingencies of space and time.
An idea, inasmuch as it is thought to transcend all civilizational differences, is universal.
That the proponents of AE think of America the Idea in just this way is borne out by their insistence that anyone can become an American. We receive confirmation of this as well whenever the members of Respectable Society, both “liberal” and “conservative,” talk about immigration, whether legal or illegal: Although it is only ever recognizable leftists who use the term “undocumented” to describe illegal immigrants, those on the official right implicitly endorse the idea behind this term when they too speak as if the only meaningful difference between immigrants and American citizens is that the former haven’t yet satisfied the formal or legal criteria for American citizenship.
To put it another way, as long as a person affirms America as Idea, then regardless of where that person resides, that person is an American.
When George W. Bush says that “family values” don’t end at the Rio Grande, or Barack H. Obama tells us that foreign immigrants and refugees differ from Americans only inasmuch as they were born elsewhere, they are telling us that America is, ultimately, borderless, for it is an Idea or Creed that, as such, can be embraced by anyone anywhere. Borders are arbitrary lines on a map, symbolic and capricious walls, and the requirements for official or legal citizenship are so many bureaucratic hurdles.
America the Idea is, essentially, the ideal of what neoconservatives and those further to their left call “Liberal Democracy.” It is the idea of a Universal Regime of Equality, a Democracy under which the “human rights” of all find protection. The champions of AE maintain that the territorial expanse that the world recognizes as the United States of America is Liberal Democracy in the flesh.
To put it another way, just as Plato believed that the particular, temporal instances of imperfect justice, truth, beauty, and goodness that we find in our world are but shadows or reflections of eternal, universal archetypes—Justice, Truth, Beauty, and Goodness—so too do the proponents of AE regard the geographical and historical entity of America as but a shadowy imitation of the real America, the Idea of a Universal Nation.
Implications & Criticisms of AE
First, AE is as ahistorical a fiction as any of which Western political philosophy is littered. This being said, we must resist the temptation to place it alongside such other political-moral fictions as the State of Nature, the Classless Society, the Original Position, and Plato’s perfect Republic, for unlike the merchants of these imaginary devices, the peddlers of AE indicate not the slightest awareness that their doctrine of choice is an ideal, a thought experiment, a theoretical construct.
AE’s handlers are true believers—or at least they sound as if they are.
Rationalization for the Universal Empire
Second, AE is ahistorical, but it is a fiction the political and ideological benefits of which seem to be bottomless.
To put it bluntly, if one is in search of an intellectual rationalization for the Universal Empire, one needn’t look any further than AE.
Being an abstraction, America as Idea is utterly devoid of every vestige of historical contingency. Emptied of all of those racial, ethnic, religious, and cultural particularities, the individual and collective experiences of the generations of human beings who made America what it is, AE is bloodless, lifeless, an eternal, timeless category that is designed to accommodate a virtually infinite number of pieces of machinery (human beings)—as long, of course, as those pieces are either indistinguishable from one another or at least treated as if they are such.
Thus, we find American Exceptionalists enthusiastically supporting relentless and potentially limitless immigration from practically anywhere and everywhere in the world, but mostly from countries and cultures whose mores, histories, and traditions are often not only distinct from, but antagonistic toward, those of Americans.
Yet at one and the same moment, American Exceptionalists swear to us that America, being the Liberal Democracy par excellence, must make war, or threats of war, so as to make the rest of the planet safe for Liberal Democracy, for Equality, for Human Rights.
So, since Americans are constantly in danger of being destroyed by non-Americans who despise “our values” (Liberal Democracy), we must make sure that the threat of American force is omnipresent. However, in the meantime, we need to continue to allow into the United States millions of non-Americans, often from these very same lands that American Exceptionalists assure us pose an existential threat to it.
AE squares this circle.
Learned scholars, like my friend and esteemed scholar, Paul Gottfried, have long argued that contemporary America (along with other Western societies) are presided over by regimes that are best characterized as “administrative/managerial” States. This characterization is true as far as it goes. However, in light of the centrality with which AE figures in our political universe, it is most apt, I believe, to see the first role of the American government as that of Educator.
More specifically, it has assumed the persona of a Trainer.
As the philosopher Michael Oakeshott was quick to note, between a genuine education and a training there is all of the difference. An educator seeks to teach his students how to think—regardless of what it is they choose for themselves to think about. A trainer, a seminar instructor, in dramatic contrast, is essentially concerned with teaching his students what to think. And because he wants to make it stick, because training requires far less time than an education, the content of the training must consist of propositions, statements that are explicit and that, therefore, can be seared into memory.
The doctrine of AE, the doctrine that America is an Idea, a Proposition of Equality or Human Rights that anyone can affirm, delivers in spades:
Those foreigners who want to destroy us, who “hate us for our freedoms,” differ from those foreigners who continue to pour into our country insofar as the latter have endorsed AE while the former have repudiated it. Immigrants, even illegal immigrants, are enlightened and, thus, good Americans. Those non-Americans who detest us haven’t yet been instructed in the Truth. Like Socrates, the supporters of AE think that evil (or evil as they understand it) must be a function of ignorance.
According to the logic of AE, America is the Great Teacher. Actually, given that it is only content that can be learned by rote that she is interested in imparting to her students, America here is the Great Correspondence School: After she has scrubbed the minds of her subjects clean, making of them blank slates, America seeks to drill a small handful of propositions into the minds of the Uninitiated.
Third, the champions of AE have been remarkably successful in convincing Americans, particularly self-described “conservatives,” that the affirmation of AE is nothing more or less than the expression of patriotism. Yet not only is a commitment to the ideology of AE and a commitment to America two different sorts of commitments; they are mutually incompatible.
Alasdair MacIntyre, a Catholic philosopher of the Aristotelian-Thomist persuasion and a proponent of patriotism makes the point. He observes that insofar as the patriot has “a peculiar regard…for the particular characteristics and merits and achievements of” his nation because they are his nation, “the particularity” of the patriot’s relationship to his country is “essential and ineliminable.”
The patriot’s morality is “a morality of particularist ties and solidarities,” of “a class of loyalty-exhibiting virtues” like “marital fidelity, the love of one’s own family and kin, friendship, and loyalty to such institutions as schools and cricket or baseball clubs.” The morality of patriotism demands of the patriot “a peculiar devotion” to his country. It demands that he “regard such contingent social facts as where I was born and what government ruled over that place at that time, who my parents were, who my great-great-grandparents were, and so on, as deciding for me the question of what virtuous action is [.]”
AE, in glaring contradistinction, is a species of what MacIntyre calls “liberal morality,” an outlook that demands of moral agents that they abstract “from all social particularity and partiality” in rendering “impersonal” judgments. Yet “liberal morality” is not only “systematically incompatible” with viewing patriotism as a virtue, it actually “requires that patriotism—at least in any substantial version—be treated as a vice.”
AE is a species of “liberal morality:” America the Idea has no history, no particular culture, religion, ethnicity, or nationality in which to ground it. AE, comprised as it is of abstract propositions, is a universal creed. Affirmation of its principles requires an attitude of, not partiality, but impartiality.
As eminent neoconservative Allan Bloom expressly acknowledged, given the neocon’s vision of America as Idea, “patriotism” must be reconfigured accordingly. Whereas traditional societies instilled in its members “an instinctive, unqualified, even fanatic patriotism,” education in the United States has been geared toward inspiring in its citizens a “reflected, rational, calm, even self-interested loyalty [.]” Yet this loyalty is not to the country as such, but to its “form of government and its rational principles [.]”
From this moral perspective, “Class, race, religion, national origin or culture all disappear or become dim when bathed in the light of natural rights, which give men common interests and make them truly brothers.”
Notice, from this vantage point, it is abstract principles and “the form” of government that exists in America that become proper objects of the patriot’s devotion. This form of government is the “Enlightenment” ideal of…“liberal democracy.” “There is practically no contemporary regime that is not somehow a result of Enlightenment, and the best of modern regimes—liberal democracy—is entirely its product.”
Liberal democracy is “the regime of equality and liberty, of the rights of man,” and “the regime of reason,” and America is its epitome in that it is the first country in all of human history to have been founded upon “rational principles.”
Irving Kristol, “the godfather” of neoconservatism, identifies “the equality of natural rights” enshrined in the Declaration of Independence as “the principles of” America’s “establishment,” the principles of “the universal creed” upon which the nation is “based.” The United States, then, is “a creedal nation” with a “‘civilizing mission’” to promote “American values” throughout the world, to see to it “that other governments respect our conception of individual rights as the foundation of a just regime and a good society.”
Kristol is unambiguous in his profession of the American faith: the United States, given its status as a “great power” and its “ideological” nature, does indeed have a responsibility “in those places and at those times where conditions permit” it “to flourish” to “‘make the world safe for democracy.”
However, from the standpoint of “liberal morality,” patriotism has been decried as a vice.
Take, for example, David McCabe, a contemporary philosopher and champion of “liberal morality.” McCabe unabashedly declares that “liberal morality” is “fundamentally at odds” with patriotism, for the latter “may help tempt people away from the appropriate claims of equal moral treatment and towards something resembling group egoism.”
Paul Gomberg is another philosopher and proponent of “liberal morality.” He is even more to the point in remarking that “on the most plausible assumptions about our world, patriotism is no better than racism.” After all, Gomberg explains, “moral universalism implies that actions are to be governed by principles that give equal consideration to all people who might be affected by an action.” But patriotism is “a preference for one’s fellow nationals or for one’s own traditions and institutions over those of others,” and this in turn sounds dangerously like “ethnic and national chauvinism.”
The American patriot, whatever else he may be, most definitely cannot be an American Exceptionalist.
Finally, as we have seen, AE is every bit as much an expression of dogma as is the Nicene Creed. This consideration alone should suffice to deter the traditionally religious from embracing it. Traditional Christians especially should scorn it.
AE is, in a very real sense, blasphemous. It is unthinkable that the doctrine of AE could have emerged in any cultural context other than that in which it in fact did emerge, the context of a civilization that was once known as Christendom and that, even if largely unbeknownst to itself, continues to depend upon its Christian inheritance for much of its self-understanding.
AE presupposes the framework of the Incarnation. This framework has its roots in Judaism, but it assumed center stage with the advent of Christianity. The Jews maintained that God became embodied or “incarnate” in the Temple.
Christians, though, believe that God did indeed become incarnate in the Temple, yet they think that this Temple, a Temple not made by human hands, is the Person of Christ.
God became a human person in Jesus of Nazareth. This is the uniquely Christian doctrine of the Incarnation.
American Exceptionalists preserve this Christian doctrine—but without the Christos. They divest the Incarnation of the God-Man while substituting for the latter the country of America, which is now the incarnation of the ideal of Liberal Democracy.
Or, to put it another way, America-as-Idea (Liberal Democracy) assumes flesh or becomes embodied, or most fully embodied, in the admittedly imperfect and finite concrete, historical country that the world knows as America.
Being pseudo-Christianity, this drivel must be rejected by all Christians—and, hopefully, by everyone else as well.
As I showed here, it is exactly because it is an ahistorical fantasy that the doctrine of American Exceptionalism serves as the perfect justification for the Universal Empire that its peddlers want for the United States to be. In addition, its packaging easily lulls the unsuspecting into thinking that it is compatible with America’s traditional Christian faith and demanded by love for America.
In reality, though, AE is at odds with true patriotism and a perversion of Christian orthodoxy.