I may have read less coherent rants on American exceptionalism than today’s column by Richard Cohen, but I’m not sure I can say when. In attempting to argue that American exceptionalism has somehow become a religious doctrine, Cohen then argues — as near as I can tell — that its “dogma” has killed the art of compromise. Furthermore, Cohen can pinpoint exactly when this started, and to no one’s great shock, it’s when the Republican Party first formed. And then Cohen tells of the dire consequences that followed from the founding of the High Church of Republicanism:
The huge role of religion in American politics is nothing new but always a matter for concern nonetheless. In the years preceding the Civil War, both sides of the slavery issue claimed the endorsement of God. The 1856 Republican convention concluded with a song that ended like this: “We’ve truth on our side/ We’ve God for our guide.” Within five years, Americans were slaughtering one another on the battlefield.
Therein lies the danger of American exceptionalism. It discourages compromise, for what God has made exceptional, man must not alter. And yet clearly America must change fundamentally or continue to decline. It could begin by junking a phase that reeks of arrogance and discourages compromise. American exceptionalism ought to be called American narcissism. We look perfect only to ourselves.
Er … what? Is Cohen seriously arguing that Republicans should have compromised on the issue of slavery? That the Civil War was the fault of Republicans for opposing continuing enslavement of human beings? Ramesh Ponnuru at The Corner is as nonplussed as I am:
Does Cohen really want to maintain that the Republicans of the 1850s should have been more willing to compromise on slavery? Is this what liberalism has come to?
It’s the end to where intellectual dishonesty leads. Cohen starts off with a false premise that mainstream views of American exceptionalism involves religion in any significant sense at all, or that it involves a self-image of perfection. Cohen seems to have confused American exceptionalism with Manifest Destiny, and added his own heaping helping of paranoia to it.
American exceptionalism springs from the removal of Old World aristocracy and firm class barriers to success. It involves the forces that made upward mobility in America much easier than in other nations. It’s primarily an economic, not religious, distinction, based on private property rights and free markets. The lack of a ruling class made it easier for those of modest means to create their own markets and find wealth and success in the US. Until recently, it also involved government with a light touch, rather than a recreation of Old World aristocracy that arbitrarily picked winners and losers by exerting their influence on property and markets.
Some may see religious nuances in the idea of American exceptionalism, but it rests on actually divorcing God from the ruling class. Aristocracies existed for millenia on the basis of divine right — divine right to property, and divine right to rule. The mechanism of American exceptionalism opposes this notion rather than adopts it. It argues that free people have individual, natural rights to determine their own government and control their own property. The concept of natural rights has its roots in religion, but American exceptionalism is the rejection of rule by divine right, not its embrace. And the pro-slavery religious argument was its opposite.
Opposition to slavery was one of the most ideal of the manifestations of these principles, and the worthy didn’t believe they could be compromised with a system that resembled Old World serfdom. Until now, few questioned those motivations, let alone the principles of abolition. That Cohen could write this drivel — and that the Washington Post would not ask Cohen to rethink it — perhaps indicates just how far we have drifted from the economic and public-policy principles that made us exceptional in the first place.