The debate over the meaning and value of American exceptionalism is perhaps the greatest political battle of our time, and the national divide echoes the deep schism that tore America apart during the Civil War.
On taxes, government spending, regulation, public unions, federalism and adherence to the Constitution, there is currently an unbridgeable gulf between the Left and Right, creating gridlock in the American political system.
America’s current problems can’t be solved by simply taking the middle ground and creating a few “grand compromises”. That strategy didn’t work in the lead up to the Civil War, and it won’t save the country today. The path to repair will come down to two competing philosophies, two visions for how the world and the United States are and should be.
My debate with Dr. Eli Zaretsky demonstrates at least several opinions in the ongoing debate between the Left and the Right, and, of course, do not represent all opinions on our respective sides.
While Zaretsky states correctly that America has had deep and lingering problems that have had to be corrected in American history, he both misidentifies the source of America’s course correction and dismisses the critical elements that made America not only unique, but great.
Zaretsky states that the origin of the American Left is not in socialism, but in “equality”. I believe that history proves that the Left does not believe in the natural rights doctrine that “all men are created equal,” the principle that became the ideological underpinning of abolition, and that has no qualms about grievously violating the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.”
Zaretsky claims that there are three “crises” in which America has stumbled, and has needed the Left to be “fixed”. The first crisis was that America was born with slavery still in existence, the second was the Great Depression and the third was in the cultural upheavals of the 1960’s.
The New Deal programs of Roosevelt did not bring America out of the Great Depression. America suffered through over a decade of economic stagnation and backtracking until the end of WWII, and the economy only really turned around when government spending was cut and taxes were slashed.
The New Left of the 1960’s not only became deeply anti-American in its outlook, but also paved the way for general cultural erosion. Crime rates, drug usage and out of wedlock births have soared, contributing to increased poverty and incarceration.
I would argue, however, that in the first of three crises, the crisis of the house divided, is in fact where Zaretsky’s argument for the Left is most wildly off. It was American exceptionalism and American values that were based upon the timeless ideals of the founding that led to the emancipation of all slaves.
The United States of America was born with the institution of slavery still intact in many states, predominantly in the South where it was most lucrative and entrenched.
Zaretsky argues that the Left upholds the idea of “equality,” rather than mere government control, and that this is the primary connection of the Left to the abolitionist movement. However, I contend that Zaretsky is not only wrong, but that the Left is ultimately disconnected to the belief in equality espoused by the founding generation, as well as that expounded upon by anti-slavery advocates before the Civil War and the Great Emancipator during the war, Abraham Lincoln.
Part of the foundation of American exceptionalism comes from the country’s true founding document written and adopted in 1776, the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson said of the Declaration in 1825, “Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion.”
The Declaration of Independence is based on the natural rights philosophy that is encapsulated in its most famous line:
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.
Zaretsky makes the claim that Americans in the antebellum era were “adamant in their insistence that their freedom to own slaves was being interfered with by an intrusive federal government.”
Human bondage in America was not sustained or exacerbated by limited, Constitutional government or free markets, far from it; slavery was sustained by the entirely closed command economy of the Southern plantation and extremely repressive pro-slavery laws on a widespread and eventually national scale. There were state laws that tightly controlled the ability of slaveholders from emancipating slaves even if they wished to do so.
For instance, the Virginia plantation owner, John Randolph of Roanoke was forced to emancipate his slaves after his death in Pennsylvania, because state laws prohibited emancipation in his state of residence.
Restrictive laws regarding slaves were not just instituted on the local or state level, but on the federal as well.
The Fugitive Slave Act, passed during the Compromise of 1850, forced government officials living in free-states to return slaves to their masters under threat of fine, and ensured that citizens aiding a slave’s escape could be fined or imprisoned.
Senator Charles Sumner from Massachusetts explained the power of government to uphold slavery and the abomination of the national pro-slavery law in his brilliant “Freedom National; Slavery Sectional” speech delivered in 1852.
Sumner said “there is no national fountain from which slavery can be derived,” and that slavery could not be sustained except “by virtue of positive sanction.”
To prove that pro-slavery laws were a violation of the natural rights ideas of the founding, Sumner quoted the Supreme Court of Mississippi, “Slavery is condemned by reason, and the laws of nature. It exists and can exist only through municipal regulations.”
In his speech, Sumner praised the American founders and American principles, attacking the politicians of his era for turning the American system upside down.
While Sumner and many other abolitionists may have been radical in speech and tone, their values were based in the traditional, natural rights ideas of the American founding and in the Christian morality that had always been present in American society.
This evidence runs counter to Zaretsky’s assertion that Abraham Lincoln adopted the phrase “all men are created equal” from “an abstract proclamation of natural rights philosophy, which no one thought contradicted slavery.”
The belief that natural rights extended to all mankind did not just belong to Lincoln and men of his era, but reached back to Americans before the separation of the American colonies from England.
James Otis of Massachusetts, who is credited with being the originator of the phrase, “taxation without representation is tyranny,” said in 1764:
Does it follow that ’tis right to enslave a man because he is black? Nothing better can be said in favor of a trade that is the most shocking violation of the law of nature, has a direct tendency to diminish the idea of the inestimable value of liberty, and makes every dealer in it a tyrant, from the director of an African company to the petty chapman in needles and pins on the unhappy coast. It is a clear truth that those who every day barter away other men’s liberty will soon care little for their own.
This anti-slavery argument was made on the eve of the founding of the United States. These ideas were not based simply on Lincoln’s reconstituting and hijacking the phrase “all men are created equal,” as Zaretsky claims, but were an expression of the revolutionary ideas of America’s founding.
The Left, in contrast, rejects natural rights in favor of “positive rights” or “social justice”. Positive rights obligate, or more correctly, force people to give to and work for others. These are not liberties grounded in the natural rights philosophy of the Founding Fathers, abolitionists or Lincoln, but in the class conscious, race conscious and collectivist ideologies of Karl Marx and, ironically, the ultimate defender of slavery, John C. Calhoun.
The Left does not believe that truths, like the equality of mankind or the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, are immutable and unchangeable.
For instance, the Left today extols the idea of “color-blind racism,” which sounds like an oxymoron to most conservatives, but is based on the idea that those that do not support policies such as affirmative action, that “level” the economic and social distinctions between the races, are racists either consciously or subconsciously.
In his 1997 book, Color-Blind Racism, Leslie Carr states where “color-blind ideology” comes from. Leslie wrote, “The roots of color-blind ideology are found in classical liberal doctrines of freedom—the freedom of the individual created by the free capitalist marketplace.”
But why is affirmative action so offensive to conservatives? It recognizes race, they say. But race is a term that ideologically disguises nation. What liberals are really saying whether they like it or not, is that to effectively bring the African American nation under control they had to weaken it, split it, and disperse it… Someday, African Americans will be so thoroughly dispersed throughout White America that no trace of them as a people will remain… It was not unlike President Lincoln’s vision of the dispersal and colonization of the freed slaves.
Does the idea of “color-blind racism” echo the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, in which he declared that he wished that his children could live in an America where people could be judged by the “content of their character” instead of their skin color?
The Left, and indeed a faction of the Right (especially the European Right), views the idea of “nation” in the same way that Europeans do. Nationhood and nationalism are based on ethnic solidarity and history rather than principles and an allegiance to a shared system of governance, ideas and values.
The traditional American view of “nationalism” is based more on the civic republicanism of the founding, which stressed duty, loyalty and service to the nation as a whole, not just an ethnic group or “faction” as Madison described in Federalist No. 10.
America’s founders attempted to build a love of country based on patriotism and not a loyalty to a specific “faction” or ethnic group. This is what conservatives talk about when they say they believe in “assimilation”.
The racial, “color-blind racism” ideas of the Left are twisting and opposing the American values espoused by the Founding Fathers in the same way that the fathers of the Confederacy did.
The vice president of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens, once said that the Founders were wrong in that “They rested upon the assumption of the equality of the races. This was an error… Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite of this idea, its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man.”
Stephens based his “truth” not on reason or religion, but on “science,” modernity and progress.
If there is a modern day movement that can be compared to the abolitionists, it is the pro-life, anti-abortion advocates on the right who argue that abortion is not just morally wrong from the standpoint of religion, but also a violation of the natural rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
While there is a rational argument to be made that a fertilized egg is not exactly equal to a fully grown adult human life, it is also more than reasonable to state that human life, deserving of all the protections that natural rights should entail, begins well before natural birth takes place. That of course, only applies if one believes in natural rights as the Founding Fathers and abolitionists did.
Just as slaveholders cried foul that their “Southern Rights” had been under assault by “agitators” in the North, pro-abortion advocates on the Left try to shut down debate on the issue and make a national policy out of a practice that many Americans find abhorrent.
Just as Chief Justice Roger Taney tried to inaccurately codify slavery and the principle of inequality between the races in the Constitution in the Dred Scott v. Sanford case, so too have those on the Left tried to twist the meaning of the Constitution in the Griswold v. Connecticut and then the Roe v. Wade cases that created a “right to privacy” and nationalized abortion through the “emanations” and “penumbras” of the Bill of Rights.
The best example on the Left who opposes natural rights and rhetorically aligns herself with slaveholders, is Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.).
Channeling Calhoun’s speech about how slavery was a “positive good” for black Americans, Rep. Jackson Lee has called abortion a “needed action” and insisted on calling the heartbeats of fetuses “sounds” as to avoid acknowledging the possibility that fetuses are human life at all.
As the Left blames all of America’s sins on so called “reactionary” conservatives, it would not be all that shocking if, 100 years from now, abortion is seen as a great moral stain on America and pinned American exceptionalism and conservatism.
Today there is a need for embracing American exceptionalism instead of rejecting it, especially in America’s current age of crisis.
I defined American exceptionalism as close to the generally accepted originator of the term, Alexis De Tocqueville, would have: The prevailing American values of private property, popular government, laissez faire economics, individualism and natural rights. These are the values that conservatives have tried to uphold in their attempt to restore and strengthen America.
Dr. Zaretsky is wrong in his charge that the Right has not achieved a “critical election” and that Ronald Reagan did not create a permanent shift in American politics during the 1980’s in the same way that Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt did.
Reagan did not have a perfect record and did not accomplish everything he wanted to during his election, however, there was undoubtedly a hard pivot in how Americans viewed government and Reagan laid the foundation for future conservative victories.
Conservative successes included the Kemp-Roth tax reform of the 1980’s, which was the largest tax cut in American history, welfare reform and a balanced budget in the 1990’s that a Republican dominated Congress forced upon a Democratic president, Bill Clinton, who said that “the era of big government is over,” and a whole host of other reforms to limit the size of government taking place at the state level.
These conservative ideas stemmed from the belief that America was succumbing to what De Tocqueville called “soft despotism” which he said, “Does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.”
It was the road to serfdom as described by the conservative thinker Freidrich Hayek that conservatives were trying to steer America away from. Conservatives have tried to ensure that America remains the land of opportunity, not the land entitlements.
For instance, Zaretsky argued that Republicans and establishment Democrats built a “two-tier society” in which people who can “buy private education, health care, housing and security do so, while those who cannot are shunted into second-class, degraded public services, at best.” However, it is conservatives that have lead the charge to get poor and disadvantaged children out of the “degraded” public schools and into better systems of education through the school choice and charter school ideas first introduced by conservative economist, Milton Friedman. The Left continues to support the “adult interest” of public unions instead of fighting to give American youth a better chance in life.
Dr. Zaretsky is right about one thing, America needs a change in direction. However, it isn’t a change toward the soft despotism offered by modern liberalism, and it certainly isn’t in the complete violation of natural rights offered by the hard-Left, it is a change toward embracing the doctrines of individual liberty, limited constitutional government and true equality based in natural rights that were passed down by the Founding Fathers.
To read the original article about why America needs the Left by Eli Zaretsky, click here.
To read the original article about the conservative view of American exceptionalism by Jarrett Stepman, click here.
To read the response to this article from the Left by Eli Zaretsky, click here.