View from the Left: American exceptionalism and the difference between the Left and the Right

In “Leftists Continue to Misuse and Undermine American Exceptionalism,” (Human Events, May 23) Jarrett Stepman argues that American exceptionalism is one of the “primary pivot points that now divides the political right and left in America.”


As an example of the Left, Stepman cites Barack Obama, who pooh-poohed American exceptionalism, explaining that most peoples think their nation is exceptional. As a second example, Stepman discusses my recent book, Why America Needs a Left: A Historical Argument, which contends that the Left’s essential contribution to American history has come during periods of crisis, such as the slavery crisis, the Great Depression and the Nineteen Sixties.

As Stepman interprets my argument, the Left revels in hard times, since difficulties validate the Left’s negative views of America, whereas the Right takes hard times as minor disruptions in a blessed and buoyant history, never abandoning its conviction that America has a special or exceptional destiny.

Stepman is right in one respect: we need a discussion of American exceptionalism. However, he systematically muddies the waters by equivocating as to the meaning of his key terms: “American exceptionalism,” “the Left,” and “crisis.” Let us start with the first.

Stepman confuses two different meanings of the term “exceptional.” The first meaning is that the United States is sui generis: it does not conform to the usual pattern of national development, especially because it had no feudalism. This was the meaning that Alexis De Tocqueville intended when, as Stepman notes, he first coined the phrase. The second meaning is that America is “exceptional” in the sense of superior, providing an example for others, the famous “city upon a hill.” This was not at all what Tocqueville meant. On the contrary, this second meaning stands in tension with the first: a nation that is sui generis cannot set an example for others since it does not share their history (for example, feudalism), hasn’t faced comparable problems (for example the problem of a peasantry or of a working class), and can’t point the way to common solutions (for example, democratic socialism). All a sui generis nation can do is lecture others from on high.


Tocqueville’s 1831 definition, which Stepman does not cite in full, clearly implies the first meaning. He writes: “The position of the Americans is … quite exceptional, and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one. Their strictly Puritanical origin, their exclusively commercial habits, even the country they inhabit, which seems to divert their minds from the pursuit of science, literature, and the arts, the proximity of Europe, which allows them to neglect these pursuits without relapsing into barbarism, a thousand special causes, of which I have only been able to point out the most important, have singularly concurred to fix the mind of the American upon purely practical objects. His passions, his wants, his education, and everything about him seem to unite in drawing the native of the United States earthward; his religion alone bids him turn, from time to time, a transient and distracted glance to heaven. Let us cease, then, to view all democratic nations under the example of the American people.” Tocqueville’s meaning could not be clearer. America is an exception. It does not provide the template for others. In no sense does Tocqueville suggest that America is “exceptional” in the sense of superior.

Of course, many people do believe that America is exceptional in the sense of superior. There are multiple sources for this view but the most important is millennial Protestantism. As Ernst Tuveson explained in a brilliant but now largely forgotten 1968 work, Redeemer Nation, the founding and subsequent history of America has deep roots in the Protestant Reformation, more even than in the Enlightenment. Whereas medieval Christians argued that what Augustine called “the city of man”– namely society and history– was irredeemably corrupt, some Protestant currents, notably the Puritans, believed that the advent of the millennium could be hastened by human action and “Bible politics.”


America became the repository of this idea, a ‘redeemer nation.” Seeing itself as all-good, it identified the devil (who governs the city of man) with a series of political enemies understood as absolute evil. These included the Catholic Pope, slave-holders, Nazis, Communists and, no doubt, Islamo-fascists. I will return to this second meaning of American exceptionalism, namely superiority, but for now let me say that while it has inspired some good, it has blinded the American people to their own faults as well as to the virtues of others.

Let us turn now to the second term around which Stepman equivocates: “the Left.” As we shall see, understanding this term will move us toward a more satisfying conception of American exceptionalism. Nonetheless here again, Stepman runs together two different meanings.

One meaning of “Left” is rejection of the market, belief in government, in a word, socialism. The second meaning, the one I argue for in my book, is equality, which may or may not express itself through the market or through government. Stepman wants to affirm American exceptionalism when it comes to the Right, but he refuses to consider the possibility that there was anything exceptional about the American Left. For him, the American Left is nothing more than a copy of the European Left. By way of contrast, I argue in my book that the American Left is sui generis– it includes not only socialism but also anti-slavery, feminism, gay liberation and other movements insofar as they have sought to advance the nation’s core egalitarian values. Let me explain.

Stepman’s antagonism to the Left draws on another famous citation from Tocqueville, one that Friedrich Hayek also favored. According to Tocqueville,  “Democracy extends the sphere of individual freedom, socialism restricts it. Democracy attaches all possible value to each man; socialism makes each man a mere agent, a mere number. Democracy and socialism have nothing in common but one word: equality. But notice the difference: while democracy seeks equality in liberty, socialism seeks equality in restraint and servitude.” Though artfully phrased, Tocqueville’s contrast between individual freedom and socialism is ill-founded and misleading.


The only sort of freedom that is worth defending is equal freedom. Unequal freedom is simply domination, the freedom of some to dominate others. Freedom without equality means the freedom to own slaves, the freedom to monopolize markets and exclude others from competing, the freedom to maintain unsafe working conditions or to sell contaminated food or drugs, the freedom to refuse to serve blacks at one’s lunch counter, and the freedom to harass female subordinates sexually. The reason America has needed a Left has been to clarify the difference between unequal and equal freedom. Let me illustrate this by discussing the abolitionists, whom I consider the first American left.

Probably all Americans of the early nineteenth century believed in freedom, and none more so than the slave-owners. They were adamant in their insistence that their freedom to own slaves was being interfered with by an intrusive federal government. “Get off my back,” they regularly exclaimed. But, of course, it was unequal freedom to which the slaveholders were committed. Even the large number of Northerners who opposed slavery was not committed to equal freedom, when it came to race. They wanted to encourage the long-term decline of slavery or to return the slaves to Africa, but they regarded free Negroes as inferior, and aimed to keep them segregated. By contrast, the abolitionists sought to integrate schools, abolish the “Negro pew” in churches, and encourage interracial marriages.

Through their commitment to equal freedom, the abolitionists began the process of turning the national self-congratulation and boosterism that had followed the Revolution into a project: not that America was exceptional in the sense of superior, but that it could become so by ending slavery and accepting the ex-slaves as fully equal fellow citizens. Lincoln adopted the abolitionist ideas in his Gettysburg Address when he turned the Declaration of Independence’s words that “all men are created equal,” from an abstract proclamation of natural rights philosophy, which no one thought contradicted slavery, into a goal, that of achieving the equality of all of our citizens, something which did not yet exist. The concept of a project– what the philosopher Richard Rorty called “achieving our country”– is the real basis of American patriotism, precisely because it is self-critical: if we are superior, it is because we realize how far we fall short.


The same project was evident in the second American left, the populists, communalists, socialists and radicals who came to the fore during the New Deal and World War Two. Just as slavery would have been abolished without the abolitionists, so a modern state, with regulatory and fiscal capacities, would have been created without the leftists of the 1930s. But the Left helped give the new state the meaning of social equality: a guaranteed minimum in regard to jobs, health care, housing, education and other necessities. The New Deal in general, and Franklin Roosevelt in particular, are often credited with “saving” liberal democracy, meaning that when other nations turned to fascist and communist solutions, the United States held fast to its founding ideals. This is true, but it is not the whole truth. The liberal ideal of freedom survived the Great Depression only by appropriating principles of social equality pioneered by the Left.

Finally, in the 1960s, when a New Left and a New Right arose, both were fiercely committed to individual liberty. What distinguished them, however, was that the New Right criticized and stood aloof from the Civil Rights movement, defending such bogies as “states rights” and opposition to “intrusive government.” The New Left, by contrast, built on the abolitionist and New Deal precedents, to advance the country’s exceptional project of achieving equal freedom. Just as the Left of the thirties added the ideal of social equality to the ideal of racial equality, so the New Left added the ideal of equal participation.

Understanding the United States as having the project of equal freedom, rather than as already having achieved it, has moved us toward a better conception of American exceptionalism. But we still need to clarify a third term: “crisis.” Here, again, there are two possible meanings. In the usual sense, a crisis is an economic downturn or a war from which the nation needs to recover. By contrast, my book reserves the term “crisis” for turning points in the nation’s history, periods during which fundamental decisions have to be made as to the society’s future direction. It is because we are at such a turning point today that we once again need a Left.


By contrast, Stepman’s timeless celebration of private property and markets will get us nowhere. He fails to acknowledge that, in the thirty-two years since the election of Reagan, the Right has failed to close the deal with the American people in the way that Lincoln closed the deal, and Franklin Roosevelt closed the deal.

The Right has never achieved what political scientists call “a critical election,” one that creates a new majority, as 1860 created a new majority and as 1932 created a new majority. And the reason for this is simple. Whatever achievements the Right can claim as the champion of freedom, it is unequal freedom that it has championed. Not just the Republican Party, but the Clinton-Obama Democratic Party as well, has built and sought to legitimize 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.

Far from acting in an exceptional manner, we have thereby missed three great opportunities to offer international leadership: in 1989, 2001 and 2008. We have created a security state that allows the President to kill American citizens at will, which eviscerates the most long-standing and fundamental basis of individual liberty, whether equal or unequal: habeas corpus. Any nation that allows that is in danger of losing its soul.

Finally, we can see why we need a Left by considering the disappointments of the Obama Presidency. In his campaign for the nomination, Obama said that we needed to move in a genuinely new direction, but in his Presidency he failed to lead. For example, he defined our economic goal as recovery from the financial near-collapse, obscuring the fact that the crisis was structural, and require us to rethink the whole basis of our government. Equally important, he described his goals in terms of some non-existent “center” or “compromise,” excluding “extremists” of both Left and Right. By way of contrast, I believe that what the country needs is precisely the kind of debate that Jarrett Stepman and I are having now.


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 conservative response to this article by Jarrett Stepman, click here.

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