American Exceptionalism Is Ending—Where?

Professor McGinnis’s fine post on the end of American exceptionalism has rudely preempted my equally fine, nearly finished essay on that very subject. Let me start where John ended and explain why it’s worse than he thinks:

I’ll be that last person to take issue with the late Marty Lipset or kindred theorists of an America that’s exceptional because it is founded on an idea (or ideology, or proposition). That said, an ideology of “limited government” is not an independent actor or variable. So what is it, or was it, that allowed the “spirit of liberty” to prevail?

The conventional riff is that America was born as a class-less society, without the relics of a feudal system. If you haven’t had feudalism, you can’t and mercifully won’t have socialism. Signed, Alexis de Tocqueville, Goethe, et al. But perhaps those path dependencies wear thin—too thin—under the demands of a modern welfare state and its transfer economy.

John McGinnis laments the rise of far-out candidates (Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump), and rightly so. But the thing is, exceptionalism would be dead even if the parties’ “establishments” had, or had had, their way. Mrs. Clinton is a slightly dated retread of Germany’s one-time social-democratic chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, known as “der Genosse der Bosse,” or the industry captains’ comrade: cozy with the fat cats, and the unions. (Also kind of short on honesty and fond of “resets” with the Russians but let that slide.) On the Republican side, earnest pundits ascribe the GOP’s impending implosion to the party’s failure to give the “unprotected” (Peggy Noonan) a “hand up” (Henry Olson)—its failure to embrace a family-friendly, worker-protective “Sam’s Club” conservatism advanced in various permutations by Ross Douthat, Ramesh Ponnuru, Arthur Brooks, and Paul Ryan. It’s probably no coincidence that all of them are Catholics (as a member of the club I can say that): their social model is Konrad Adenauer’s Germany. I’m very fond of it, not least because it did in fact mop up the populist rabble and moreover, compelled the socialists to abandon their class warfare nostrums and to become a Volkspartei. But that is emphatically not a model of classical liberalism or limited government. Also, it’s no longer plausible even over there. And even in its heyday it presupposed things that are a tad un-American.

Foremost among those things is a bourgeois ethos and culture. That ethos says, inter alia, that social benefits must be earned before they can be redistributed; you can’t just rake them off the shelves (and there goes any conservatism that you could actually sell to American voters). It also says that anyone can become an accepted member by behaving responsibly—and just as easily become persona non grata, regardless of wealth. Crowing about your gold-plated whatever and serially importing wives from Eastern Europe is a good way of accomplishing that. Yet here, this combed-over clown is on the verge of respectability.

Quite likely, the social-democratic consensus everyone seems to be hankering for—as a second-best substitute for a classical liberalism that is dead and gone and a last-best alternative to incipient authoritarianism—has always been parasitic on a bourgeois class and its culture. We’ve long had a broad middle class but never one with class consciousness, just as we’ve never had socialism—and for the same reasons. It’s what allowed this country to be founded and run, not on class but on an idea of itself, and a damn good one at that. Perhaps, though, even the best ideas can come back and bite you.