The End of American Exceptionalism?

American exceptionalism may be disappearing. American exceptionalism posits that the United States is fundamentally different from other nations, particularly those in Europe. The United States was founded on a commitment to principles whereas other nations were founded on ties of blood. Moreover, our principles were those of the Enlightenment, embracing individual liberty and the rule of law.

One of the results, as Seymour Martin Lipset noted, was that the United States has never had a serious socialist party. But in this election cycle a serious socialist has come close to winning the Democratic nomination. Indeed, Sanders would be winning except for the loyalty Clinton enjoys among African American voters. But as the votes of the congressional Black Caucus show, African American voters are the most left-wing bloc economically. Next time they would be likely vote for the socialist candidate who imitates Sanders.

We have also never had a major nationalist party, like the National Front in France. Such parties run not only on protectionism and xenophobia but on preserving an unreformed entitlement state. But Trump’s platform is a somewhat paler version of such virulent European parties.

The combination of Trump’s and Sanders’ rise shows that the candle of liberty by which American exceptionalism glows may be flickering out. One principal reason is the decline of limited government. The original Constitution sharply limited the authorities of the federal government. While the states had essentially unlimited powers, they were in competition with another, and that competition prevented them from imposing too substantial exactions on their citizens.

But now the federal government faces no  substantial limits in spending and economic regulation. It thus makes much less sense to refrain from using the government to enlarge one’s own resources, because what you leave on the table others will take. It is not a surprise that Bernie Sanders has attracted the youth by promising free higher education. Today, most entitlements flow to the elderly and the youth want to get their share. In contrast, Donald Trump appeals to the elderly with promises to protect social security and Medicare spending which many fear may be crowded out by the expansion of other programs, like Obamacare. Nationalist parties in Europe also gain much of their strength from pensioners and people near retirement.

The success of Sanders and Trump show how hard it is to revive the classical liberal state, once the constitutional commitment to limited government is dissolved. Untune that string and hark what discord follows! Politics becomes a war of all against all for the federal dollar, and collectivist parties flourish to make sure that their supporters get a major piece of the action.