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Recovering American Exceptionalism

This Fourth of July, it’s worth remembering the best of our political history without excusing the worst.

Last spring, I wrote a column in these pages on American liberalism with the hope of recovering some of the hidden gems of our collective political inheritance. Two experiences called me to that task.

The first was taking Dartmouth professor Russell Muirhead’s Harvard course on American political thought (anyone who hasn’t watched that man lecture on Hamiltonian “good administration” is sorely missing out). The second was stumbling upon footage from President Bill Clinton’s first inaugural: in particular, the famous line, “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.”

Foolishly, I never broached the subject of American exceptionalism in my essays. The idea seems to have fallen out of favor in recent years, for several reasons. Many on the left (myself included at times) are uncomfortable with that phrase’s ambiguous links to nationalism: the appeal to America the bringer of democracy, the exporter of liberty to the not-yet-enlightened.

The notion of ‘exception’—and its frequent conflation with ‘exemption’—also provokes unease. We worry that some might misunderstand America’s exceptionalism as exempting it from the rules of international order. So the theory goes that America’s various foreign interventions—from Vietnam to Iraq—were the results of its inflated sense of self. Simply being America was license enough to impose our vision of justice on others.

That another sort of exceptionalism remains possible—one divorced from the chauvinism of “Make America Great Again”—seems lost on many. Hence the propensity toward slogans like “America Was Never Great,” “No Ban No Wall on Stolen Land” (a reference to President Donald Trump’s border wall), and the newer phenomenon of anti-Fourth of July celebrations.

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These statements misunderstand the legacy of American democracy. We haven’t always been just a land-hungry empire, ready to enlist or dislodge outsiders. The American experiment has always been, in the phrase of Aziz F. Rana ’00, a matter of “two faces.”

On the one hand, it has been a game of projecting American power on those considered foreign, whether American Indian, Muslim, or Latino (to name just a few ‘others’). It has also, however, meant a genuine striving for organic democratic communities, embodied in the town-hall spirit of New England, the vivacity of local and national electoral contests, and the unceasing emphasis placed on the rituals of democracy: voting, phone-banking, canvassing, protesting.

This latter phenomenon I like to call effervescent democracy: the enthusiastic, voluntary involvement of private citizens in civic life. Despite the persistent problem of middling voter turnout, statistical metrics seem to confirm that our effervescent democracy is alive and well. A 2009 report from the Pew Research Center found that 63 percent of those polled had participated voluntarily in some aspect of civic life besides voting. From a voting-age pool of just under 235 million in 2010, that’s 148 million adults and mobilizing for civic participation—a figure of world-historical significance.

This democracy arose in tandem with the projection of American power but, though unseparated from the latter, is not precisely responsible for its faults.

The biggest mistake we could make in the Trump era would be to surrender this effervescent democracy—and the exceptional quality of American political life—to its worst mishandlers, especially as its ideas continually prove integral to the projects of social justice that animate so many progressives today.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the 28-year-old Democratic nominee from the Bronx who defeated the fourth-ranking Democrat in the House, Representative Joe Crowley, in his tenth reelection bid, is one example, pushing for a federal jobs guarantee, strict regulation of Wall Street, and what she has called a “New Green Deal”—a plan to make the U.S. carbon-neutral by 2035. Her jobs guarantee reads like an homage to the Civilian Conservation Corps of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Class of 1904. Ocasio-Cortez’s proposed banking regulations include recovering portions of the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act. Her environmental strategy is even named to evoke the New Deal.

I would be surprised if we didn’t hear more echoes of the American populist and progressive movements in the coming years. The demographics behind those movements are the same ones agitating for change today.

Farmers in the 1880s accused the government of exacerbating rural hardship by preferring the interests of New York financiers. Today, these same citizens are demanding resolution to a long-unchecked opioid crisis. In the cities of the 1930s, concern abounded over slum-formation, social immobility, and corruption. Citizens today are mobilizing around these same concerns. Thankfully, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel.

What makes America exceptional is its trove of democratic movements and vocabularies: self-government, the sovereignty of the people, communitarian ethics—and protest and resistance in the absence of these. Ironically, it’s the movements that benefit the most from this inheritance that want the least to do with it.

I have to say, I admire a generation for reconsidering the significance of our exceptionalism. Especially in the Trump era, it seems well worth our time to reexamine the mythos of fireworks and declarations, if only to ensure our own good intentions.

Where I disagree with some is in what precisely of American history ought to be scrapped from celebration. Some seem to think our entire history is tarnished—a story of crimes committed and tracks covered.

My basic view is that there’s a lot worth saving.

Henry N. Brooks ’19 is a Social Studies concentrator living in Currier House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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