Is adherence to the concept of American Exceptionalism compatible with conservatism? To answer this question, we must first define what is meant by conservatism. For this purpose, I turn to Russell Kirk’s ten conservative principles in which he attempted to limn the contours of conservatism. In that essay, Dr. Kirk wrote:
“The attitude we call conservatism is sustained by a body of sentiments, rather than by a system of ideological dogmata. It is almost true that a conservative may be defined as a person who thinks himself such. The conservative movement or body of opinion can accommodate a considerable diversity of views on a good many subjects, there being no Test Act or Thirty-Nine Articles of the conservative creed.
In essence, the conservative person is simply one who finds the permanent things more pleasing than Chaos and Old Night.”
So we might say that conservatism is not found in adherence to ideologies, but by a habitual fondness and preference for the permanent things. The conservative reckons that the old ways – ways which are battle tested and proven – are equal to the task of preserving the permanent things inasmuch as the old ways have preserved them so far. Success is evident from success.
So what is American Exceptionalism? If it is an ideology, then it seems profession of the doctrine is antithetical to conservatism or at least extraconservative. How then can we define ideology? Again, I will turn to Dr. Kirk (from “The Errors of Ideology” (PDF)):
Ideology, in short, is a political formula that promises mankind an earthly paradise; but in cruel fact what ideology has created is a series of terrestrial hells. I set down below some of the vices of ideology.
1) Ideology is inverted religion, denying the Christian doctrine of salvation through grace in death, and substituting collective salvation here on earth through violent revolution. Ideology inherits the fanaticism that sometimes has afflicted religious faith, and applies that intolerant belief to concerns secular.
2) Ideology makes political compromise impossible: the ideologue will accept no deviation from the Absolute Truth of his secular revelation. This narrow vision brings about civil war, extirpation of “reactionaries”, and the destruction of beneficial functioning social institutions.
3) Ideologues vie one with another in fancied fidelity to their Absolute Truth; and they are quick to denounce deviationists or defectors from their party orthodoxy. Thus fierce factions are raised up among the ideologues themselves, and they war mercilessly and endlessly upon one another, as did Trotskyites and Stalinists.
. . . . Now I contrast with those three failings certain principles of the politics of prudence.
1) As I put it earlier, ideology is inverted religion. But the prudential politician knows that “Utopia” means “Nowhere”; that we cannot march to an earthly
Zion; that human nature and human institutions are imperfectible; that aggressive “righteousness” in politics ends in slaughter. True religion is a discipline for the soul, not for the state.
2) Ideology makes political compromise impossible, I pointed out. The prudential politician, au contraire, is well aware that the primary purpose of the state is to keep the peace. This can be achieved only by maintaining a tolerable balance among great interests in society. Parties, interests, and social classes and groups must arrive at compromises, if bowie-knives are to be kept from throats. When ideological fanaticism rejects any compromise, the weak go to the wall. The ideological atrocities of the “Third World” in recent decades illustrate this point: the political massacres of the Congo, Timor, Equatorial Guinea, Chad, Cambodia, Uganda, Yemen, Salvador, Afghanistan, and Somalia. Prudential politics strives for conciliation, not extirpation.
3) Ideologies are plagued by ferocious factionalism, on the principle of brotherhood—or death. Revolutions devour their children. But prudential politicians, rejecting the illusion of an Absolute Political Truth before which every citizen must abase himself, understand that political and economic structures are not mere products of theory, to be erected one day and demolished the next; rather, social institutions develop over centuries, almost as if they were organic. The radical reformer, proclaiming himself omniscient, strikes down every rival, to arrive at the Terrestrial Paradise more swiftly. Conservatives. . . have the habit of dining with the opposition.
We find that American Exceptionalism shares all of the vices of ideologies. It provides justification for eschewing prudence in making political decisions. For, after all, if God will bless the United States regardless of its actions, then what need is there to reflect on the action in question? National salvation is assured by our very existence; God approves of our actions in advance. Indeed, we may advance the argument that that which the United States commits to do is, by definition, the will of God and, therefore, not to be questioned. Of course, our cause is just; we are the United States, beloved of God.
Of course, being so sure of the rightness of our actions, the simple expedient of deciding on a course of action forecloses political compromise. This is most plainly seen in the arena of foreign policy and the movement to war. Once committed, with boots on the ground, it is “un-American” to question whether the war is just or whether our sons and daughters should be subjected to the perils of war. The politician who questions the justness of the war is excoriated; his dissent is intolerable. Of course, our cause is just; we are the United States, beloved of God.
Persons who deviate from the doctrine of American Exceptionalism are denounced, excoriated, and marginalized as a matter of routine. The justness of American commitments may never be questioned. It is a matter of faith, the justness of America’s course, and deviation from the dogma of Exceptionalism renders the dissenter heretical in the public square. Of course, our cause is just; we are the United States, beloved of God and anathema on him who says otherwise.
I’ve already noted that adoption of American Exceptionalism forecloses the exercise of prudence. And, therefore, the first of the virtues of prudential politics is lacking in those who rely upon American Exceptionalism. American Exceptionalism promises its adherents assurance of salvation and renders the practice of prudence a silly occupation that unnecessarily complicates the matter of establishing policy.
Again, viewing our foreign policy in recent years, it is plain to see that American Exceptionalism brooks no compromise, that entire countries are placed against the wall, designated for regime change, and dealt with accordingly. Never does there occur any reflection about whether the United States has justification to make such a decision. American Exceptionalism allows for unilateral decisions about the continued existence of other countries at the discretion of those making policy in Washington. Clearly, in this light, exercise of American Exceptionalism does not display the virtue of keeping peace and striving for conciliation. Indeed, it works to ensure just the opposite: constant war and strife.
In a recent presidential campaign, one candidate was ridiculed for stating that he would speak to Iran. The practitioners of American Exceptionalism find any commingling with ‘the enemy” to be treasonous. Far from dining with the opposition, American Exceptionalism considers the thought of such interaction to be criminal. Better to kill our enemies than to understand their position and attempt to discover whether there is common ground on which a peace may be built.
By these measures, it would appear that American Exceptionalism shares all of the vices that ideologies exhibit and that it shares none of the virtues exhibited by prudential politics. In other words, American Exceptionalism walks like a duck and quacks like a duck.
As I argue above, the practice of American Exceptionalism is actually harmful to the acquisition of and maintenance of peace. Indeed, it works to foment war and strife because other nations do not share our belief in our Exceptionalism. In fact, many of them find the notion rather dubious and actually resent the United States for its egotism in holding to such a notion. Furthermore, it is likely they hold a similar view of their own exceptionalism, believing that God is on their side, right or wrong.
One must question then whether a person who professes to be conservative can, at the same time, be an Exceptionalist. If practicing Exceptionalism is antithetical to peace, then it is a direct threat to the permanent things that a conservative purportedly loves. And, as such, no truly conservative person can adhere to a belief system that is destructive of the very ends that a conservative seeks to conserve. Unless he is schizophrenic. And it appears many are.