Permanence, Change, and American Exceptionalism

Today I was reading an article [make sure to read the whole thing] from National Review’s print edition written by Richard Lowry & Ramesh Ponnuru. In this article Ponnoru and Lowry do well in explaining the roots of American exceptionalism, and how the same has become a part of the core of our culture.

Here is the definition of American exceptionalism distilled to a single paragraph.

The late Seymour Martin Lipset defined it as liberty, equality (of opportunity and respect), individualism, populism, and laissez-faire economics. The creed combines with other aspects of the American character — especially our religiousness and our willingness to defend ourselves by force — to form the core of American exceptionalism.

After their brief history, the National Review duo then pivot their focus to the Obama administration’s agenda and it’s discomfort with American exceptionalism.

As is pointed out, this feeling of discomfort is mutual …

The popular revolt against Obama’s policies is a sign that Americans are not prepared to go gentle into that good night. Other factors are of course in play — most important, the weak economy — but the public is saying “No” to a rush to social democracy.

Although the conservatives, libertarians, and independents who oppose Obama’s health-care initiative may not put it in quite these terms, they sense that his project will not just increase insurance premiums but undermine what they cherish about America. Those Americans who want to keep our detention facility at Guantanamo Bay think it necessary to protect our security — but they also worry, more profoundly, that our leaders are too apologetic to serve our interests. Americans may want change, even fundamental change, but most of them would rather change our institutions than our national character.

We are engaged in a battle of permanence versus change, in which the object of conquest is nothing less than our national character, the idea of American exceptionalism.

Russell Kirk lays out, in more verbose form than Buckley’s “Standing Athwart History Yelling Stop”, the role of the conservative in this battle.

The intelligent conservative endeavors to reconcile the claims of Permanence and the claims of Progression. He thinks that the liberal and the radical, blind to the just claims of Permanence, would endanger the heritage bequeathed to us, in an endeavor to hurry us into some dubious Terrestrial Paradise. The conservative, in short, favors reasoned and temperate progress; he is opposed to the cult of Progress, whose votaries believe that everything new necessarily is superior to everything old.

Surely, if we do not take up this battle and challenge this cult of Progress, we will, as Lowry and Ponnoru note, be less.

It is madness to consider President Obama a foreigner. But it is blindness to ignore that American exceptionalism has homegrown enemies — people who misunderstand the sources of American greatness or think them outdated. If they succeed, we will be less free, less innovative, less rich, less self-governing, and less secure. We will be less.

Aaron B. Gardner