America: Exceptional, Not Nationalist

Some of the liberal criticism of President Donald Trump since his election stems from an intellectual tradition that gained tremendous influence in the West during the 1960s, especially in American universities. According to what historians have labeled the New Left, a more radical strain of the American left, America is just another example of a toxic nationalist state, not unlike certain imperial or even fascist states. In 2000, the historian Eric Kaufmann warned that in choosing to be “particularist” rather than “cosmopolitan,” as he labeled the distinction, America travels the deadly path that 20th century nationalist states paved. Liberals are once again warning of a sort of toxic nationalism under Donald Trump.

Kaufmann’s, and the New Left’s, assessment of America is misguided for multiple reasons. First, it creates an overly simplified metric for assessing modern societies. In service to a cosmopolitan working class, international communism caused some of history’s greatest bloodshed. Cosmopolitanism alone cannot be the solution to what ails the world.

But there is another dangerous implication of this frenzied drive towards cosmopolitanism. It ignores the fact that America, as it was founded, is a unique alternative to the modern and bloody contest between nationalism and globalism. Alexis de Tocqueville recognized that America has a unique character because it “participates in the making of its laws by the choice of its legislators. … It may almost be said to govern itself, so feeble and restricted is the share left to the administration, so little do the authorities forget their popular origin and the power from which they emanate.” In 1906, H. G. Wells saw the same exceptional quality: “The American, it seems to me, has yet to achieve what is, after all, the product of education and thought, the conception of a whole to which all individual acts and happenings are subordinate and contributory.”

Both Wells and de Tocqueville held a European worldview which assumed what I call a “centralized moral economy.” In a centralized moral economy, right and wrong exist only in relationship to society. The individual is not the agent of moral law; he is only a sample of society and therefore the one who is responsible to live out the established moral code. Alfredo Rocco, the Italian fascist, wrote in 1926 that, “[Fascism] faces squarely the problem of the right of the state and the duty of individuals. Individual rights are only recognized in so far as they are implied in the rights of the state. In this preeminence of duty we find the highest ethical value of Fascism.”

For socialists, the use of state power is the natural expression of the moral law. According to President Woodrow Wilson, “The thesis of the state socialist is, that no line can be drawn between private and public affairs which the state may not cross at will; that omnipotence of legislation is the first postulate of all just political theory.” Since the central authority is the moral law, the central authority must remain unaccountable to individuals, or to what Jean-Jacques Rousseau calls “particular wills.”

Americans, having both cosmopolitan and particularist ambitions, rejected the notion of a centralized moral economy when they built instead a society based on a decentralized moral economy. In this system the individual curates moral law. He is the chief agent in defining what is morally right and in obeying it. Central authorities cannot be moral because no matter the good they intend, they only strip the individual of moral agency. At their best, governments can facilitate the individual’s responsibility to do what is right. The reason that this has worked in America is that its people have traditionally believed in the existence of the Natural Law. The Natural Law is a common-sense standard to which every individual can help hold government accountable. It was this revolutionary moral system that formed the superstructure of America’s social organization, political institutions, and economic markets.

In 1905, social reformer David Graham Phillips concluded in Reign of Gilt that “our national ideal is not a powerful state, … but manhood and womanhood, a citizenship ever wiser and stronger and more civilized with ever more and more individual units that cannot be controlled in the mass—the democratic man and democratic woman—alert, enlightened, self-reliant, free.” This same sentiment can be easily traced through American leaders from William Bradford to President Ronald Reagan.

Despite its decentralized moral economy, America has both committed and excused terrible moral failures. In fact, one might argue that this type of moral economy only exacerbated the evils of slavery, segregation, and the abuses of industrial capitalism because no centralized authority possessed enough power to enact reforms. However, the catastrophes of centralized moral economies dwarf these failings. Both nationalist and internationalist socialism might (perhaps) have helped nations turn the corner on the Great Depression, but they also created governments that killed hundreds of millions, largely because they were accountable neither to the Natural Law nor to their citizens.

—Daniel Spanjer is currently the chair of the arts and sciences department and professor of history at Lancaster Bible College. He also serves the college as the director of the Alcuin Society, a scholarly organization which serves campus faculty. Spanjer has published several essays for the new Encyclopedia of Christianity and developing a book for Square Halo Books on the history of the Western church.