American Exceptionalism

A friend of mine recommended this video, the seventh in a series of videos by this Bill Whittle guy.  He’s a hard-core conservative, but comes across as reasonable and articulate, and I rather enjoyed it.  If you don’t want to watch a 12 minute link, a summary: he’s arguing for American exceptionalism, and goes through all sort of ways in which America is really ascendent–scientific papers published, Nobel prizes, business innovations, inventions and discoveries.  Plus military domination.  Plus cultural ubiquity.  I’m not sure I’d use Hollywood action movies as a measure of American awesomeness, but otherwise he makes a strong case.  And he attributes it all to limited government, lack of government regulation, and the Second Amendment.

As I say, the guy seems pretty rational.  I’m an American, after all; I like my country, I consider myself a patriot.  But though he gets the evidence for American greatness pretty well right, his analysis is way off.  In fact, it’s actually pretty funny.

First of all, he doesn’t understand what ‘American exceptionalism‘ means.  It doesn’t mean ‘American awesomeness,’ which is how he seems to understand it.  ‘Exceptional,’ in this context, doesn’t mean ‘really terrific,’ it means ‘unique, an exception to the rules.’  Most historians today reject exceptionalism, but it’s not because they’re all a bunch of America-hating commies.  It’s because they see the preponderance of evidence as suggesting that American culture is essentially an extension of European culture, including imperialism and war-making. He’s confusing actual exceptionalism for, I don’t know,  pop culture hegemony, plus half-baked imperialism, plus corporate world-domination.

But, okay, let that go.  Here’s what Whittle doesn’t say.

America, he says, leads the world in science.  Evidence: Americans publish more scientific papers than the next seven nations combined.  I think that’s great, and it’s probably true.  Why?  Because of investments by government.  Because of research grants, federally funded.  Because of corporate grants for research, and the tax break that results.  Because of directly funded scientific research, like the Hubbell telescope, or NASA, or Los Alamos, or at universities all across the country.  Because of land-grant colleges, which expanded education access to basically everyone.  Because of Pell grants and college loans.  I think everyone would agree that there are lots of problems with American education and higher education, but there’s a reason we’re a magnet to kids the world over.  We were the first nation on earth to decide that every kid who wanted to go to college should be able to, and to use federal money to make that possible. And we’re reaped a great harvest.

Whittle talks about Norman Borlaug.  Calls him one of the greatest Americans, a man who did as much good for humanity than anyone else who has ever lived on the planet earth.  Boy, is he right about that!  Borlaug’s agricultural innovations may have saved a billion lives, may have saved a billion people from starvation.  An extraordinary man, a great scientist.  Educated at a government funded college, his research funded by the Rockefeller foundation and the US government.  Federal money, sensibly invested.

Why does America lead in business innovation?  It sure as heckfire ain’t limited government.  It’s because we lead the world in government investment in infrastructure (or used to.)  It’s because of the national highway system, and computer technology (developed initially for government research), and the internet (a government innovation.)  Al Gore did not invent the internet, nor did he ever say that he had.  What he did do was sponsor legislation freeing this government resource for commercial use.

Now here’s the thing.  Every bit of that, the infrastructure and the educational programs and the colleges and the research grants, all of it, were proposed by liberals and opposed by conservatives.  It’s really remarkable.  Whittle thinks he’s making a case for The Greatness of America.  And he does.  But really, it’s the Greatness of Liberalism.  Every single item on his list was initially a liberal innovation, proposed by a liberal legislator or President, fought for in Congress by liberals, enacted and signed as a result of liberal support.  He talks about how remarkable the Marshall Plan was.  Indeed it was.  What other major military power, having defeated its enemy, then goes on to spend national treasure to rebuild that same enemy’s economy, to feed the enemy’s children, and rebuild his homes and industries.  Who does that?  America did.  In Germany and Japan, that’s what we did.  Well, do you have any idea how hard conservatives fought against the Marshall plan?

Here’s my personal fave rave, the single funniest thing on the video.  Whittle says that America is ‘exceptional’ because of our military world dominance.  Well, that’s a real thing–American armed forces are incredibly effective, well trained and well-armed.  I wish we didn’t use that military might to invade countries with whom we have no quarrel (lookin’ at you, Iraq!), but the military is effective.  This, he says, is because of the American system of limited government. Yep.  Just savor that thought.  Just bask in it.  We have the greatest army in the history of the world.  The biggest, the baddest, the toughest.  And it exists because of our tradition of limited government.  The itty-bitty tiny little government envisioned by our Founders finds its truest expression in . . .  a 1.4 trillion dollar military.  Annually.  Which pays for 1.3 million personnel. Plus, you know, tanks and planes and helicopters and submarines and aircraft carriers and destroyers and . . . . Well done, limited government!

See, here’s the thing: the central doctrine of the US constitution is NOT limited government, as Whittle seems to think. The Founders did NOT want a small central government.  If they had wanted a limited federal government, they probably would have said so.  They’d already experienced limited government with the Articles of Confederation.  They were fed up with it.  They wanted a big activist government.  The key to understanding the Constitution is the general welfare clause.  They wanted government to have lots and lots of power, and do lots and lots of good things, but they were simultaneously wary of the possibility of any single branch of government wielding too much of that power.  Hence separation of powers: the single central constitutional doctrine.

Oh, sure, Thomas Jefferson said some things about limiting government.  And then, the second he became President, he expanded the size and influence and power of the federal government exponentially, with the Louisiana Purchase.  (This is a guy, after all, who could write with a straight face about ‘all men’ being ‘created equal,’ and on the same day, write his overseer about capturing escaped slaves.)  Don’t get me wrong; I like Jefferson.  But don’t expect philosophic consistency from the man.

No, we get this ‘limited government’ argle-blargle from the likes of Ronald Reagan, who loved to talk about ‘government is the problem, not the solution,’ while greatly expanding both its size and reach.  Or Reagan’s fellow conservative George W. Bush, who loved small government rhetoric, but who even the Wall Street Journal admitted was a government expanding disaster. Liberals, on the other hand, who like government and want  to work effectively, who see the direct link between sensible government investment and American expanding prosperity, tend to reduce the size of government.  As Bill Clinton did, and so far, as has President Obama.

So I would suggest to Mr. Whittle: he’s absolutely right about American awesomeness.  Well done, sir! But he’s got the causes completely skee-wampus.  Our country is successful.  Our Founders great experiment in democracy has succeeded beyond their wildest imaginings.  And our success is built on effective, competent, far-sighted liberalism, as expressed legislatively, and administered by the federal government.

Oh, and the Second Amendment.  Sorry, I forgot Whittle’s final conclusion, that all this success was built on the foundation of the Second Amendment.  I was wrong: that’s the funniest thing in his entire video.  Oh my word.  Nothing in the Constitution could be less relevant to our current prosperity than the Second Amendment.  It’s like saying “Joe Montana’s great career as a quarterback was built on the foundation of Bill Walsh’s hair-stylist.”  It’s like saying “the Empire State Building is built on the foundation of sidewalk hot dog sales.”  It’s like . . . no, sorry, can’t think of anything silly enough.

Bill Whittle has a big following, I gather.  He’s an appealing on-camera personality.  His research isn’t half bad.  But he’s an ideologue of the first order, and his analysis is just preposterous.  Government generally works.  Sometimes it doesn’t.  When it doesn’t, let’s work together to fix it.



2 thoughts on “American Exceptionalism

  1. ckpratte

    Brilliant, as always. I wish I had half your ability to counter the ravings of misguided boobs like Mr. Whittle with such grace and good humor. Keep up the great work.


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