American Exceptionalism and anti-historicism on the right

J.L.’s discussion of American exceptionalism last week was really spot-on. Placing American greatness within its proper historical context is necessary both in order to understand what makes America truly great, but also to understand our flaws as a nation and a people. To understand history is to understand ourselves, after all. The map backward is also a map forward.

I see the inability to grasp this as symptomatic of a larger trend of anti-historicism on the right, of which American exceptionalism bereft of historical context is only one small part. Here’s David Frum:

Too often, conservatives dupe themselves. They wrap themselves in closed information systems based upon pretend information. In this closed information system, banks can collapse without injuring the rest of the economy, tax cuts always pay for themselves and Congressional earmarks cause the federal budget deficit. Even the market collapse has not shaken some conservatives out of their closed information system. It enfolded them more closely within it. This is how to understand the Glenn Beck phenomenon. Every day, Beck offers alternative knowledge — an alternative history of the United States and the world, an alternative system of economics, an alternative reality. As corporate profits soar, the closed information system insists that the free-enterprise system is under assault. As prices slump, we are warned of imminent hyperinflation. As black Americans are crushed under Depression-level unemployment, the administration’s policies are condemned by some conservatives as an outburst of Kenyan racial revenge against the white overlord.

The trick with closed information systems is that they need to be constantly protected from outside contamination (inconvenient facts, hard questions, etc.). (In this sense, Sarah Palin can be seen as almost the embodiment or avatar of the closed information system, furiously impervious to reality.)

If one considers the use of American exceptionalism in this context – as historical outlier rather than part of any sort of logical, historical continuum – one can quickly see why folks who push this particular breed of exceptionalism bristle so quickly at anything which might threaten their version of American greatness.

Jon Chait comments on Frum’s piece:

The whole piece is a dead-on attack on the central thrust of conservative thought over the last two years. I think it’s desperately necessary that sane people reform the conservative movement into a non-pathological, reality-based force in American politics. But I fear Frum is slaying so many sacred cows that nobody in the movement will listen to him.

I would suggest that perhaps the conservative movement itself is the most sacred of sacred cows here, and also the greatest impediment to conservatism as a ‘reality-based force in American politics’. More than anything, it is the movement itself which creates these closed information circuits, which revels in anti-historicism and the weaving of conservative illusion. In some ways it is also a great political force, but I also suspect that it is nearing its zenith in terms of both heat and light. These sorts of movements by their very natures have poor immune systems which is why they guard themselves so fiercely, why they are forced to create alternative narratives, alternate histories. They are brittle. The conservative movement, for all its ferocity and political savvy, is brittle, because it relies too heavily on its own illusions – illusions which have been made in recent years all too convincing by outlets like Fox News.

P.S. Mike Farmer writes, in the comments: “Let’s analyze the liberals, now.”

I think the signs of similarly closed information systems developing on the left are there in greater and greater proportion, actually. For the purposes of a post on American exceptionalism, however, the left is rather less at fault than the right.

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25 thoughts on “American Exceptionalism and anti-historicism on the right

  1. Conservatism, or, more appropriately, the right, is becoming so multi-faceted, it strikes me as reductionism to concentrate on one facet. I think the label is currently useless, except to describe a faction which adheres to traditional Christian values and fiscal constraint and believes government has a role in protecting these traditional values and spending tax-payer money wisely. The neo-cons are more temperamentally liberal who support foreign intervention — the limited government/free market faction is more libertarian — the Big Government, establishment Republicans are simple statists — the far right-wing are authoritarians and race protectors — then there’s a faction which is a mixture of libertarian, strong defense and traditional values – then there are independents who mostly vote right, temperamentally conservative and a tad libertarian on social issues, but not very political. It just seems like what we’re now calling conservative is a selection of characteristics which are applied to a manufactured group, but is not very applicable to individuals. Let’s analyze the liberals, now.

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    • This is big tent conservatism. The three main groups are neocon, industrialist/business and social conservatives. These three don’t like each other very much but have identified liberals as a common enemy. Never mind that they can’t agree on what a liberal is. Big tent means you don’t ask questions.

      Now each of these may have their good and bad points but the real problem is the extent to which social conservatives control the republican primary. Nobody with a brain can make it past the primary so whatever neocon or industrial policy agenda is enacted is likely to be incompetent. The big tent collapsed with the failure of Bush to hold intellectual and moral authority.

      The big tent collapsed with the failure of Bush to hold intellectual and moral authority. I see the tea party as a collection of factions from that big tent. They are still ignoring their differences by cranking up the liberal bashing to ridicules levels. Liberals aren’t their problem.

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      • Liberal-bashing? It’s mild compared to conservative-bashing, which comes from media, Hollywood, Jon Stewart, universities, everywhere. It’s clear the two groups have opposite visions of the future , so bashing is not hard to understand, but you can’t think it’s a one-sided deal. Liberals have been vicious toward the Teap Party and conservatives, and the moderate “conservatives” have even been vicious toward the conservatives — and all of them dismiss/bash libertarianism.

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        • Both sides engage in bashing, that is true.

          Here is one difference I do see – the political vocabulary used by Conservatives attempts to make the opposing labels into pejoratives. So words like “Liberal” or “Progressive” are bad words – to be that thing is in itself bad political. But the ultimate connotations deal with masculinity, sexual preference, whether you are a ‘Real American’. So to compare both equally doesn’t hold water. It’s the same thinking that Rush Limbaugh is a counter-balance to the NY Times – whadda joke.

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            • Okay, a cursory stab at analyzing liberals would be that the issue there is a different sort of historicism- namely, a sort of telelological vision of the future as inevitably leading to greater gains. The argument I hear lately from American liberals is that ‘demographic trends’ ensure the end of the Republican party. Arguments about inevitable futures tend to be wrong- predicting the future is pretty hard anyway- but they tend to be “historicist” in that they see history as moving towards a particular and necessary endpoint. Does that help?

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    • “except to describe a faction which adheres to traditional Christian values and fiscal constraint and believes government has a role in protecting these traditional values and spending tax-payer money wisely”

      Yes, real conservatism is so anodyne that no one could possibly oppose it. It’s just support for Mom, the Flag and Apple pie. I know liberals who would be just as happy to claim to support that statement.

      If I, as a liberal, have to identify with the whacked-out crazies on my side conservatives shouldn’t be weaseling out of their crazies.

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  2. An exchange between David Frum and Jonathan Chait is looking at both sides of the same side, and not too helpful.

    “American exceptionalism” is not the same as “national greatness.” AE refers to the peculiar circumstances of the Founding in the New World, away from the class structure, institutionalized religion, and tribalism of the Old World, a chance to start over.

    Oh, and God. Not one Founder I can recall disputed providence’s role in that, although I suppose there are some. Washington’s First Inaugural:

    “Such being the impressions under which I have, in obedience to the public summons, repaired to the present station, it would be peculiarly improper to omit in this first official act my fervent supplications to that Almighty Being who rules over the universe, who presides in the councils of nations, and whose providential aids can supply every human defect, that His benediction may consecrate to the liberties and happiness of the people of the United States a Government instituted by themselves for these essential purposes, and may enable every instrument employed in its administration to execute with success the functions allotted to his charge.

    In tendering this homage to the Great Author of every public and private good, I assure myself that it expresses your sentiments not less than my own, nor those of my fellow-citizens at large less than either. No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the Invisible Hand which conducts the affairs of men more than those of the United States. Every step by which they have advanced to the character of an independent nation seems to have been distinguished by some token of providential agency; and in the important revolution just accomplished in the system of their united government the tranquil deliberations and voluntary consent of so many distinct communities from which the event has resulted can not be compared with the means by which most governments have been established without some return of pious gratitude, along with an humble anticipation of the future blessings which the past seem to presage.”

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  3. I was referring to “closed information systems based on pretend informatiom” when I suggested analyzing liberals.

    I’m a little confused with your meaning of “historicism”. What Frum is describing is predictions made by some on the right based on historical and present cases. If we want to talk about pretending, let’s look at how the liberals are pretending that statist actions won’t have the same consequences they have had in the past, and tht they are having in Europe rght now. Frum pretends that because we haven’t yet seen the consequences of the progressives expansion of what Bush was doing, that they won’t happen, and that Beck is a fear monger. These consequences can be seen in Greece, and now in Ireland, and then Portugal. It’s Frum who believes in American exceptionalism if he thinks we’ll avoid the consequences because this a different Amerian statism. Frum is like Lincoln Steffens who visited Russia at the height of Lenin’s destructive implementation of depotism and said “I have been over to the future – and it works.”

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  4. “These sorts of movements by their very natures have poor immune systems which is why they guard themselves so fiercely, why they are forced to create alternative narratives, alternate histories. They are brittle. The conservative movement, for all its ferocity and political savvy, is brittle, because it relies too heavily on its own illusions – illusions which have been made in recent years all too convincing by outlets like Fox News.”
    – E.D. Kain

    Followed up not long after by:

    “Liberal-bashing? It’s mild compared to conservative-bashing, which comes from media, Hollywood, Jon Stewart, universities, everywhere. It’s clear the two groups have opposite visions of the future , so bashing is not hard to understand, but you can’t think it’s a one-sided deal. Liberals have been vicious toward the Teap (sic) Party and conservatives, and the moderate “conservatives” have even been vicious toward the conservatives — and all of them dismiss/bash libertarianism.”
    – Mike Farmer

    The old “But he/she/they did it, too – and worse, so there!” way of thinking.

    Now, one could point out to Mr. Farmer the number of armed Conservatives at Conservative events, the Rand Paul/Tea Party/Conservative/Republican county official who stomped on the “professional” woman’s head in Kentucky, Allen West’s biker gang buddies in Florida, Joyce Kaufman – representing Allen West – and her line about “if ballots don’t work, bullets will”, Nevada’s Sharron Angle firing (literally) out the line about “Second Amendment remedies”, and Pam Geller’s entire phony spiel on the Ground Zero Mosque (sic) that’s not on Ground Zero and not a mosque, but what’s the point?

    Fact it, Rand Paul, Allen West, Pam Geller, Joyce Kaufman, and, just for “you betchas” Sarah Palin could rape and murder every member of Mr. Farmer’s family Live on Fox News while soliciting donations for their personal offshore bank accounts and Mr. Farmer would be on this website ASAP typing about the greatness of the Conservative movement, the Tea Party, Fox News, and the aforementioned parties and adding a line about how his family probably deserved it for failing to be “true patriots” who clearly valued American exceptionalism and the unvarnished truths (sic) of the Conservative movement.

    More’s the pity.

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    • Was the point something to do with libertarians and the reply button and the progressives eschewal of same?

      Because if it wasn’t, it looked like team red/team blue bullshit from here and the stuff you think you’ve proven is about as proven as assertions about Muslims using some fairly colorful historical anecdotes about their own proclivities.

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  5. The MSM inexplicably continues to cover the Republicans as if this was the same party as Ford, Reagan or Bush I. What they haven’t yet grasped is that today’s party has morphed into an irrational cult that has made magical thinking and disinformation a part of its platform. When a sitting Senator states that climate change is a fraud, the MSM will give that false statement the same weight as a climate scientist’s claim to the contrary. It is time to ditch false objectivity and be willing to call “bullshit”.

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  6. Is this the same Chris who showed up at a Tea Party with a canon and an assault rifle? Also, a cognitive scientist who thinks computers may some day “think”? Willkommen lieber Freund!

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  7. Computers will not only be able to think, but handily beat God in a game of chess. By the way, what is your opinion of Minsky’s book, “The Society of Mind?” Your recent comments about consciousness seem very close to his.

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