It is a natural human impulse to seek distinction or at least some measure of significance. Who, after all, wants to be a “nobody?” While the desire to be “somebody” is natural, not all paths to distinction are honorable or even tolerable.
For most people, going to a Starbucks several times a week or to a mall on the weekends will not satisfy this natural impulse to be “somebody.” Prudent policy-makers will offer people a realistic path to meaningful significance that simultaneously promotes the best interests of the larger community.
Leaving the choice of a path to distinction to chance is never wise. Membership in a violent gang can be a source of personal significance, but not one that is beneficial for the greater community.
Monuments erected to honor historical figures such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson should not blind us to the fact that they were flesh and blood human beings with desires common to all persons. It does not diminish their reputations to acknowledge that Founders like Washington were in search of distinction. For them, the path to historical significance led to the creation of the new American republic.
What has been lost from sight in too many accounts of the founding is the invitation that was extended to all Americans to acquire historical significance by advancing the success of our ambitious experiment in democratic-republican government. That invitation has been broadly extended to many groups over time.
During the ratification process, Alexander Hamilton argued that the American people would earn the admiration of all “mankind” by demonstrating, in ratifying the U.S. Constitution, that good government could be the product of “reflection and choice.”
Hamilton was convinced that what was happening in America was “exceptional.” Beyond this, he also believed that it would be beneficial for the people to be self-conscious actors who knew that they were part of something special.
What was “special” was the opportunity to be a self-constructed “people” engaged in Constitution-based politics, not raw power politics. The difference is significant. Constitutional politics promotes deliberation and coalition-building, and hence moderation, as constitutional principles and rules establish important boundaries and protect political minorities.
The alternative to constitutional politics is power politics or politics without boundaries other than the will or passions of individuals and groups. Constitutional politics encourages us to recognize each other as fellow citizens. Power politics unconstrained by the Constitution divides people into allies and enemies. In a very real sense, constitutional politics encourages us to behave as rational beings while power politics enslaves us to our passions and follies.
What makes the “American way of life” exceptional is a combination of superior ingredients from constitutional protection for freedom of expression and religion, to a commitment to due process of law and equal protection of the laws, to policy-making based on deliberation, to the encouragement given to entrepreneurialism via protection for property and contract rights. No comparable combination can be found anywhere else. It is not by mere chance that so many American flags have been seen in Hong Kong during the crackdown by the government of China.
During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln appealed to American exceptionalism to save the Union. A common, reason-based, faith in the foundational principles that support constitutional politics and deliberative governance in the United States is what Lincoln believed made it possible to transform a mass of otherwise self-regarding individuals into a community of productive and law-abiding citizens.
From business leaders who are preoccupied with global markets to educators who are preoccupied with victimhood, American exceptionalism is out of sight or out of favor. Anti-foundationalism, reflected in speech codes, violations of property rights and the defilement of monuments honoring Founders such as Washington, has emboldened the critics of American exceptionalism. As a result, the significance that generations of Americans proudly associated with U.S. citizenship has sadly been rendered problematical.
An appreciation for what history can teach us about the cultural and historical identity of America and its foundational principles, as well as about the sobering complexities of political existence, would serve us well as we contend with mounting challenges to the integrity and vitality of the republic. It is instructive to understand, for example, how the French Revolution gave rise to a Reign of Terror and how communist idealism gave rise to Stalinist totalitarianism.
Significantly, history was at the top of the list of subjects Thomas Jefferson wanted Americans to study.
The Founders satisfied their natural impulse for distinction by attaching themselves to something that they were convinced was of great historical significance.
In keeping with the example of Washington and Lincoln, public officials, educators, ministers, among other persons who help shape public opinion, would do this nation a valuable service by illuminating how the American people can lead consequential lives by engaging in the kind of constructive constitutional politics that protects as well as enriches the exceptional nation that has been left to their care.
• David Marion is Elliott Emeritus Professor of Government and a Fellow of the Wilson Center for Leadership in the Public Interest at Hampden-Sydney College.
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