America is no longer the exceptional country it once was, says famed libertarian social scientist Charles Murray.
“The American personality is still recognizable around the world, but in most other ways we are becoming just another social democracy, obsessed with security, fearful of risk, and highly regulated,” Murray told The Daily Caller in an interview about his new monograph, “American Exceptionalism: An Experiment in History.”
Murray, who is the W.H. Brady Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of several influential and controversial books, says a”good case can be made” that America began to falter with the presidency of Lyndon Johnson.
“The usual suspect, FDR, obviously began the American welfare state,” Murray said.
“But a good case can be made that the United States was still exceptional in most of the original ways at the time Lyndon Johnson assumed the presidency. I continue to hold the views I expressed in ‘Losing Ground.’ The reforms of the 1960s disastrously changed the course of our civic culture, and in doing so destroyed much that made America exceptional.”
Though Murray says “[r]ace relations and the role of women in society are just two of the advances” that have coincided with the decline American exceptionalism, he argues that the two did not need to be associated.
The advances “did not require that we subvert the American project,” Murray said. “Actually, they represented, or should have represented, a more complete implementation of the American project. The way that we have bound even those improvements up in a suffocating web of government oversight needn’t have happened.”
In 2009, President Obama responded to a question about whether he believes in American exceptionalism with a much criticized answer. “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism,” he said while at a NATO Summit in France.
Murray says Obama’s answer suggests he is ignorant of the meaning of American exceptionalism.
“American exceptionalism is not something you can choose to ‘believe in,’ any more than you can choose to ‘believe in’ the Oregon Trail,” Murray said. “It is a fact of American history. From the Founding through the 19th century, the ways in which America was exceptional, good and bad, were observed and written about by Europeans every bit as much as by Americans.”
See TheDC’s full interview with Murray below about his new monograph, the Stalinist origin of the term “American exceptionalism” and much more.
Why did you write the book?
It’s a monograph, actually, which the powers that be at AEI asked me to write as part of the “Values and Capitalism” series that AEI is producing for college students. A lot of the material in my book “Coming Apart” dealt with the ways in which America was historically exceptional, so I was a natural choice to write this monograph. And I thoroughly enjoyed the experience.
Where does the term American exceptionalism come from and what does it mean? I read recently that Josef Stalin was actually the first to ever use the term “American exceptionalism.” Is that true?
Yes. An American communist had argued that America’s peculiar civic culture made it exempt from Marx’s laws of history, which Stalin denounced as the heresy of “American exceptionalism.” But the idea that America was exceptional had been around since the Revolution.
Historically, what made America exceptional?
Start with our geography. To get from Europe to America in the colonial period meant a trip across the North Atlantic that might last a few months and could easily kill you. Once you got here, you were completely on your own. What kind of people were willing to make that voyage? It’s fair to say that courage, a high tolerance for risk, and self-reliance were in the genes of the American population at the time of the Revolution. Then during almost all of the 19th century we had the frontier, which Frederick Jackson Turner famously made into a theory to explain American exceptionalism — a persuasive theory, I should add. Then we had a unique ideology, the one expressed in the Declaration of Independence. No other country anywhere in the world had anything like it. We had exceptional party politics. Every advanced country in Europe developed a political party based on the working class that pushed the cause of socialism or social democracy. The United States alone never had a class-conscious workers’ party. And finally, Americans had exceptional traits like the ones that were fostered by the self-selection of those who came here.
How unique in the world and in world history was the American political system at the time of our founding?
Republics had existed at various points in history, with Rome’s being the most successful. Most of the others fell apart quickly, and Julius Caesar ended Rome’s republic as well. In one sense, our republic was shaped by those previous experiences — the Founders systematically studied the history of other republics to avoid the forces that had made them self-destruct. But the result was unique, marrying the concept of self-government with the concept that government must be strictly limited in its powers. The Founders were right to put “novus ordo seclorum” — “a new order of the ages” — on the Great Seal.
Do you think we are exceptional in the same way today? If not, where have we fallen short?
The American personality is still recognizable around the world, but in most other ways we are becoming just another social democracy, obsessed with security, fearful of risk, and highly regulated.
When did we begin to falter?
Jonah Goldberg will tell you that it began with Woodrow Wilson. His book “Liberal Fascism” persuaded me that Wilson — along with Teddy Roosevelt and the other Progressives of the early 20th century — introduced a fundamentally new and pernicious element into our view of the federal government’s role. The usual suspect, FDR, obviously began the American welfare state. But a good case can be made that the United States was still exceptional in most of the original ways at the time Lyndon Johnson assumed the presidency. I continue to hold the views I expressed in “Losing Ground.” The reforms of the 1960s disastrously changed the course of our civic culture, and in doing so destroyed much that made America exceptional.
What do you think Alexis De Tocqueville would say if he toured America today?
All you have to do is go back and read his passages about America’s passion for the idea of self-interest rightly understood, or about the energy of American communities in dealing with their own problems, or about the way that rich and poor were in close touch with each other, or about the nature of marriage in America, to realize how depressed he would be if made the same tour today.
In some ways, aren’t we better than we were in our past? Race relations comes to mind.
No question about it. Race relations and the role of women in society are just two of the advances. But they did not require that we subvert the American project. Actually, they represented, or should have represented, a more complete implementation of the American project. The way that we have bound even those improvements up in a suffocating web of government oversight needn’t have happened.
Is there a way to reclaim some of the values that we lost that you think are so fundamental to our exceptionalism?
That’s another way of asking whether America is capable of major cultural change. We know that the answer is yes. The Civil Rights Revolution is a good example. It went from a standing start in about 1954 to a national change of consciousness that enabled the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to pass just ten years later. The three (or four, depending on who’s counting) religious Great Awakenings are other examples. So it’s possible. I wouldn’t bet the ranch that one will happen.
What do you think of President Obama’s much criticized response to the question of whether he thought America was exceptional?
You mean the one when he responded to the effect that “Yes, I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I’m sure that Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism,” etc. If only he had read my monograph, he could have remedied his ignorance. American exceptionalism is not something you can choose to “believe in,” any more than you can choose to “believe in” the Oregon Trail. It is a fact of American history. From the Founding through the 19th century, the ways in which America was exceptional, good and bad, were observed and written about by Europeans every bit as much as by Americans.
What three books most shaped your worldview?
I suppose I shouldn’t say “Atlas Shrugged,” because I now reject much of what impressed me at age 17. But the fact is that its heroic vision of human existence made a huge impression that still lingers. In my late 30s, I finally understood what Aristotle was saying in the “Nichomachean Ethics,” and that had a profound effect. By the time I read Robert Nozick’s “Anarchy, State, and Utopia,” I was already a libertarian, but its intellectual power still dazzled me.
Any plans for another book? If so, what about?
Yes, indeed. But the topic’s still a secret. Which is another way of saying that it’s still so much in a state of evolution that anything I say about it now may turn out to be misleading.