How We Lost American Exceptionalism
How did Democrats and Republicans both become the parties of war and the purveyors of an interventionist foreign policy?
- Southerners developed a split personality about the federal government. At home, they fought it every step of the way. Abroad, they embraced it.
- By embracing Southern militarism, Republicans replaced the Democratic Party as the war party.
- After 9/11, Republican neoconservatives upped the ante, falsely claiming that militarism is American exceptionalism.
The disintegration of American exceptionalism was a long time coming. The idea that government is a devil at home and the country is an angel abroad originates in the American Civil War. The idea that government is an angel at home and abroad originates in the Progressive Era.
The Civil War was horrific. New scholarship estimates that 752,000 men died, significantly more than the 618,000 previously thought. One in three Southern men of military age died. The country’s GDP was cut in half. Lincoln suspended habeas corpus and increased the power of the federal government and the executive branch. Limited government would never be the same after the Civil War.
While the North prevailed on the battlefield, the country remained bitterly divided. For Southerners, the Civil War was a second war of independence. Southerners developed a split personality about the federal government. At home, they fought it every step of the way. Abroad, they embraced it, becoming the backbone of the American military. Southern exceptionalism embraced limited government at home, but led Big Government abroad.
Southerners saw no inconsistency in their reaction to the Civil War. Northern soldiers were given pensions (government programs) and Squibb drugs (healthcare). Confederate soldiers didn’t enjoy these positive rights. The South would rise again by finding strength in self-reliance (guns and religion). The Southern warrior class vowed never to lose another American war.
Following on the heels of the Mexican-American War — as a war of choice , the first crack in the idea of American exceptionalism — the Civil War fractured American exceptionalism and sowed the seeds for competing exceptionalisms based on political parties. It would take almost a century for the Republican Party to adopt Southern exceptionalism.
After the Civil War, the Republican Party allowed special interests to run the federal government. Crony capitalism was another deadly assault on limited government. The Democratic Party — representing the South — responded with the Progressive Era. Big Government — not the Constitution — would shield the citizen against robber baron excesses.
Woodrow Wilson, the first Southern President after the Civil War, transformed the Democratic Party into the war party. With far-reaching consequences, Wilson took the country to war against Germany. Repackaging Manifest Destiny, Wilson told the American people that it was our duty to save the world for democracy.
War no longer was defending our borders. War was now justified as promoting democracy around the world. America was now a force for good in the world. Big Government abroad paved the way for Big Government at home. From Wilson to Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Democratic Party led the country into (and in) World War I and World War II. Republicans called them “Democrat wars” and clung to the Founder’s noninterventionist foreign policy.
Bipartisan embrace of Wilsonianism
In 1952, Republicans threw in the towel. When Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, defeated Ohio Senator Robert Taft for the Republican presidential nomination (and later defeated Adlai Stevenson in the general election), Republicans joined Democrats in a bipartisan embrace of Wilsonianism. Never again would Republicans be accused of isolationism.
The government was still a devil at home but now — with Republican patriots leading the charge — America was a force for good in the world. For a half of a century, Republican exceptionalism ran the White House for 36 years — and government spending increased every year.
During the Cold War, American exceptionalism was redefined by Republicans and Democrats into something the Founders would not recognize. America was no longer exceptional because of our unique form of self-government. Limited government no longer existed to protect the sovereignty of the individual. The government now expanded to promote democracy abroad. (Never mind that the American Republic was never a democracy. Never mind that the Founders rejected a strong executive.)
Southern exceptionalism captured the hearts and minds of Republicans. Over the course of a century, the North moved South, the South switched parties, Southerners moved West, and political segregation replaced racial segregation. By embracing Southern militarism, Republicans replaced the Democratic Party as the war party.
Republicans found political advantage in casting national security in terms of love of country. Republicans positioned themselves as the true patriots because they hated communism more than Democrats.
Democrats, they argued, couldn’t be trusted with national security because they hired communists in the executive branch. Democrats were attacked for losing China. Lyndon Johnson escalated the Vietnam War out of fear of being accused of losing another country to communism.
The Republican Party remained the war party in the decades after the Cold War. Democrats remain vulnerable to the charge of being weak on national security as long as America is leader of the free world. As the party of the namesake of Wilsonianism, Democrats are hoisted by their own petard.
Since Republicans oppose the welfare state, they can focus their energy exclusively on the warfare state. Democrats care more about the welfare state but, to be politically competitive, they support Republican wars and, not to be outdone, invent their own wars.
After 9/11, Republican neoconservatives upped the ante, falsely claiming that militarism is American exceptionalism. Neither party dares tell the truth: Citizens are taxed to pay for the biggest military in world history — and they are expected in the future to pay public debts that were run up in support of that military.
This is Part III of The Globalist’s “Thomas Paine” series “Death of American Exceptionalism.” The other parts can be found here:
Part I: The Idea of American Exceptionalism
Part II: Democratic and Republican Exceptionalism
Part IV: American Exceptionalism and the Politics of Foreign Policy