What American Exceptionalism Meant, What Destroyed It, and How we can Re-establish our Heritage
While listening to the September 10th episode of the Adam Carolla Show (Warning and apologies!!! Not Safe for Family Setting or Work! I love ACS, but he’s rough. Not for those averse to cursing and VERY blue humor!) I was pleased to hear Adam’s continued collaboration with Dennis Prager. The discussion they had inspired me to write about the decline of the very spirit that drove the first Americans to fight tooth and nail, risking annihilation, to defend the liberty they believed was their right as a matter of natural law.
Our Nation’s Founding was an Anomaly
Our Nation’s Founders belief that their rights were not given to them as a result of their government’s benevolence, but were instead theirs simply as a result of the citizen’s existence, was a foreign concept in all of the world. Furthermore, that the government didn’t derive its status as the overseer of these natural rights from some other source, but that the right to govern was bestowed upon the government by the citizenry, was the most revolutionary idea ever implemented up to that point, or since. This seemingly complex, but in reality, very simple concept is the primary reason why America is Exceptional. This is why people who believe in the Constitutional Republic our Founders created as the “most perfect” form of governance also firmly believe in American Exceptionalism.
Dennis Prager spent a large portion of his life studying Russian history, philosophy and political culture. You could say he’s something of an expert in the subject, both in terms of what the Soviet Union was like before the Iron Curtain fell, and afterward in a post-Soviet Russia. His understanding of the gestalt of Russian society is profound, and can be summed up thusly:
Russians want very little out of life. They want their vodka, they want their housing and their heating in the winter. They want their health care, and they want to be left alone.
Simply put, Russians are content to be taken care of as long as that which they have been promised continues to come to them unbidden. Entitlement is a way of life in Russia, and has been for generations. The people know very little of the more noble aspects of human nature, that which drives us to achieve more than previous generations in an effort to better the self, and through self-improvement, better society. That isn’t to say that Russian society is absent these aspects; there is simply no reason to better the self when one’s needs are seen to absent effort beyond what is asked for by the government. The effect is a muting of aspiration and the desire to excel.
Human Nature is What Drives Us to Excel
Human nature is, at its very core, selfish. The betterment of society is never really the goal while the individual is pursuing betterment of the self; more importantly, self-improvement has the very catalytic side effect of the bettering of the society in which one lives. When you mow your lawn and care for the upkeep of your home your neighborhood is improved by the aesthetics of your home’s facade. Your neighbors see your property, and, through the mechanics of human nature’s more basic trait of jealousy, more often than not will endeavor to emulate or improve upon the conditions your home’s facade presents, thus spreading the improvement you have made of yourself throughout your neighborhood. This cascading of competitive behavior and outcomes is what shapes positive societal evolution. This all, of course, depends heavily on the preservation of personal property rights. Absent ownership, the desire to improve one’s material conditions loses meaning. If your home is yours, but your neighbor’s home isn’t theirs, well, they may very well not care a whit about the attention you pay to the aesthetics of your home’s facade. Therein lies a fundamental problem. Without empowerment through the ability to possess property obtained through one’s efforts above and beyond that which sustains the self and the family, one finds no need to excel. Excellence garners rewards. In Russia, there have been no rewards for excellence for quite some time.
Russia is far from a utopian society. However, Russians having their simple needs fulfilled by an all-powerful centralized government, and in such a manner and for so long so as to render desire for more pointless, had a grand purpose. A pliable and uncomplaining workforce focused toward the sustainment of the status quo created a means for continued control of the populace to support the avarice of the ruling elite. There is no equivalency between those who “serve” in Russian Government and the citizen. There never has been. To allow for the citizen to hold the same status under the law as the ruling class allows for the ruling class to be pulled from their towers to be judged by the same laws and regulations that were created to control the citizenry by that same ruling class.
What Exceptionalism Created, Progressivism Attempted to Destroy
America, in similar fashion, has lost her way. We’ve begun wholesale emulation of what the Russian Government has been doing to its citizenry, albeit in a much more benevolent manner. Starting in 1913, the Progressive Movement, with several well–aimed strokes, weakened the constraints which, until that time, had prevented direct Federal interaction with the citizen in fundamental ways. The passage of the 16th Amendment created a means with which the Federal Government could interact directly with the individual as a “taxable person”. Never before in American History was the Federal Government able to impact the individual so fundamentally. The scope of this Amendment has been considered the catalyst that created a cascade of Statism through American society; a society which, until that time, had never seen direct interaction between the Federal Government and the individual in any regard. Following the passage of both the 16th Amendment and the Revenue Act of 1913, the relationship between the individual and the Government whose power was derived from said individual had become radically altered. From 1913 on, individuals were expected to provide proof of their income from all sources, under penalty of law, so as to provide revenue to the Federal Government. This revenue was to be used to fund such activities as were to be apportioned by the Congress. For the first time in American history, save for the years preceding the Revolutionary War, Americans were forced by a Government to pay a tax to said Government; a tax that didn’t have a direct defined purpose. 126 years earlier the Founders of the United States had just finished ratifying a Constitution that was birthed from the ashes of a war fought for, among other things, the very purpose of casting off the shackles of taxation without purpose or representation. In two very clear examples of Progressive Statism, Woodrow Wilson and the Democrats who controlled the House and Senate at the time did to America what Americans had bled to defend against at our Nation’s Founding. While it can be argued that the Revenue Act of 1913 lowered tariffs in such a way so as to encourage commerce, the development of the individual income tax created a means through which the Federal Government was able to, in six short years, eclipse the entirety of all tariff revenue which, up to that point, had been the bulk of the Federal Government’s revenue stream. The direct confiscation of income from the American Citizen was to become the proverbial golden goose, and, it was thought, she would never stop laying eggs.
As if to add insult to injury, and, quite possibly in defense of the Progressive Movement’s steam-rolling of individual sovereignty with the 16th Amendment and the Revenue Act of 1913, Congress passed, and the States ratified, the 17th Amendment, decoupling the State’s only influence over the legislative activities of Congress. Prior to 1913, Congressional Senatorial Seats were filled by an electoral process governed by the individual State Legislatures. The States had a means of controlling the Senator they sent to serve in Congress, and therein the States retained a measure of sovereignty, and through that measure a means of influencing Federal legislative outcomes. Because the House of Representatives was elected directly via popular vote, the Founders saw the Senate as being a means for the States to have the ability to counter pure majoritarianism in Congress by allowing for the States to place Senators chosen by their legislatures as opposed to chosen by the same electoral process as elected the House Congressional Representatives. This was seen as a means of divesting power from those states that enjoyed a large population, such as New York and New Jersey, when compared to the Southern States such as Georgia and the Carolinas. With each state only having two Senators, the legislatures in the various states selecting those Senators allowed for the states to check the House of Representatives’ population based representation; Two Senators for every state as opposed to a Representative for every 647,000, giving each state an equal ability to counter legislation by more populous states, should a counter be desired or warranted.
Following the ratification of the 17th Amendment, the Progressive Movement had established a means of controlling outcomes in the Legislative Branch of the Federal Government by effectively institutionalizing majoritarian rule. This single act flew in the face of 126 years of Federalism, having the crippling effect of creating a democracy where a republican form of government had been established. From this point forward the will of the people in population centers would wash over the land, flooding over the banks of Federalism and effectively eliminating the boundaries created by the 10th Amendment by establishing an all-powerful centralized government absent the ability for individual states to redress their grievances through legislative action in the Senate. The 17th Amendment, though seemingly simple in language, decoupled the states from the legislative process, and thereby destroyed over a century’s worth of Federalism. Following its ratification, the 17th Amendment created a Congress whose power derived directly from the popular vote in totality, and, as such, the political power of population centers such as New York City, Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles and San Francisco became the means through which Congress’s power was expanded. As Statists were elected to more and more seats for more and more terms, the representation of the states waned, and eventually became irrelevant.
What had made America exceptional on the world stage in terms of governance was supplanted with Federal entitlement and the empowerment of sloth. Exceptionalism in America stemmed from the most admirable aspects of human nature that drove human beings to better themselves and the lives of their loved ones through self-improvement, innovation and delayed gratification in hopes of improved outcomes. The Progressive Movement saw in these seemingly self-serving character traits the supposed roots of evil, and sought to disarm those who had built, as a matter of pursuing their dreams, independence; Independence, even, from the need to be governed. The Progressives thought they had a better way.
Progressives saw government, and the pursuit of the power that it grants, as a means to an Utopian end. Their goal was a society where no one need want for anything. The core failing in this pursuit, however, is that key aspects of human nature that our Founders sought to empower so as to encourage America to thrive were entirely ignored. Aspiration is not an evil. Aspiration is what drives the Progressive Movement, at least in terms of its leadership’s aspirations of power of their fellow man. However, as is common in many progressive legislative measures, even to this day, the ends always justify any means, even the subversion of individual liberty, so as to create an equality of outcomes instead of an equality of opportunities. This phenomenon has, over the course of the ensuing century, created an entitlement mentality that has stymied the American Spirit, and thus undermines the Exceptionalism America used to be recognized for – both within and outside her borders.
American Exceptionalism, or that which drove Americans at our Founding to fight, knowing failure guaranteed annihilation, to establish “…a more perfect union…” that would endure all tests, so as to protect, defend and empower the futures of their progeny into perpetuity, had, in one short year, and the century that followed, been effectively dismantled and replaced with a form of governance very much like that which the Founders had cast off only 126 years prior. America, during World War 1 and World War 2 showed, for two brief moments in history, that she could be Exceptional again, but, as with many moments, these were fleeting, and the damage that had been done by the Progressive Movement dragged society back to the baser aspects of socialistic rule.
Welfare, a “social safety net”, Medicare; wealth redistribution methods made possible expressly by the 16th Amendment and Supreme Court decisions upholding their Constitutionality, allowed for ever more direct control over the citizenry by the Federal Government. Where the government used to derive its authority to govern from the people it was sworn to defend, now the people derive their subsistence in order to survive from the ability for the Government to tax their neighbors and the rest of society, or the benevolence of that Government to not tax all of their income to provide for the State’s, and thus the citizen’s neighbor’s, needs. These entitlements have been more destructive to society than we can ever truly know. As people find they are not truly responsible for their livelihoods they also find that they do not have a desire to see that their lives are improved through their ability to excel. The individual’s needs met, society declined due to the weakening of the will of the individual having been very softly, but thoroughly, broken. Through effective propaganda campaigns developed around the premise that those who have obviously gathered their wealth at the expense of those who have not, the poor, near poor and the “middle class” were lulled into an acceptance that Government would see justice served, and, as long as the entitlements continued to flow, the population was accepting of this fallacy.
There is Hope
Our fates are not sealed. American Exceptionalism does not have to die in the annals of history, a forgotten relic of an age that may never be realized again. There are those Conservatives who understand the words I have written here, and who feel within themselves the desire and drive to excel. Perhaps that drive is due to the indomitable human spirit and the more noble aspects of human nature. If this is the case, perhaps, then, there is hope.
Liberty’s Torch still burns. Her torch burns in the hearts of men and women across this great nation, once great for casting off her shackles of tyranny, and perhaps great again for the same act. I implore you to take the opportunity to read a book that has educated and inspired me to express my desire to see America restored to her now nearly forgotten greatness. “The Liberty Amendments: Restoring the American Republic”, by Mark Levin, is a clearly written plan to use the mechanisms established in the Constitution to begin a process of proposing Constitutional Amendments that, if ratified, have the potential of undoing the damage that has been wrought upon the American Republic by the Progressive Movement over the course of the last century. The course is suggested, and it is long, and not without hazard. The course cannot be set without action, and that action starts with the States. The 17th Amendment didn’t completely destroy Federalism, but its impacts have made it seem as though our Federal form of governance had been mortally wounded and left for dead. Article V of the Constitution, crafted specifically by our Founders as a bulwark against an out of control tyrannical Federal Leviathan, created a means through which an organized effort of and by the States can bypass Congress in the creation and ratification of Amendments to the Constitution.
Do not lose hope. America shall not die in the ashes of the fires of socialism and tyranny so long as Patriots are willing to fight to defend her honor. We are stronger than what Statism has seen us show ourselves to be. We have been before, and we shall be again.