Long embedded in America’s belief system was the notion that God had deliberately set aside, in isolation, their part of the world, freeing it from “foreign” corruptions and allowing a uniquely enlightened civilization to arise. That such a society indeed came forth has been an article of faith in our nation. American exceptionalism thus has its roots in this reading of providential history.
Accordingly, we’ve been ever alert for certain seeds of destruction harbored by “other” societies. These must not be allowed to take root and threaten our “American way of life.” The founding generation, for example, identified and rejected several foundational pillars of European society. Monarchy would have no place in our new Republic. Neither would hereditary noblemen, an exclusively “established church,” or a “standing army.” These had all brought on countless woes over the centuries. Nor must we abide a landless peasantry. Instead, America would feature, industrious land-owning yeomen, proud and independent members of society. When in the early 19th Century factories sprang up in the countryside (textile, saw mills, iron works, etc.) we welcomed these “machines in the garden,” and the absence of urban squalor, disease and disorder that would plague Europe’s industrial cities. Instead of a growing underclass we welcomed an expanding and dynamic middle class, and our escape from bitter class divisions so visible overseas. Later, after having achieved wealth and power, Americans were repeatedly reminded of the fate of Rome. That once mighty empire, we were informed, had collapsed, weakened by indolence, luxury, corruption and imperial overreach, a treacherous path that the United States must avoid.
In the 20th Century warnings about insidious “outside” influence and threats continued. In the aftermath of upheavals in Russia and Western Europe during and after World War I America rejected unequivocally Revolution as the way to overhaul society. When the Weimar Republic turned on the printing presses and saw its currency lose nearly all value, it served then and ever since as an object lesson for America about the dangers of fiscal anarchy and hyperinflation. Once Communism took hold in Russian, such a system became an anathema in America, altogether incompatible with our “way of life.” Associated as it was with Godlessness, we were urged to root out any evidence of Communist influence in the U.S. Socialism (often conflated with Communism) fared no better. If introduced it would undermine the dynamism and demonstrated benefits of America’s free market capitalism.
Warnings continue in our day lest America proceed along a path elsewhere shown to be destructive. The recent presidential campaign, for example, which saw accusations of a rigged election, voting fraud and suppression and threats to reject the results, brought forth unwelcome comparisons to much maligned “Banana Republics.” Adolph Hitler’s rise to power was suddenly in the news, amid fears stoked by an election that contained strident nationalism, scapegoating, whiffs of violence and massive, raucous rallies.
When early settlers conceived of the idea of America’s special destiny we were a people separated from most of the world by two vast oceans, splendidly isolated, largely free to go our own way. No longer. Our world is increasingly inter-connected, the United States severely limited in its ability to ward off intrusions from beyond our borders. Smart phones allow instant communication anywhere and everywhere. Cyber-attacks overspread continents; migrants, refugees and terrorists spill over national boundaries; micro-organisms travel far and wide, multi-national corporations operate across the globe, elites connect beyond nation states and in response, “Populist” waves roil one country after another.
Once there may have been a case for American innocence and American uniqueness. We could identify what we chose to reject beyond our borders, and with some assurance, keep such threats at bay. Today, millions of Americans wish – quite understandably – that remained possible. But the world has taken a different turn. We’ve been drawn in, and there is no point of return.