The Global Exception

Why is America so strange? Scott McLemee interviews a historian with a surprising answer.

August 23, 2006

The way of thinking called American exceptionalism comes in two major varieties. One is more or less religious: A faith that the United States has a special place under heaven's watchful eye. Sometimes this involves a literal belief that the country has a role in the divine plan; in other cases, it's just a matter of rhetoric verging on national egomania.

The other form of American exceptionalism has a more left-wing genealogy. It emerged from debates over the peculiarities of the United States compared to other highly industrialized nation-states -- especially the lack of a labor party or a mass-based socialist movement of the kind that became standard elsewhere in the world. That, in turn, raises some interesting questions about what distinctive factors might explain the "exception." Was it slavery? The lack of an aristocracy? All those natural resources on the frontier, ripe for the plucking?

In either version, the United States stands as a nation apart -- somehow the product of forces cutting it off from the rest of the world's history. But Eric Rauchway, a professor of history at the University of California at Davis, takes a different and rather paradoxical approach to American exceptionalism in his new book, Blessed Among Nations: How the World Made America, published by Hill and Wang.

In a brief but panoramic survey of the half century following the Civil War, Rauchway shows how both foreign investment and the influx of unskilled labor helped indirectly bolster the feeling that the United States was a unique nation. "The first modern age of globalization," he writes, "gave Americans reason to believe that the rest of humankind intended to let the United States fulfill its special wish to have as little government as possible."

The more the nation's economy relied on capital and labor from abroad, the more its citizens thought of the state as "a referee charged with regulating the influence of such forces in an open and fluid system," writes Rauchway, "rather than as a machine for allocating scarce resources." The result was "an especially lucky country on the periphery of a global system" -- one that felt "that the world economy will right and regulate itself without government action."

World War I and the Great Depression did yank us out of that mentality, for a while. But it still has its temptations.

Several months ago, a friend who is an American historian praised Rauchway's earlier book Murdering McKinley: The Making of Theodore Roosevelt's America as very smart and well-written. I would not hesitate to use the same adjectives for Blessed Among Nations. While reading it, I got in touch with Rauchway, who answered a few questions about the book by e-mail.

Q: What do you make of the persistence of American exceptionalism? Doesn't it point to some rock-bottom distinctiveness about the country? Has there been any particular strand of American exceptionalism that you've had a productive dialogue or running argument with, over time?

A: The persistence of the religious variety of American exceptionalism makes me a little nervous, I confess. My ancestors (on my mother's side) were the kind of people who would banish you from the Massachusetts Bay Colony if you claimed a special revelation of God's intentions, whereupon you would probably be eaten by wolves, or at least have to live in Rhode Island.

So I would not claim a productive engagement with that tradition. But the more social-sciency variety of exceptionalism, the kind that flourished in the 1950s, troubles me in a much more useful way. I had to start wrestling with it seriously when I took a job that required me to teach American history overseas to students who were not Americans. And their first question was almost always, "Why is America so weird?"

To which I said, okay, let's read Charles and Mary Beard's Rise of American Civilization, Richard Hofstadter's American Political Tradition, Louis Hartz's Liberal Tradition in America, and David Potter's People of Plenty, and we can start to talk about why they're wrong (you'll notice I mention only safely dead people, here) and where their wrongness points us in enlightening directions.

I'm not persuaded that the persistence of exceptionalism points, all by itself, to a rock-bottom American distinctiveness -- other countries, maybe all other countries, have their own similar senses of exceptionalism -- but I would say that it's easier for Americans to indulge our exceptionalism, because recent history, and the rest of the world's people, have conspired with us in maintaining it.

Which is to say, history (and the rest of the world's people) kicked the shins of the German Sonderweg pretty hard. But Americans' sense of ourselves as a uniquely free people, able to do without so much of the machinery of government that other peoples find necessary -- that sense has been nurtured, maintained, and (I would even say) created afresh by a century and a half or so of world events.

Q: There's a tendency to treat globalization as a new phase in history. In pundit-speak, it's more or less a catch-all term for whatever started happening once the Cold War wound down. Your frame of reference is different -- but how, exactly? And are you ruling out the idea of the national economy as a frame of reference for interpreting American history altogether?

A: I'm using the word globalization to mean what a large number of historians and other scholars mean. Edward Learner provides a useful definition here: "Globalization is the increased international mobility of goods, people, contracts including financial claims) and thoughts (facts, ideas, and beliefs)." So we're talking not only about the permeability of national borders, but the actual, and measurable, motion of things across them.

In this sense globalization is no new thing, though it has waxed and waned in recent history. For example, there's a nice graph on page 6 of this paper by Maurice Obstfeld and my colleague Alan M. Taylor, showing their informed guess (I love the source note there, by the way) about the course of international capital mobility over the period since the Civil War -- it rises up to World War I, plummets thereafter, and then begins to rise again in the last few decades.

We could say the same about globalization more broadly -- that the late 19th century was an era of increased globalization, particularly with respect to the international movement of capital and labor (i.e., migration of people), an era that ended around World War I.

Now, there's a theory about what globalization does -- the theory says that globalization makes the world one:

"[A] constantly expanding market.... must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connexions everywhere.... We have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations.... And as in material, so also in intellectual production. The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property. National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible...."

That's Marx and Engels, of course, but it might as well be almost any modern booster or critic of globalization; both categories think that globalization makes each country more like the others.

This is, as far as we know, true-ish. Absent other factors, the unimpeded flow of stuff across borders makes anyplace like everyplace. You can think of it like water seeking its own level when you open a canal lock. Where it was once higher on this side of the door than on that side, when you open the door, it's the same on both sides.

The trouble is, as you know, the movement of stuff across borders isn't actually a natural process like the falling of water owing to gravity; it's a political process. The permeability of borders is a political choice. What's even more important is that the motion of stuff across borders often generates a reaction that, channeled through political institutions, affects the openness of borders.

To be less general: if immigration lowers wages, or is seen to lower wages, for a significant number of citizens in an immigrant-receiving country, you get a reaction, which if it's substantial enough, will lead to legislation restricting immigration. (I've written a little bit more on these ideas here and here.)

Q: So what's that meant for the United States?

A: Well, I'm making the argument that the influence of globalization on the U.S. did not make the U.S. more like other countries, but rather, that it reinforced American ideas of exceptionalism and, in demonstrable ways, gave enduring institutional life to those exceptionalist traditions.

The influx of international investment capital into the U.S., particularly into the West, gave the U.S. a vigorous politics of protest against international investment capital; the influx of immigration gave the U.S. a vigorous politics of protest against immigration. Both kinds of politics seriously inflected the major arguments of the day, like anti-capitalist protests, or arguments for social spending. You couldn't talk about the depredations of capitalists without also talking about the depredations specifically of foreign capitalists; you couldn't talk about the circumstances of the working class in America without also talking about the immigrant constituency among the working class in America.

Americans of that era saw themselves as affected by international factors that we would nowadays group together under the heading of globalization. And their concern with international influences on American industrial development was borne out in policies; not only in the kinds of policies Americans did not adopt but also in the kinds they did adopt.

So I'm not just arguing that, e.g., immigration kept enthusiasm for general social spending damped (though it probably did) but rather that immigration inspired certain kinds of social spending in parts of the United States where immigration had particular effects. This is not a book about the small, or weak, American state; it's a book about the peculiarly shaped American state, and about how globalization made those peculiarities.

Q: We're downstream in history from the time you have in mind -- it's now two or three world wars later, depending on how you look at these things. How much continuity is there between that moment of globalization and its effects and the present? Nowadays, someone like Pat Buchanan gripes about both foreign investment capital and immigration policy. But for the most part, it's just the latter that has much traction now. Or am I missing something?

A: Between the late 19th century and the present there's a great deal of -- I don't want to say continuity, but commonality; the forces that then drove American politics have now resumed their operation after being pent up in the middle of the 20th century.

Which is to say that our present moment, despite all that intervening history (including however many world wars you care to count) looks a lot more like the pre-New-Deal past than it looks like, say, the 1970s.  So our policy framework should reflect that.

Instead we tend to talk, in this and in other countries, about whether government should have more or fewer powers as if that question could be answered in the abstract, as if we could logically derive the correct answer from a set of axioms about human behavior. I think this is not only wrong but, potentially, fatally so. Government represents a set of specific solutions to specific problems, a set of adaptations to environment. And a set of adaptations specific to one environment might not do so well when the environment changes.

That's what we see in the era around World War I: the U.S. had adopted a set of policies based on its particular position in the world, and then it kept those policies, to its detriment, even after its position changed.  After 1918, the U.S. had become the central country in the world economy. If anyone were going to restore what John Maynard Keynes called the "economic Utopia" of the prewar years, it was going to be the U.S. But, as E. H. Carr wrote, "[i]n 1918 world leadership was offered, by almost unanimous consent, to the United States.... [and] it was then declined."

Into the 1920s, Americans kept the set of assumptions that had served them all right so far. They assumed that they had globalization on tap, and could take or leave it as they chose -- a tariff here, an immigration restriction law there, a bit of credit tightening in a pinch. These could all answer domestic needs and had nothing to do with how the rest of the world worked.

People found out, starting in 1929, how poorly these assumptions served in an environment where American policy could actually help shut down the whole world economy.

During what you might call the long New Deal, from FDR through Nixon, our old habits went into abeyance. So, I think not coincidentally, did globalization. As that graph I mentioned above shows, international capital mobility was at low ebb; so was immigration.  Now globalization is back, if in slightly different guise (trade probably matters more now than it did then); and so is the old American tradition of assuming it will continue to work for us when we want it. I think this assumption is no better now than in 1929.

Q: Not that you should play Nostradamus, exactly, but what are the long-term implications of seeing globalization and American exceptionalism as deeply connected?

A: If there are lessons for today in the book, they're these: (a) We should make policy decisions based on an accurate assessment of our position in the world, and not on assumptions or principles; and (b) we need to reassess our policy framework periodically to make sure it still suits us, because our place in the world changes.

When you hear anyone start talking about how we can take or leave world trade, how we can take or leave immigration, how the Federal Reserve has room to maneuver to regulate the flow of capital in a crisis -- you need to ask yourself, are the assumptions behind this policy, about our place in the world economy, sound?

But I won't pretend I've written a white paper for future action; the book is an argument about how we got here, why we believe what we do, why -- in the language of my former students -- America is so weird. And it's still weird in very much the same way it was. If in the middle of the twentieth century the country was on a trend toward being more like other nations, that's reversed.

I don't think we believe the world will take care of us because we're intrinsically more optimistic, or foolish, than other peoples; I think we've simply had our myths more or less ratified by the events of history for a very long time. I also think there's more than enough evidence in the historical record to suggest that mistaking the indulgence of events for the actions of a benign Providence is a recipe for disaster.


Scott McLemee writes Intellectual Affairs each week. Suggestions and ideas for future columns are welcome.


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