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The influential bimonthly The American Interest devotes the front section of its March/April issue to the end of American Exceptionalism. As Mark Twain said about rumors of his own death, it’s exaggerated. All depends on demographics: what has made the United States radically different from all other big industrial nations during the past generation is a fertility rate above replacement.
After the 2008 crisis, the United States’ fertility dipped below the replacement line. Whether that continues or reverses depends, in turn, on America’s religious character, and that is the least predictable facet of American life.
There are many good arguments against the idea of American Exceptionalism, but there has been – until very recently- one outstanding argument in favor. The United States is the last remaining Christian nation in the industrial world, and was until 2010 the only industrial nation with fertility above replacement.
That is an issue of fact; the American Interest addresses ideology. Prof. Walter McDougall’s entry claims that ”Exceptionalism” itself was an invention of Cold War propaganda that the Pilgrim Fathers never had in mind. Another piece by Nils Gilman states that all nations have a ”master narrative” of their uniqueness to which the United States is, well, no exception. And UCLA’s Peter Berger argues that the United States used to be exceptional but isn’t any more. Two of the three pieces start by quoting President Barack Obama’s 2009 comment that the US is exceptional the same way that Greece or any other country is exceptional.
There is a good deal of truth in all three accounts. During most of US history, Americans had no vision of a City on a Hill, as 17th-century Massachusetts governor John Winthrop paraphrased the New Testament words. Prof. McDougall correctly points out that the image came into rhetorical focus during World War II and the Cold War. That does not prove it false, however.
The European powers spent the first half of the 20th century trying to destroy each other with a fair degree of success, and the second half of the 20th century cowering before the Soviet Union. The United States was left to sort things out. It is no surprise that Americans rediscovered their unique mission in the world when superpower status was thrust upon them.
It also is quite true that every nation considers itself exceptional. If it did not, its citizens could not stand ordinary existence. If we believe that human beings care about the meaning of their lives beyond their brief physical existence, we also must believe that they identify deeply with their culture, and hold their culture to be unique.
The opposite also applies: the members of deracinated cultures often are too despondent to raise children.
To speak of an “exceptional culture” would be a pleonasm; national cultures are unique by construction. Nonetheless some cultures may be radically exceptional. Unlike all the other nations of the world, America’s Exceptionalism rests on a political culture informed by the biblical idea of covenant – not on common language, race, borders, or history. That is why the US emerged as the survivor out of the 20th century while the ethnocentric cultures of Europe plunged into mutual destruction.
It may be true that America’s time is past. Perhaps Americans grew too lazy on the tribute of empire during the quarter-century since the end of the Cold War, when all the world’s capital and talent flowed to its shores – until the 2008 crisis.
Americans got rich speculating on houses rather than inventing new technologies. Their rate of innovation slowed and productivity growth came to a standstill, to the point that respected economists like Northwestern University’s Robert Gordon assert that the productivity boom of the digital age is past.
It is possible that China’s 40 million classical music students will turn into 40 million engineers and scientists, and that China will absorb the whole technology of the West within a single generation, and overwhelm America through the sheer size of its skilled population.
Meanwhile, as Nicholas Eberstadt observed in his 2012 book A Nation of Takers, 35% of American households receive some form of means-tested government help, that is, welfare.
Transfer Payments as a Percent of Personal Income
Source: Bureau of Economic Analysis
Transfer payments now comprise a fifth of all US personal income. America’s economy is looking increasingly statist and its population more dependent – more like Europe, in a nutshell. Prof. Baldwin notes that the American Dream of social advancement has attenuated during the past generation to the point that “social advancement is now more likely in the high-taxing, high-spending nations of northern Europe and Canada, with their generous employment and family benefits.” I think he has judged the US too harshly by focusing on a particularly rocky period in the American economy, but things could turn out this way.
Faith and demographics used to distinguish America from the rest of the industrial world. I wrote my 2011 book How Civilizations Die (and Why Islam is Dying, Too):
It is not that Americans in general are having children, but that Americans of faith are having children, and there are more Americans of faith than citizens of any other industrial country. According to a 2002 survey by the Pew Research Institute, 59% of Americans said that religion was important to them, against, 11% in France, 21% in Germany, 27% in Italy, 33% in Great Britain, and 36% in Poland. In both Europe and America, people who practice a religion have far more children than those who do not. It’s just that there are far more Americans than Europeans practicing a faith.
Thomas Frejka and Charles Westhoff of Germany’s Max Planck Institute observe that half of American women in their childbearing years (ages 18-44) say that religion is “very important” to them, against only fewer than one out of six European women. The close link between faith and fertility applies to Europeans as well as Americans, Frejka and Westhoff report.
Source: Max Planck Institute
Is America exceptional in terms of demographics, or just the leper with the most fingers? America’s demographics have the same shape as the rest of the industrial world. By 2050, America will have twice as many citizens over 60 as labor force entrants (citizens 15 to 24 years old).
Americans Aged 15 to 24 vs. Americans aged over 60, Percent of Total
Source: United Nations Medium Variant
In Germany, to be sure, the proportion of population over age 60 will rise to 43%. Japan will have a majority of elderly dependents.
Germans Aged 60
Source: United Nations Medium Variant
America’s fertility rate dipped from 2.1, just at replacement, during most of the 2000’s to just 1.9 in 2010, mainly due to a drastic drop in Hispanic fertility. Hispanic immigrant women are trending towards two children rather than three, and that is enough to push America’s aggregate fertility rate below the replacement line.
But it would be not only premature, but also presumptuous, to announce the death of American Exceptionalism. Prof. McDougall is quite right that the notion of the “City on a Hill” is not a continuous or even predominant theme in American history: it is an exceptional theme, but nonetheless a defining one.
Between 1800 and 1860, the dominant American idea was Westward expansion of slavery. The pro-slavery, agrarian party dominated the White House until the election of Abraham Lincoln. Spurred by the Second Great Awakening, an evangelical movement in which Abolitionists were prominent, America found the spiritual resources to fight a war against slavery at now-unimaginable cost.
Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address asserted that the survival of “government of the people, by the people, and for the people” depended on this “new nation, conceived in liberty.”
After this brief but defining moment, America backed away in horror from the Calvinist tone of its beloved wartime leader. They had had enough a God who demands sacrifice in the name of justice (“until every drop of blood drawn by the lash is requited by a drop drawn by the sword”). Instead, Americans embrace a Social Gospel with the cheerful message that humankind could be the master of its own destiny.
There was nothing exceptional about that. America slept a long geopolitical slumber until Europe’s 20th-century catastrophe made it the arbiter of world events.
America’s founding idea never has been a constant feature of its political life. They are prone to complacency, like all other peoples. “What people want first of all,” as the Lord told Mephistopheles in the prologue to Faust, “is unconditional rest.” What they wanted in the past election was the party that would reassure them that things would be all right, as Vice-President Joseph Biden capped his debate with Republican Paul Ryan – the party that would be surest to send out the checks.
But it is too early to declare the American experiment dead. The First Great Awakening, the Calvinist evangelization of Jonathan Edwards and his circle, made possible what Britain’s King George III called “the Presbyterian War,” better known as the American Revolution. The Second Great Awakening firmed American resolve for the Civil War. And what some historians call a Fourth Great Awakening, the emergence of evangelical Christianity as the dominant mode of American Protestantism, buoyed America’s economic revival an Cold War victory of the 1980s.
To discern the future of America’s spiritual life is beyond the competence of Profs McDougall and Baldwin as much as it is beyond mine. For Americans who still believe in this country’s unique mission, the question is not what we forecast, but whether we will keep faith.