Features March 7, 2019
5 minutes

Digital tech is laying bare American exceptionalism in a new way.

To the more jaded or skeptical reader, Dan McCarthy’s new conservative agenda is, as Sam Goldman suggests, markedly sanguine about the prospects for political consensus in America—and constructive policymaking. Goldman’s bracing counsel is that war—real war, complete with mass mobilization and, presumably, mass casualties—”seems to be a necessary condition of meaningful national consolidation. It promotes solidarity among the population, legitimizes interventions in economic and social life that would other be unfeasible, and reminds elites that they rely on lower orders for purposes beyond domestic service.”

But there is reason to believe that technological advancement has put America on a path where old-style war—modern or “total” war, in the line of our greatest nationalist conflicts, the Civil War and the Second World War—is highly implausible. Despite decades of constant conflict, America’s post-Cold War military operations have done almost nothing to strengthen nationalism nationwide, for reasons that likely boil down to changes in military technology and the strategic alternatives to “traditional” war they have led us to adopt.

Some say there are post-War on Terror possibilities conducive to a return to traditional war: a clash with China, for instance, or a nuclear exchange. But the specter of nuclear war alone successfully ended traditional war, just as the visible implications of digital war are already obsolescing both nuclear conflict and modern great-power clashes. It is possible that Americans could get some nationalist juice out of zapping China or Russia or some other adversary back into the pre-digital age, but that sort of victory involves so little of what Goldman ably lists among the socially consolidating functions of military struggle that it is farfetched to believe digital war will pay nationalist dividends.

Perhaps, however, the digital revolution will unearth neglected resources for a retrieval of Americanism, even as it sends others to the bone yard.

Digital tech is laying bare American exceptionalism in a new way. As David Armitage details in his 2007 “global history” of the Declaration of Independence, the 1776 Declaration spawned an early wave of imitators among the colonies of European empires. But by 1976, although many declarations of independence worldwide were “generically similar” if not directly “modeled on” the 1776 Declaration, “relatively few…contained a declaration of individual rights that paralleled the second paragraph of the American Declaration.” Abroad, Armitage writes, the pattern was set by “taking the Declaration’s opening and closing sentences as their template while overlooking the self-evident truths of the second paragraph.” All told, the “contagious” character of the 1776 Declaration belies what has really been at work in the independence movements that made the geopolitical world as it is today: “an assertion of the rights of states among other states rather than an enumeration of the rights of individuals against their governors.”

Americans should remember that we are still—despite the apparent triumph after the Cold War of democratization and cosmopolitan human rights—virtually alone in possessing a national identity that arose peacefully from the reflectively manifest reality of natural right. The reality of natural right had been manifest in America well before the Revolution. Its manifestation made it possible for the “self-evident truths of the second paragraph” of the Declaration to come to the Founders’ minds, to be put to paper, and to define the novus ordo seclorum of the American regime. By striking contrast, as Alexis de Tocqueville intimated, more or less every other state in the world achieved its independence without that natural-right experience, and even in cases in which natural right was invoked, democratic experience was formed in bloody revolution, not in the peaceful ties of consanguinity.

What this disturbing reality has to do with the digital revolution is simple. As almost everyone now senses, the sudden and sharp reversal of liberalism’s global fortunes is fundamentally related to the rise of digital technology. This technology is not just a tool for illiberal or despotically-minded people to achieve their greedy or evil desires, but a new medium or environment that reshapes people’s very perceptions of which social orders possess integrity and authority—and which do not.

Outside the US, digital technologies like social credit, artificial intelligence, and automated surveillance are discrediting and disenchanting market liberalism at a breakneck pace. In Asia, the prospect of replacing the World Wide Web with a “Nation Wide Web” is moving forward in China, Russia, and even India. In Europe, new Left-Right coalitions, often with online origins, are asserting newly radical and reactionary challenges to neoliberal institutions and practices both public and private. To be blunt: in much of the world, even if natural right played an already small role in political life, that role is swiftly diminishing as nations reorganize their political affairs under digital conditions.

Yet America’s national democratic identity, however strained by faction, is much more stable and secure in the face of the digital revolution than that of other countries and peoples similarly situated. Surely, in part, we have the philosophical rigor of the theory of natural right to thank for that. But the reality is that rationalist persuasion is not the surest path to retrieving a robust natural right sensibility among the public and the elite.

Around a century ago, two of America’s great institutions mediating between elite and public in social life—organized Protestantism and the academy—both began decoupling from natural right doctrine, placing faith in Biblical literalism in the first instance and secular progressivism in the second. Some nationalist critics now worry that even the fundamental line of cultural patrimony Tocqueville traced from our Puritan origins to the present has now also been broken. The mild and conciliatory Tocquevilleanism advanced by the likes of Sen. Ben Sasse leaves many nationalists feeling certain that today the political philosophy of the Founders is now the lone support for well-functioning democracy in America. Though this concern is understandable, the natural right sensibility running through the Founders to the Puritans and back to the likes of Aristotle and Augustine is strong, even if liberalism sometimes seems to have undermined not only our civic associations but our attendant beliefs in natural right as well.

As Wallace Marshall has shown in Puritanism and Natural Theology, America’s Puritan cultural founders, such as Harvard University president Charles Chauncey, saw religious piety as an anchor for the heart that allowed man to range widely and securely across the field of rational endeavor—a view that ultimately requires, as Tocqueville himself suggested, a judgment that human nature discloses truths about justice that politics, unaided, does not. That view of natural law was successfully foregrounded and formalized in our founding documents, and remains persistent, because our national democratic identity was formed peacefully, gradually, and naturally, not forced upon us by wild-eyed, blood-soaked revolutionaries. Even amid extreme sustained pressure to capitulate to secular progressivism, and even in the face of otherwise disillusioning technological change, a citizen constituency boasting a significant share of the American mind perceives divine truth and self-evident rights as stable and compatible realities.

It will prove very difficult, if not impossible, to root out what is in that sense our deepest American exceptionalism. The vast majority of Americans, regardless of their faction or their ability to articulate it plainly in speech, are likely still very much aware that their nation remains an exception in our world. At a time when digital technology is laying waste to the charmed circumstances that globalized democratic nationalism, Americanism is being revealed as an exceptional kind of nationalism—one that arose peacefully from a religious and philosophical tradition carrying a political understanding of human nature which digital life tests but does not make obsolete.

To be sure, America’s exceptional condition brings special challenges. But even more importantly, its unique properties and circumstances uniquely protect it—both from the disenchantment facing democratic nations worldwide and from the harrowing depravities and deformations to which nationalism in the Old World has so often fallen prey. Because the way we adopted natural right makes our democracy both uniquely commonsensical and uniquely foundational for us, there’s more of an overlapping consensus for American nationalism—“Americanism”—than meets the eye. Citizens want a large but limited strong government guaranteeing they and their loved ones can do more than merely survive, in a state of psychological or spiritual fitness. They don’t want the price of those goods to be a servile relationship with bloodless bureaucrats or lifeless machines. And importantly, in tension with Goldman’s argument, they do not want to fight a general war in order to achieve these ends. That’s how natural right shows forth, peacefully but strongly, in a digital age.

Nevertheless, we do still face the problem of the classic American habit of demonizing each other despite sharing in a basic agreement. But, outside the hard Left and the establishmentarians who are still afraid of it, the outlines of a new Americanist consensus are already beginning to emerge. If identity politics is not successful in its neverending quest to make polarization feel like a necessity for identity group survival, the sort of agenda McCarthy lays out could serve effectively as the starting point for not just a renovated conservatism, but a newly Americanist social compact.

is Executive Editor of The American Mind. He is the author of The Art of Being Free (St. Martin's Press, 2017), contributing editor of American Affairs, and a fellow at the Center for the Study of Digital Life.

Origin of this feature

Origin

Nationalism for the Twenty-First Century

Retrieving an honorable, successful philosophy.