I may have read less coherent rants on American exceptionalism than today’s column by Richard Cohen, but I’m not sure I can say when. In attempting to argue that American exceptionalism has somehow become a religious doctrine, Cohen then argues — as near as I can tell — that its “dogma” has killed the art of compromise. Furthermore, Cohen can pinpoint exactly when this started, and to no one’s great shock, it’s when the Republican Party first formed. And then Cohen tells of the dire consequences that followed from the founding of the High Church of Republicanism:
The huge role of religion in American politics is nothing new but always a matter for concern nonetheless. In the years preceding the Civil War, both sides of the slavery issue claimed the endorsement of God. The 1856 Republican convention concluded with a song that ended like this: “We’ve truth on our side/ We’ve God for our guide.” Within five years, Americans were slaughtering one another on the battlefield.
Therein lies the danger of American exceptionalism. It discourages compromise, for what God has made exceptional, man must not alter. And yet clearly America must change fundamentally or continue to decline. It could begin by junking a phase that reeks of arrogance and discourages compromise. American exceptionalism ought to be called American narcissism. We look perfect only to ourselves.
Er … what? Is Cohen seriously arguing that Republicans should have compromised on the issue of slavery? That the Civil War was the fault of Republicans for opposing continuing enslavement of human beings? Ramesh Ponnuru at The Corner is as nonplussed as I am:
Does Cohen really want to maintain that the Republicans of the 1850s should have been more willing to compromise on slavery? Is this what liberalism has come to?
It’s the end to where intellectual dishonesty leads. Cohen starts off with a false premise that mainstream views of American exceptionalism involves religion in any significant sense at all, or that it involves a self-image of perfection. Cohen seems to have confused American exceptionalism with Manifest Destiny, and added his own heaping helping of paranoia to it.