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A Question for Paleocons

I’ve been curious for some time about paleocons’ rejection of American exceptionalism. I originally raised this question as a comment on another thread, but never received a response, so I thought I’d try it here.

My question is simply this--how can the refusal to believe that America is exceptional be squared with support for an anti-interventionist foreign policy? I understand that anti-interventionism has a long history in the United States, but it has generally gone hand in hand with the argument that the nation can avoid foreign entanglements specifically because it was exceptional. There was a strong strain of this thinking in Jefferson--that America was an "empire for liberty" that, thanks to its very nature, was able to rise above the power politics of the old world. Hence his admonition that America avoid "entangling alliances." Generations of anti-interventionists since then, from William E. Borah to Pat Buchanan, have echoed this theme.

Of course, not everyone believed this, even during Jefferson’s day. Alexander Hamilton--as well as George Washington--believed that the United States had to play by the time-honored rules of international politics. This is why Washington in his Farewell Address rejects "permanent alliances" (after all, these were inconsistent with a strategy of realpolitik) but at no point denies the need for foreign involvement in general. Similar attitudes could be found in men such as Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge, who were great admirers of Hamilton. For them it was because the United States was not exceptional that it needed to form alliances with foreign powers.

It seems to me that today’s paleocons want things both ways. They claim to be Hamiltonian realists, scoffing at American exceptionalism, while at the same time endorsing Jefferson’s policy conclusions. Is that a fair estimate? If so, how does one resolve this tension?

Discussions - 6 Comments

I see your point, but I think you may be comparing apples to oranges. The American exceptionalism that paleos reject is the idea that America is a universal, idea nation. That we were somehow uniquely founded alone among the nations of the world. Above the petty ethnic/religious/linguistic etc. tensions that plague Europe. That America has some sort of special mission, either that we are endowed by God with some uniqueness or that we have some secular mission to spread American values.

Wise paleos recognize that the idea of American exceptionalism is not just a recent product of "neo-conservatism," but has plagued America from the beginning. It arguably stretches back to the Puritans. The idea that we were the "New Jerusalem" and a "shining city on the hill." The idea of "Manifest Destiny" is an expression of this. You can see American exceptionalism among certain Christian Nation types on the Religious Right as well.

Paleos argue that we are not an entirely unique idea nation, but that we are a particular nation like all others. They see the idea of universality and exceptionalism as hubristic and dangerous. It inclines people to want to spread those particularly virtuous aspect of America to other parts of the world whether they want them or not. It invites inordinate pride. And it saps us of the will to defend our particularity. In fact, it makes particularity the enemy.

Now America is exceptional in many ways as Samuel Huntington has shown and anyone who has spent any time in Europe knows. We are exceptionally orthodox in our Christianity by modern standards. We work hard. We are relatively materialistic. We are very patriotic, etc. But that exceptionality is a manifestation of our particularity. It irritates my traditional Catholic paleo friends, but part of that exceptionality is a product of our Protestantism for example.

We are also exceptional and very fortunate in other ways. We are surrounded on two sides by large oceans. We have friendly neighbors to the north and south. We have a huge land mass and abundant natural resources. It is these particular advantages that make America more able to carry on a non-interventionist foreign policy than some small land-locked country in Europe. America is immune from invasion. We should be celebrating this fortuitous situation, not looking for "monsters to destroy"

I don't think paleos are by and large Hamiltonians. (The masses of Buchananites might be to some extent, but intellectually the movement leaders are not.) If paleoconservatism just means those three issues where paleos have traditionally differed from "mainstream conservatism," - immigration, trade, and non-intervention - then there are some Hamiltonian nationalists whose embrace of those positions is a product of their nationalism. Did you see the recent Bill Hawkins' article at Front Page? Hawkins is a Hamiltonian Nationalist.

But there has always been a division within paleo ranks between those who are primarily nationalist and those who are regionalist, localist, and decentralist and see nationalism as a threat. These paleos are not just paleos based on those three issues, but because they reject in part or in whole Enlightenment liberalism.

All that said, I do think you have a point. Those of us who don't want America to act like an empire are asking America to avoid doing something that other very powerful nations have historically not avoided. So we are asking America to be exceptional. To behave in a way that is nobler. I would hope that this is an appeal to our real exceptionalism based on our particularity, not on some imagined unique status.

I hope that helps.

I'm more neo than paleo.

That said, I don't accept the premise of your question. I think it very possible to reject "exceptionalism" and also to believe that non-intervention is a good policy. If these positions were charted as straight lines, they would be non-intersecting.

As Red notes, what would really be exceptional would be for the US not to use its power to intervene.

I think the division here may be less over whether or not exceptionalism exists, as what form it takes and what consequences follow from it. Under classical conservative thought, all "organic" polities are exceptional in the same sense as all individials are. The fact that Peter Lawler is exceptional does not detract from John Moser's exceptionalism. And America can be a unique and valuable member of the family of nations without needing to denigrate all others as alike and inferior.


In recent times it has been fashionable to talk of the levelling of nations, of the disappearance of different races in the melting-pot of contemporary civilization. I do not agree with this opinion, but its discussion remains another question. Here it is merely fitting to say that the disappearance of nations would have impoverished us no less than if all men had become alike, with one personality and one face. Nations are the wealth of mankind, its collective personalities; the very least of them wears its own special colours and bears within itself a special facet of divine intention.

Well, if you want some sort of response from paleocons, you should actually cite contemporary paleocons who make the argument that America is exceptional and shouldn't bother itself with the affairs of other countries. I'm not particularly well versed in paleocon thought, but it would help you to have an actual case if you could cite people who actually said what you purport to be critiquing. Otherwise, it's just a straw man.

Red and John, thanks for your thoughtful comments.

scriblerus, I haven't done an exhaustive study of paleoconservatism's leading lights--I have neither the time nor the inclination for that. I base my question on what I've seen from Red and other self-proclaimed paleocons who post here under pseudonyms. And they are unanimous in rejecting American exceptionalism and any notion of a "proposition" nation. Now, if you're going to start with the "I'm a paleocon, but I believe in exceptionalism" business, then I have to wonder whether the term "paleoconservative" is no more useful in categorizing people than is "neoconservative."

To the best of my knowledge the term 'paleaoconservatism' has not undergone the same transformation as 'neoconservatism'.

Back in the Reagan years a 'neoconservative' referred to a former liberal (in some cases still a liberal) who had come to accept much of the conservative case on foreign and domestic policy.

At the time this meant that people such as Jean Fitzpatrick advocated 'realpolitic', the US support of unsavory strongmen abroad as the best alternative to communism.

At home the original neocons were liberals who had looked at the social science data and come to the conclusion that conservatives were correct on many issues, such as the welfare state.

Today neoconservatism seems to stand for almost the exact opposite of what it meant thirty years ago. I believe many modern 'neocons' would be more accurately described as neoliberals. That is, they are people nominally 'on the right' who have embraced many ideas normally associated with the left.

John Moser

I haven't done an exhaustive study of paleoconservatism's leading lights--I have neither the time nor the inclination for that. I base my question on what I've seen from Red and other self-proclaimed paleocons who post here under pseudonyms.

That seems like a poor way to evaluate any political philosophy. Whatever the pros and cons of libertarianism, they have nothing to do with the Ron Paul supporters we see online.

I don't normally recommend Wikipedia, but they have a decent entry on Paleoconservatism, which you could read in fifteen minutes.

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