In reading an essay by Peter Collier on the late Christopher Hitchens in the February 2012 issue of the New Criterion, I was brought up short when I came across this: “…former New Leftists who, like us, had resigned from our radical generation and embraced America as the hope of the world rather than its curse.”
American exceptionalism is nothing new, of course. It’s not even exceptional. Russia had a tradition of considering itself the Third Rome; the Roman Empire itself, in the Aeneid, is thought of as having a divine mission; and France under Napoleon crusaded for liberty, equality, and fraternity. In addition, the Noam Chomskys of this world are also American exceptionalists—only they see the U.S. as exceptionally evil rather than exceptionally good.
What surprises me a bit, I confess, is how frequently and insistently the idea of American exceptionalism now appears among conservative intellectuals. One hopes for a keener sense of human limitations and a general sober-mindedness that does not consider any human being or human institution as either the hope or the curse of the world. It seems, though, that much of the American right has fallen into its own brand of political romanticism. It may be that any democratically active conservatism tends to shy away from the salutary astringency of, say, Reinhold Niebuhr or Irving Babbitt, to say nothing of Genesis 8:21 (“…the inclination of the heart of man is evil…”).