The American conservative movement loves to trumpet “American Exceptionalism.” Republican politicians regularly condemn President Obama for his lack of faith in this pillar of the American identity. Both John McCain and Mitt Romney tried to make it an issue in their presidential campaigns. Mike Huckabee went so far as to define America by American Exceptionalism, arguing that “to deny American Exceptionalism is in essence to deny the heart and soul of this nation.”
Of course, what this actually means is unclear. American Exceptionalism can variously mean that America is immune to the laws of history, or more virtuous, or more capitalist, or more powerful than everyone else. Sometimes it is supposed to mean all of these things at once.
Occasionally, Republican politicians seem to believe that American Exceptionalism means that America must always act independently and be at the forefront of any global situation, simply for its own sake. Having abandoned racial, religious, and cultural forms of identity, and with the Constitution “no serious threat to our system of government” (in Joe Sobran's phrase), a nonsensical tautology is all the true believers in America have left. America is different, they say, because it is America.
Unfortunately, as movement conservatives love to say but not to understand, ideas matter. The vague universalism, blind optimism, and endless pursuit of “growth” means that Americans are uniquely incapable of understanding the emerging ethno-politics of the 21st century. While countries around the world are grappling with issues of class divisions, identity, and the future of the nation-state, Americans, especially American conservatives, are clinging even more fiercely to their unthinking assumptions.
This is especially true in immigration. Around the world, Western populations may finally be reaching the oft-predicted tipping point of rebelling against nation-crushing mass immigration. In Great Britain, even the milquetoast Conservative government of David Cameron deploys “self-deport vans” encouraging illegals to go home, and is battling a serious challenge from the formerly fringe UKIP party, which is largely powered by immigration. In France, Marine Le Pen is waiting in the wings for the next presidential election and the Socialist immigration minister is mired in controversy for expressing concern about Muslims' ability to integrate with the values of la République. In Russia, youth groups aligned with the regime are confronting illegal immigrants in the streets and the anti-Putin candidates campaign on cutting immigration, saying Putin has not been aggressive enough. Even in Canada, there is talk about restricting immigration among conservatives.
Some of the electoral reckoning has already arrived. In Australia, a forthrightly conservative campaign led to a stunning victory for Tony Abbott of the Liberal (i.e. the conservative) Party. A hallmark of the campaign was immigration, when Abbott stated that “this is our country and we determine who comes here.” Such a statement is literally unthinkable for any leading American Republican.
In Norway, only a few years after Anders Breivik's attack on the Labor Party, that party has been turned out of office, and the center-right has the opportunity to create a government in coalition with the anti-immigration Progress Party. This is part of a larger trend in the Nordic nations of anti-immigration parties gaining support.
There is a pushback of course. The Pope is busying himself meeting with refugees; a black Cabinet minister in Italy plots to destroy Italian villages; and the Swedish government has announced an unlimited willingness to accept refugees from Syria. The United Nations is also pushing other nations to accept Syrians, including Germany and the United States.
Still, the common thread in all of this is that although it may be all sound and fury, proponents of mass immigration are on the public relations defensive. They have to at least pretend to be concerned about the demographic transformation of their countries. In nations such as France, it is at least possible to conceive of truly revolutionary change only an election or two away. No one is running on expanding immigration.
Except, of course, in the United States. Here, momentum is shifting in the other direction. The conflict in Syria and partisan wrangling in Washington may allow amnesty to die a quiet death, as the House vote will be pushed unacceptably close to elections. According to Mark Kirkorian at National Review Online, there may be no action on immigration until as late as 2017.
However, what is striking is the absence of anything that could be termed nationalism or anti-immigration rhetoric on the American Right. The faux populism of the likes of Senator Ted Cruz consists of empty whining about an “Obamacare” program that has already been passed. His opposition to amnesty is so muted and quiet that Mickey Kaus has observed, “if amnesty passes, blame Ted Cruz” for not leading the populist rebellion that is necessary.
Perhaps more importantly, while there is the occasional column about how amnesty is bad for the GOP, there is no intellectual case being made against mass immigration per se. No one, outside outlets like Vdare.com, is arguing that mass immigration is a socially destructive force, that demographic dispossession of the historic American nation is inherently wrong, or that there should be a positive agenda for American workers, let alone European-Americans.
While the conservative media is happy to dog whistle on issues like Black crime, there is no positive agenda on trade, class divisions, health care, racial preferences, or mass immigration. Furthermore, insofar as there is discussion about immigration within the Beltway Right, it consists of pushing arguments about why the economy needs more immigrants or how the GOP needs to win the “Hispanic vote.”
There may be more conservatives or right leaning voters in the United States than in European nations. However, they have no real political outlet. Any kind of populist spirit is channeled into either making sure billionaires pay lower taxes or confused partisan opposition to Barack Obama (because he isn't anti-Russian enough.)
Partially this is because of the stranglehold of donors like Sheldon Adelson on the GOP, who favor open borders (for America at least). But there is also a Hegelian element, as ideas are taken to their ultimate logical conclusion. Conservatives, as the self-styled defenders of American Exceptionalism, are required to believe that issues of race and immigration aren't real issues, at least not compared to fighting Obamacare, or slowing the rate of federal spending, or cutting upper class tax rates to reward “job creators.” Instead, America has to be defended as either a capitalist utopia and land of opportunity (which only exists in fantasy) or a military superpower forcing the world into obedience (which is sadly all too real.) However, the real issues that underlie American identity, and what remains of conservative political power, are simply ignored.
What is American Exceptionalism? It's the refusal to believe that America is a nation and that it is simply an imperishable idea. It's a civic religion more demanding—and more absurd—than the most primitive fundamentalism. And for that reason, while the rest of the West is beginning to grow up, America is doubling down on illusion. As an approving Robert Kaplan put it, America, more than any other nation, may have been born to die.