Which Principles Unite Us as Americans?

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11:45 a.m. May 11, 2011 |What is exceptional about America is that we are united by a set of principles rather than race, creed, or color, and that is unique, according to Senator Lamar Alexander.  He says that we “imposed” our system on Germany and Japan after World War II, but that didn’t make them Americans.  But by his definition, the principles—and rather few in number—are all Americanism takes.

Kass is pressing the question:  what is the guiding spirit of Americanism?  What principles do you need to hold?  According to George, it is republican government (he cites Abraham Lincoln’s fear that the civil war could erase republican government not just from the U.S., but from the face of the earth).  Our problem, he says, is not whether immigrants from the Ukraine will be loyal to the Ukraine, but what are we teaching children to be as Americans, and he thinks that the intellectual class has taken the “Howard Zinn side” of the argument which is an anti-American doctrine.  Williams challenges, maybe taking a little of Zinn’s side, that in America, we tell both sides of our history, the ugly sides of our history.  George agrees that we do talk about that, but he adds an odd framework to the mix.  He cites the establishment of catholic schools as a reaction to public schools that were, according to his analysis, trying to strip catholics of their catholic identities.  So the separation, in his minds, is a reflection of the kind of freedom that Americanism implies even while he and most—all—of the other panelists condemn “hyphenated Americans”.

Harvard professor Harvey Mansfield says that the ideal of Americanism is to be proud salesmen of democracy.  Therein lies the meaning of the debate for nonprofits.  One questioner, a Brit living in rural Virginia, cites the volunteerism and small organizations of localities, the society of volunteers that he says Europe has lost.  He suggests that national government is not needed to make us Americans given the local connections that exist—uniquely—in the U.S.  Krautheimer says that limited government is part of the dynamic, because with limited government, there is room for the voluntary spirit and voluntary associations.  It is what distinguishes America—or Americanism—from the European model. Whether one accepts the notion of this as being “voluntary associations,” the nonprofit sector has a distinctive role to play—but perhaps in its constituencies and mission addresses the local and regional and ethnic and racial affiliations of communities and families that remain important to families whether or not they have taken the naturalization oath.

Oh boy, George said that new Americans, based on the way older immigrants behaved, should have a feeling of gratitude and not a feeling of entitlement.  He acknowledged that we have to take care of the poor, but that shouldn’t lead to the debilitating sense of entitlement that is so prevalent, he says, in our society.  Head-nodding, but dropped, because, as Senator Alexander has remarked repeatedly, we aren’t here to talk about politics, though he returns constantly to advocacy of “limited government” in contrast to the centralized power characteristic of European government.  Krautheimer adds, as the state increases power, it displaces the local, voluntary organizations that are crucial to what makes America exceptional—so in reality, we have to discuss some of the politics around limited government.  By overemphasizing equal opportunity, Krautheimer says, you undermine limited government and by consequence undermine the society of volunteerism and voluntary associations that are distinctive to Americanism.

Is Americanism rooted in being a society of volunteerism?  Are nonprofits concerned that at some point, government becomes too big and ultimately suffocating the local, nonprofit drive that characterizes grassroots democracy?  Are nonprofits secretly concerned that too much of a push for equality ultimately undermines the American ideal (or American exceptionalism)?   Are we all so fretful about the challenge of the European model (which presumably is code for a greater, deeper commitment to government-funded and perhaps government-delivered social welfare programs)?  Are Howard Zinn’s writings quite as scary as Robby George thinks?

One has to credit the Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal for annually convening these high level discussions of the root beliefs of conservatives in nonprofit, philanthropic, and civic life.  The panelists are all erudite and articulate, and don’t just mouth slogans, but find the roots of their ideas in the writings of philosophers and politicians throughout history.  But the gravitation of the topic from Americanism to American exceptionalism seems like a solipsistic view of the world, an exclusionary view of the ideas and ideals of other peoples and nations that may be quite comparably admirable like the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.  And no, despite Juan Williams acknowledging how distinctive it is that Barack Obama could be elected president of the United States, no one spoke up to answer Chris Matthews’ question about whether conservatives can acknowledge that Obama is no less American than they are.  Despite Senator Alexander’s attempts to circumvent political debates, it seems like the politics nonetheless.