It is a good and very American idea to avoid the definite article in locutions like “the American idea.” “The”? There are many American ideas pertaining to liberty under a constitutional government of limited, delegated, and enumerated powers. The best of these ideas can be found in the Federalist Papers, which are agreeably untainted by monomania.
The American Idea
Scholars, novelists, politicians, artists, and others look ahead to the future of the American idea.
It has been often said that any idea is dangerous if it is a person’s only idea. Talk about “the” American idea is dangerous because it often is a precursor to, and an excuse for, the missionary impulse that sleeps lightly, when it sleeps at all, in many Americans. After all, if the essence of America can be distilled to a single idea, it must be supremely important, and there might be a moral imperative to export it.
In 1990, with the collapse of the Berlin Wall still reverberating around the world, Jeane Kirkpatrick wisely warned Americans: “There is no mystical American ‘mission,’ or purpose to be ‘found’ independently of the U.S. Constitution.” With the Cold War over, and the moral and military mobilization it demanded no longer necessary, Kirkpatrick wrote: “The time when America should bear such unusual burdens is past. With a return to ‘normal’ times, we can again become a normal nation.”
If, paradoxically, “the American idea” is that the definite article is definitely inapposite in that phrase, then the greatest challenge to it is the false idea that American patriotism is inextricably bound up with the notion that being a normal nation is somehow beneath America’s dignity. Belief in American exceptionalism is compatible with the idea of American normality: Our nation is exceptionally well-founded and exceptionally faithful to an exceptionally nuanced system of prudential political axioms. But one of those axioms—it is the crux of the Madisonian persuasion—is that no polity is exempt from the passions and failings that make governance problematic, always and everywhere.
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