Conservatives have a certain understanding of America. This vision was articulated most eloquently by Ronald Reagan, whose appeal to religious imagery like “the City on a Hill” sought to carve out for the United States a unique position in world history.
Reagan’s rhetoric has been repeated by a succession of lesser politicians, all seeking to capture the emotion elicited by the Gipper’s flowery prose. Sarah Palin, for instance, wrote, “I believe my country…has a purpose: to be a shining city on a hill, a beacon of liberty and hope for all the peoples of the earth.”
One look at the current Republican presidential candidates shows that this sentiment is alive and well. We hear talk of a “new American century,” of “reigniting the promise of America,” of “making America great again” and of taking the country “from hope to higher ground.”
In some ways these perspectives are charming, even admirable. They are also utter nonsense. Why? Because America does not represent the ideals that conservatives think it does.
The centerpiece of their belief is that America is a land of unique freedom, although the definition of freedom is left either irretrievably vague or entirely undefined. It can’t be economic freedom, not with the government’s widespread interference in the economy and restrictions on free trade. It can’t be freedom of choice, not when the government repeatedly denies individuals’ rights to consume what they want, be that marijuana, raw milk or super-sized sodas.
Conservatives’ vaunted belief in the Constitution as a basis for exceptionalism is likewise ridiculous given the vast abuses of that document by all levels of the federal government, done with the hearty approval of both liberals and conservatives.
It is an irony that conservatives believe the world’s bastion of freedom to be the country that has criminalized so many actions that it now has the planet’s largest prison population. This city on a hill, which comprises not quite 5 percent of the world’s population, contains roughly 25 percent of its prisoners.
But even more laughable than the fantasy of domestic liberty is the notion of American moral superiority in foreign affairs. Conservatives today believe that America has the authority to wield military power around the globe and that, when we do, we do so in a more benign manner than a less moral country would.
The evidence to support this claim is hard to find. America’s foreign policy has wrecked societies, killed and maimed innocents and led to the oppression of others. It’s difficult to see the morality, for instance, in the U.S. government’s treatment of American Indians in the nineteenth century, or in the nuclear bombing of 200,000 Japanese civilians in the twentieth or in the modern policies that have led to at least 100,000 more deaths, not to mention literally millions of refugees.
As the American government has violated the pro-life principles that conservatives value, they have themselves become increasingly callous to the death and suffering that their government’s actions have caused. Rather than recognize that U.S. policy since 2003 – from invading Iraq to supporting ISIS – has led directly to the current refugee crisis, conservatives seem only able to mock the refugees and blame them for their own condition.
While regional destabilization and the rise of terrorist groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda may not have been the intent of politicians and military strategists, the fact remains that American foreign policy has rained death and destruction upon its recipients while fostering a slew of tragic unintended consequences. Even if we assume that these policies were based on good intentions, that doesn’t change the real results. The people who have been bombed, oppressed and driven from their homes don’t really care what our intentions were.
As C.S. Lewis said,
“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good if its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. …those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”
Americans go to sleep with clear consciences, comfortable in the belief that their government is dispensing righteous justice to the bad guys and bringing freedom to the world. But the results of American policy make it obvious that the United States has no such claim to moral superiority. It is vitally important, then, to strip away the veneer of moral rectitude that props up our government’s actions. Regardless of intent, the actual result of our policies has been to wreak havoc around the world. They have put many millions under the rule of tyrants and hundreds of thousands more under the ground.
Even if our incessant meddling in foreign affairs had somehow managed to reap a positive outcome – which, again, it hasn’t – we still have no greater moral authority to kill innocent civilians than terrorists do. And the fact that the actions of the U.S. government have killed tens of thousands more civilians than terrorists have should sound a deafening alarm bell to Americans, particularly conservatives.
There is simply no reason to ignore the immense suffering that America has brought to the world. To do so is to fully embrace moral relativism, for it necessarily reduces to the idea that Americans live under a different moral code than the rest of the world. It it essentially to say that murder is wrong, except when we do it.
In truth, whatever moral authority the United States has is entirely the product of its citizens’ willingness to identify and resist the government’s immoral behavior. The conservatives of yesteryear – those who constantly warned that the American empire could only ascend at the cost of domestic virtue and liberty – would be mortified by the current state of conservatism. Gone is the traditional conservative skepticism about government, both its nature and the efficacy of its actions. In its place is the idea that the American government can be the light of the world.
To understand the state for what it really is delegitimizes it in what it tries to do. The sooner that conservatives realize that their own government is a dark pit of depravity, the sooner they will realize that its actions – foreign and domestic – have identical moral attributes.
Until they do this, until they love freedom and justice more than their government fairy tales, America cannot possibly be exceptional.