Twilight of the Republic: Empire and Exceptionalism in the American Political Tradition

Twilight of the Republic: Empire and Exceptionalism in the American Political Tradition

Twilight of the Republic: Empire and Exceptionalism in the American Political Tradition

Twilight of the Republic: Empire and Exceptionalism in the American Political Tradition

Excerpt

What happens if a country’s worldview is radically changed? If the particular priorities and traditions that informed the life of a people are laid aside, something has to fill the void. New ones are taken up and a new worldview is formed. But what if the changes happen slowly and subtly? What if the changes, once in place, are no longer recognized as changes? The traditions, priorities, actions, and words that formerly characterized that country and that people will live on in documents and monuments, but not in the lives of citizens. In other words, the vital elements of the people’s self-conception will be all but lost. The now-changed state of things will be taken for granted. A new self-conception will be arrayed against the original one. This people will act differently but will still try to speak the same. The old, traditional words are spoken, but they are accompanied by new behaviors. Because the same words are used, the new worldview continues be shaped by the old one, but it will be as new wine in old wineskins. The new ways of acting and being will eventually burst the old wineskins and both the wine and the skins will be lost. The people will no longer be who they are and will have forgotten who they were.

This is America today. From colonial times up to the turn of the twentieth century, the country’s particular way of acting both domestically and in foreign affairs was fairly circumscribed and inwardly focused. It was a robust, lived political tradition. But over the same period, new self-conceptions and ways of acting entered into American political life, and these gradually changed the meaning of the principal words and symbols used to articulate, interpret, and understand the American political tradition. The words that formerly led Americans to think of themselves in one way now lead them to think and act in thoroughly different ways. The same words from the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and seminal colonial documents have come to mean things very different from before. What is more, most citizens today cannot see the change as a change because they are unaware of the tradition as it previously existed. The result has been a great confusion about what constitutes the American political tradition and . . .

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