REDEEMING AN IDEA

STEVE LAGERFELD

American exceptionalism is the subject that won’t go away. This once obscure academic concept became a political football in the last presidential election, used in so many ways and for so many purposes that it quickly lost much of its meaning. I didn’t imagine that it would be our real subject when Shadd Maruna and Charles Barber proposed the article on criminal rehabilitation that appears in this issue. But after deploring our national policy of warehousing convicted criminals, Maruna and Barber show that convicts (and others) who embrace a “script” of personal redemption have a good chance of turning their lives around. That led us to think more broadly about the role of redemption in American life, our deeply rooted belief that we can, or must, take what is bad and remake it into something good.

The redemptive idea is constantly playing out in our lives, whether in the quasi-religion of self-help or in politics high and low. You can see it in the parade of political leaders, celebrities, and professional athletes treading the well-worn aisle to the podium and talk-show couch to confess their sins (even though we’ve already heard too much) and plead for forgiveness and redemption.

Barber and Maruna point toward the origins of this strange ritual and other manifestations of the redemptive idea, but Wilfred McClay takes us there, to America’s Puritan roots and the secular creed that emerged from them. What makes this idea of redemption so particularly American is the way in which we have infused it into our public life and linked it to individual freedom. America gives its citizens the liberty to create and re-create their lives — indeed, it almost demands they do so. And it holds up that redemptive promise as an ideal to the world.

That is the core of the exceptionalist idea — that America has a unique role in the world as a beacon of democracy and redeemer of the promise of human freedom. That is also what makes this idea so controversial. In 2000, the WQ published a long article by Seymour Martin Lipset, one of the great social scientists of the 20th century, called “Still the Exceptional Nation?” Yes, was Lipset’s answer, though he rightly noted that there are many ways in which the United States falls short of its ideals. No other WQ article has elicited so many proposed rebuttals from academic writers, their level of venom showing how politically charged the subject had already become.

The idea of American exceptionalism has a long lineage, beginning as a concept developed by European intellectuals trying to understand why the United States never developed a strong socialist movement and most recently being manifested, more or less as farce, as a campaign issue in the last presidential election, when Barack Obama felt compelled to insist that, yes, he really does believe in American exceptionalism. By then, it was impossible to know what anybody was really talking about. In this issue, our authors help to restore some meaning to the idea of American exceptionalism, and point us toward fulfilling some of its promise as well.

STEVE LAGERFELD is the editor of The Wilson Quarterly. Before joining the magazine’s staff in the 1980s, he worked at The Public Interest and the Institute for Educational Affairs. His articles and reviews have appeared in The Atlantic, Harper’s, The New Republic, The Wall Street Journal, and other publications.

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