America the Exceptional, Again
A response to The New Republic and other critics.


Rich Lowry

One feature of the American character, noted by Winston Churchill among others, is to respond with overwhelming force when seriously provoked. But while our essay on American exceptionalism has been attacked quite severely, the attacks are too weak to constitute a serious provocation, and thus no heavy artillery need be deployed.

The longest-form criticism, that of Damon Linker in The New Republic, set the tone for many others in the blogosphere; indeed, many others merely quoted Linker while adding a “Hear, hear!” of their own. Linker accuses us of caricaturing our political opponents, avoiding inconvenient facts, and indulging in ideological self-congratulation. These are, as it turns out, also the exact methods by which he advances his argument.

Linker writes, for example, that “it is most certainly not the case, as Lowry and Ponnuru piously write, that America’s creed of liberty — including the principle of equality of opportunity and respect — was ‘open to all’ from the beginning.” What we actually wrote is that “Americans took inherited English liberties, extended them, and made them into a creed open to all.” That “from the beginning” is Linker’s invention. As are many of the views which he attributes to us. For it is certainly not the case that our essay describes liberals as unpatriotic, or suggests that America has nothing to learn from other countries, or demands a foreign policy of swagger and self-praise, or urges anyone to take “uncomplicated delight in our nation’s past.” We recognize full well that criticism of American practices, even sharp criticism, can be warranted and just; hence our praise for the abolitionist and civil-rights movements.

Linker then notes that many Americans live among poverty and blight. Lowry and Ponnuru, he writes, “appear to be untroubled” — note the weasel words — by their plight. “Conservatives like Lowry and Ponnuru” supposedly uphold “the fiction that America has always been a land of equal opportunity for all. Liberals respond by crafting policies that they hope will bring the country into closer conformity to the ideal of equal opportunity for all. That’s one way to define the division of labor that separates our nation’s parties at this moment in our history.” Yes, that is one way: a childish and smug way, as well as an inaccurate one. (It’s not liberalism’s deep concern for the opportunities of poor people that motivates its opposition to school choice.)

Linker claims that our description of the American creed — as consisting of “liberty, equality (of opportunity and respect), individualism, populism, and laissez-faire economics” — wrongly identifies it with the ideology of contemporary conservatism. The formulation actually comes from the sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset, no movement conservative. That Linker considers these commitments unacceptably right-wing tells us more about his views than ours.

David Rieff follows the Linker line while adding a special dash of insanity all his own: “Lowry and Ponnuru would presumably indignantly deny that their accusations against President Obama and his supporters had anything of the same quality of the ad that ran in The Dallas Morning News the day President Kennedy was assassinated, accusing him of having made a secret deal with the Communists. . . . This is not the language of political argument, it is the language that was in the north Texas air the day John Kennedy flew into Dallas. And while it may not end on a grassy knoll, it is almost certainly going to end badly. Very badly.” About this extraordinary passage the only thing to say is that it is not the language of historical intelligence.

Robert Lane Greene, a blogger for The Economist, does not distort what we wrote but challenges our (admittedly somewhat hyperbolic) claim that America is the freest and most democratic nation on Earth. We are not the most democratic nation, he argues, because we let “money” influence campaigns, and we are not the freest because our labor law is supposedly hostile to unions. Those who find these arguments persuasive will perhaps also agree with Greene’s conclusion that, in not so finding them, we oppose honest criticism of the U.S. and are thus not “real patriots.”

Two other bloggers suggested that we misread President Obama. Mark Murray, writing for NBC’s First Read, argues that President Obama believes in a distinctively liberal form of American exceptionalism. “But if you read Obama’s speeches — from the presidential campaign and now as president — you see a president with a different idea of American exceptionalism: America’s unique ability to evolve and become a more perfect union. ‘This union may never be perfect,’ he said in his famous ’08 speech on race, ‘but generation after generation has shown that it can always be perfected.’”

This is to make our point for us. In our essay we noted that President Obama identifies with the Wilsonian project of relocating American greatness not in our fixed constitutional principles but in our supposed ability to transcend those principles. In this view, the genius of the Founders essentially consists of their enabling progressives to undo their handiwork. On this “evolutionary” reading of history, it would not be too much of a stretch to say that the American story culminates in the election of President Obama and the enactment of his agenda. Note, however, that the U.S. is not, in fact, exceptional in its ability to undergo political evolution. In that department, we must humbly concede that France has us beaten.

Conor Friedersdorf rightly points out that Obama followed his statement that he believes in American exceptionalism the same way that Greeks and Brits believe in the exceptionalism of their countries with an acknowledgment that the United States has a core set of values . . . that are exceptional.” We should have noted those words. But the fact that Obama said them, and has on other occasions also had warm words about his country, the Constitution, and the Declaration of Independence, does not alter our judgment. It would be remarkable if any president did not say such things. What is remarkable are some of the things he has said that it is impossible to imagine any of his predecessors saying, e.g., this bit from his United Nations speech in September: “For those who question the character and cause of my nation, I ask you to look at the concrete actions we have taken in just nine months.”