Politics & Policy

America the Exceptional, Again

A response to The New Republic and other critics.

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.”

Friedersdorf also questions our assessment of Obama’s agenda. He does not, for example, see how moving a hybrid public/private health-care system further toward nationalization could be a blow to America’s distinctiveness. To assume that a difference of degree cannot be important is, however, fallacious. That the health-care policies that President Obama seeks would greatly increase middle-class dependence on the federal government cannot be seriously disputed; neither can the fact that it would be a move the country in a European direction, a point none of our critics dispute.

Our essay attracted some criticism from the right as well. Matthew Lee Anderson faults us for adopting theological language by referring to an American “creed” and an “economic gospel”; it seems to us that his problem here is a literalism at odds with widespread usage. He writes further that “any claims to American exceptionalism ha[ve] to be tempered and chastened by our own social evils, chief of which is abortion.” The accusation that the two of us have underestimated the evil of abortion makes up in novelty for what it lacks in sense. The injustice of our practice and legal treatment of abortion is a stain on the national character. But in no way does it tell against our argument — which, to restate it, is that the agenda of contemporary liberalism would seriously undermine distinctive and valuable American traits.

There are still four loose ends to tie up before leaving the critics. First: Our comment that Americans are distinctive in their willingness to respond to attack has been ridiculed as the very opposite of an exceptional trait, but we stand by the claim; a more profitable (because true) line of criticism would probably be that this willingness can often be taken too far.

Second: We wrote, “As president [Obama] has been unusually detached from American history: When a foreign critic brought up the Bay of Pigs, rather than defend the country’s honor he noted that he was a toddler at the time.” Critics have misconstrued our point. We do not think Obama was under any obligation to defend the Bay of Pigs; it would have been fine for him to say that he did not consider it worthwhile to debate any country’s decisions from the early ’60s. What we found telling was how Obama made the response about himself. Now it is surely possible that our political disagreements with Obama have led us to read too much into that remark; but it is not the only occasion on which Obama has implied that American history has begun anew with his presidency.

Third: Many, many blog posts have been written about two words in this passage: “The Left’s search for a foreign template to graft onto America grew more desperate. Why couldn’t we be more like them — like the French, like the Swedes, like the Danes? Like any people with a larger and busier government overawing the private sector and civil society? You can see it in Sicko, wherein Michael Moore extols the British national health-care system, the French way of life, and even the munificence of Cuba; you can hear it in all the admonitions from left-wing commentators that every other advanced society has government child care, or gun control, or mass transit, or whatever socialistic program or other infringement on our liberty we have had the wisdom to reject for decades.” The two words are “mass transit.”

Contrary to our least literate critics, nothing in that passage suggests that we consider subways an infringement on our liberty. Nor does it mean that we are skeptical of mass-transit subsidies because the policy strikes us as European. It means something closer to the opposite: that we suspect that much of the enthusiasm for these subsidies among liberals is based on mass transit’s association with Europe.

Fourth: Several critics, again taking their cues from Linker, say that we are guilty of celebrating the American public’s capacity for self-delusion when we favorably cite a Gallup poll showing that 31 percent of Americans expect to be rich some day. But definitions of “rich” are subjective (the median respondent treated income of $120,000 a year and assets of $1 million as the cut-off). While 31 percent of Americans may not attain riches by their own definitions, it is not crazy for them to think they might.

Our essay has also led other people to offer friendly amendments to it. Yuval Levin notes that American exceptionalism consists of a fusion of creed and culture. Some liberals, he notes, ignore or downplay the cultural element and some conservatives the creedal one. In recent years, actually, we would say that some conservatives have been prone to the characteristic liberal error; hence the popularity in some conservative quarters of the notion that America is (simply and solely) an idea rather than a nation. Matthew Spalding makes the same point in a different way, rightly noting that the American Revolution appealed to the historic liberties of Britishers while grounding them in natural rights.

Victor Davis Hanson notes that one reason for American exceptionalism may be that we did not inherit from England “a large underclass of only quasi-free people attached to barons as serfs.” Sadly, a worse institution took root here, but never became part of the national psyche. John O’Sullivan suggests that American exceptionalism is a special case of Anglospheric exceptionalism, and is more easily defended when seen as such. The first proposition is surely right, and the second one right in many cases.

We thank these commentators for their sensible observations — and for reading what we actually wrote.

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