The debate between liberals and conservatives has become, ever more explicitly, a debate about American exceptionalism — precisely as a National Review cover story predicted last spring. Conservatives seek to defend that exceptionalism from what they regard as the threat posed to it by the Obama administration’s agenda. Liberals have not yet hit on a unified response to this charge, but their commentary bears out our contention that these days their attitude toward American exceptionalism ranges from discomfort to hostility.
This liberal commentary has had three themes: that American exceptionalism is a ridiculous or dangerous idea; that President Obama is just as supportive of it as conservatives are (in which case, shouldn’t liberals who make the first argument be denouncing him?); and that conservatives are using exceptionalism to insinuate that Obama is a foreigner.
The liberal case begins by confusing exceptionalism for jingoism. Thus Michael Kinsley calls exceptionalism “[t]he theory that Americans are better than everybody else” and that “the rules don’t apply to us.” Peter Beinart says that Republicans are in thrall to “an anti-government ideology premised on the lunatic notion that America is the only truly free and successful country in the world.”
It is true that most Americans, and a disproportionate number of conservative Americans, consider this country to be the greatest nation in human history. But what believers in American exceptionalism affirm is a different proposition: that there are distinctive features of American society and governance — of our creed and our culture — that have contributed to our success. That view does not entail any obligation on the part of our leaders to believe in our country’s superiority to other nations, let alone to proclaim it constantly, as the liberal caricature of our view would have it.
Nor do we deny that President Obama wishes the best, as he sees it, for the American people and seeks to bring it about. Our claim is that his agenda will undermine distinctive and valuable national traits. So, for example, further socializing health care will foster a culture of dependency, entitlement, and centralization.
The claim that Obama, too, is an exceptionalist rests on a different (and incompatible) misunderstanding of the concept. The fact that he has from time to time suggested that America has “core values” that are “exceptional” and spoken warmly of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence does not come close to demonstrating that he has any appreciation for what separates us from a social democracy. What matters is that his agenda would shrink that gap significantly.
Kinsley ended his column by defending liberals against a mostly imagined slur. “If you think your country is in danger,” he asks, “how is it unpatriotic to say so?” It isn’t unpatriotic. It isn’t sinister. And it’s what we have done.