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Exceptionalism Doesn't Work That Way

Yes, some hallowed American habits are changing. That doesn't mean conservatives are to blame.

Hello there: The tea-party takeover followed the “death of conservatism.”(Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

February 3, 2014

In the fall of 2008, as Sen. Barack Obama made history by becoming the first black man elected president of the United States, many on the left wanted to see his triumph as the end of conservatism. Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, New Yorker staff writer George Packer, and then-New York Times Sunday Book Review Editor Sam Tanenhaus writing in The New Republic led the pack. Nine months after Obama took office, Tanenhaus declared in a short book called The Death of Conservatism that the entire movement was "vanquished in the election of 2008."

Fourteen months later, and thanks largely to a revolt against Obama's ambitious progressive agenda (in particular, his signature health care legislation), conservatism came roaring back. In the 2010 elections, the Republican Party recaptured the House of Representatives by gaining 63 seats, the largest midterm gain since 1938, and picked up six Senate seats. In addition, the GOP in 2010 gained a record-setting 680 seats in state legislatures and came away with 29 governorships. In 2012, Republicans held the House majority. Few election analysts doubt they will maintain their control in 2014, and some think Republicans have a good chance of taking the Senate in November. In other words, be skeptical when political commentators offer dire diagnoses about the other party that coincide with their partisan preferences.

Peter Beinart's essay, "The End of American Exceptionalism," provides an instructive case study in the death-of-conservatism genre. According to Beinart, American conservatives are correct that certain qualities that define American exceptionalism have declined precipitously. But they wrongly blame President Obama. "Ironically," Beinart declares, "the people most responsible for eroding American exceptionalism are the very conservatives who fear most its demise." It's not on its face implausible: In politics as in romance, we betray a tragic tendency to destroy the things we love. But on inspection, his grave charge reveals more about the way progressives see the world than about the consequences of conservative ideas.


Beinart is largely correct that elements of American exceptionalism that conservatives cherish—"our belief in organized religion, our belief that America has a special mission to spread freedom in the world, and our belief that we are a classless society where, through the free market, anyone can get ahead"—have eroded. But even where he is correct about the data, what he makes of it is fanciful and tendentious. His essay might look like an empirically driven analysis of the political impact of conservative ideas and policies, but it's actually an ideologically driven interpretation of the facts.


First, Beinart argues that the "exceptional American religiosity" that conservatives seek to preserve "is increasingly an artifact of the past" owing to declining church attendance among young Americans. "Americans," though, "aren't rejecting religion, or even Christianity. They are rejecting churches." But for no good reason, he discounts the sociological explanation. Church attendance in America has fallen because young Americans marry later and have fewer children; because younger women work more outside the home; and because singles, the childless, and working women attend church at lower rates.

Rather, Beinart contends, the chief explanation for declining church attendance since the 1970s is that political moderates and liberals rebelled against the rise of the Religious Right. But Beinart offers no way to determine what percentage of those who abandoned their religious affiliation over the past 40 years did so because of their dislike of the political influence of the Religious Right and what percentage did so because they were marrying later, were having fewer children, or were women working outside the house.

Furthermore, Beinart does not grasp that the dramatic changes in family and work over the past 40 years, and their impact on religion, are part and parcel of the steady secularization of society that has characterized Western civilization, including America, for more than two centuries. Nor does he show the slightest appreciation of the acceleration of secularization in America by the cultural upheavals of the 1960s. In short, Beinart's facts and figures do not begin to justify his show-stopping claim: "The people most responsible for America's declining religious exceptionalism are the conservatives who have made organized Christianity and right-wing politics inseparable in the minds of so many of America's young."

Second, Beinart observes that young Americans are increasingly unlikely to believe that America has an exceptional role to play in world affairs. He cites data that young Americans are less likely to be "extremely proud" of America, to see America as the world's "greatest country," and to see themselves as "very patriotic." According to him, to understand this phenomenon, "we must look to George W. Bush." In particular, Beinart contends, Bush's handling of the 2003 Iraq invasion and its aftermath disillusioned younger voters.

But was it Bush's actual policies and leadership that caused the decline among young Americans in enthusiasm for America's exceptional role in the world, or was it the manner in which Bush's policies and leadership were portrayed by the media? Beinart does highlight the relentless mockery of the Bush administration by Jon Stewart on The Daily Show and in his 2004 book, America (The Book), and by Stewart's Comedy Central colleague, Stephen Colbert on The Colbert Report.

Inadvertently, those TV personalities point to the alternate explanation for the decline in pride about America and its role in the world—the determined labors of members of the left-liberal intellectual and political elite (in the media, in universities, in Washington, and in the entertainment world) to demonize the Bush administration. Left-liberal elites unceasingly portrayed the president and his team as mendacious, despite the opinion of every major Western intelligence service in 2002 that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction; as lawless, despite the administration's vigorous and honorable wrestling under fraught circumstances with an array of novel and difficulty legal questions arising from the threat posed by transnational jihadi terrorism; and as radicals, despite the elemental continuities of the Bush administration freedom and democracy agenda with the Reagan and Truman administrations' foreign policies.

Third, Beinart argues that "the most fundamental contemporary meaning" of American exceptionalism, namely social and economic mobility—that is, the ability to make one's own way in the world, independent of origins, as a function only of one's gifts and capacity for hard work—has decreased, as has faith in it among young Americans. And these declines, he maintains, are tied to rising inequality.

Once again, Beinart notes in passing several possible explanations: growing dependence on government; the rise of single-parent families; housing patterns that separate the poor from the middle class; and globalization and technology that have eliminated many well-paying jobs for the less-well-educated. And, once again, Beinart concludes that the principal cause of developments that conservatives deplore is conservative policies. Diminished mobility, in his view, must be mainly blamed on the economic policies launched by President Reagan and carried forward by his political heirs: cutting taxes, curtailing regulation, and restricting redistribution.

In this case, Beinart's errors begin with facts. According to a new study from a team of economists from Harvard, Berkeley, and the Treasury Department, economic mobility in America has not changed significantly in 50 years. Furthermore, American income-inequality started rising in the mid-1970s, half a decade before Reagan took office. And it rose in Europe at the same time, even as European governments pursued precisely the opposite of Reagan's policies.

This is not to deny that the United States faces daunting challenges: Economic mobility in America is lower than in most other developed countries, and growing inequality, increasing poverty, and stagnant middle-class incomes threaten social cohesion. But Beinart neglects to examine common economic arguments that run contrary to his progressive bromides. Higher taxes can impose costs such as fewer jobs, lower wages, and reduced economic growth. Increasing the size and power of the federal government can further decrease mobility and heighten inequality by stifling competition and concentrating wealth and power in the well-paid consultants, lawyers, and lobbyists who profit handsomely by advising government on how to spend its larger revenue.

Indeed, the Obama administration has raised taxes, expanded regulations, and increased redistribution. Yet under Obama's watch, mobility has not improved and inequality has not abated. And almost five years after the Great Recession ended, job growth and GDP are anemic while real median incomes have fallen.


One should hope, as does Beinart in conclusion, that religious leaders in America will appreciate the dangers of entangling religious institutions with partisan politics, that American foreign policy will respect the limits of American power, and that American domestic policy will improve educational opportunities for poor Americans.

Alas, instead of advancing these worthy goals by seeking to find common ground with the other side through better understanding of its political ideas, Beinart poisons the well by contriving an ugly accusation against conservatism that is analytically weak, appeals selectively to empirical evidence, and advances one-sided and partisan interpretations as if they represented baseline social and political reality. 


The author is the Tad and Dianne Taube Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. His writings are posted at

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