The End of American Exceptionalism

The very attributes conservatives say make America special — religiosity, patriotism, and mobility — are ones they’ve inadvertently undermined. Is it any wonder millennials are less impressed with their country?

Nobel Peace Prize laureate, US President Barack Obama (C) arrives for the Nobel Peace prize award ceremony at the City Hall in Oslo on December 10, 2009. The president faces a tricky task of reconciling the revered honor with his decision just last week to send 30,000 troops to escalate the war in Afghanistan, a move which tripled the US force there since he took office. 
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Peter Beinart
Feb. 3, 2014, midnight

From the mo­ment Barack Obama ap­peared on the na­tion­al stage, con­ser­vat­ives have been search­ing for the best way to de­scribe the danger he poses to Amer­ica’s tra­di­tion­al way of life. Sec­u­lar­ism? Check. So­cial­ism? Sure. A tend­ency to apo­lo­gize for Amer­ica’s great­ness over­seas? That, too. But how to tie them all to­geth­er?

Gradu­ally, a uni­fy­ing theme took hold. “At the heart of the de­bate over Obama’s pro­gram,” de­clared Rich Lowry and Ramesh Pon­nuru in an in­flu­en­tial 2010 Na­tion­al Re­view cov­er story, is “the sur­viv­al of Amer­ic­an ex­cep­tion­al­ism.” Fi­nally, a term broad and his­tor­ic­ally res­on­ant enough to cap­ture the mag­nitude of the threat. A year later, Newt Gin­grich pub­lished A Na­tion Like No Oth­er: Why Amer­ic­an Ex­cep­tion­al­ism Mat­ters, in which he warned that “our gov­ern­ment has strayed alarm­ingly” from the prin­ciples that made Amer­ica spe­cial. Mitt Rom­ney de­ployed the phrase fre­quently in his 2012 cam­paign, as­sert­ing that Pres­id­ent Obama “doesn’t have the same feel­ings about Amer­ic­an ex­cep­tion­al­ism that we do.” The term, which ac­cord­ing to Factiva ap­peared in glob­al Eng­lish-lan­guage pub­lic­a­tions few­er than 3,000 times dur­ing the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion, has already ap­peared more than 10,000 times since Obama be­came pres­id­ent.

To lib­er­als, the charge that Obama threatens Amer­ic­an ex­cep­tion­al­ism is daft. He is, after all, fond of de­clar­ing, “In no oth­er coun­try on Earth is my story even pos­sible.” For some pro­gress­ive pun­dits, things hit rock bot­tom when con­ser­vat­ive Wash­ing­ton Post colum­nist Kath­leen Park­er flayed Obama for not us­ing the words “Amer­ic­an ex­cep­tion­al­ism” in his 2011 State of the Uni­on speech, even though he had called Amer­ica a “light to the world” and “the greatest na­tion on Earth.” The en­tire dis­cus­sion, de­clared lib­er­al Post blog­ger Greg Sar­gent, had be­come “ab­surd,” “self-par­od­ic,” and an ex­er­cise in “non­stop idiocy.”

But that’s not quite right. When con­ser­vat­ives say Amer­ic­an ex­cep­tion­al­ism is im­periled, they’re onto something. In fun­da­ment­al ways, Amer­ica is be­com­ing less ex­cep­tion­al. Where Gin­grich and com­pany go wrong is in claim­ing that the Obama pres­id­ency is the cause of this de­cline. It’s ac­tu­ally the res­ult. Iron­ic­ally, the people most re­spons­ible for erod­ing Amer­ic­an ex­cep­tion­al­ism are the very con­ser­vat­ives who most fear its de­mise.

To un­der­stand what’s threat­en­ing Amer­ic­an ex­cep­tion­al­ism, one must first un­der­stand what its con­tem­por­ary cham­pi­ons mean by the term. Amer­ic­an ex­cep­tion­al­ism does not simply mean that Amer­ica is dif­fer­ent from oth­er coun­tries. (After all, every coun­try is dif­fer­ent from every oth­er one.) It means that Amer­ica de­parts from the es­tab­lished way of do­ing things, that it’s an ex­cep­tion to the glob­al rule. And from Alex­is de Toc­queville, who chron­icled Amer­ica’s unique­ness in the 1830s, to Joseph Stal­in, who be­moaned it in the 1920s, to so­cial sci­ent­ists like Louis Hartz, who cel­eb­rated it dur­ing the Cold War, the es­tab­lished way of do­ing things has al­ways been defined by Europe. What makes Amer­ica ex­cep­tion­al, in oth­er words, is our re­fus­al to be­have like the Old World. “Ex­cep­tion­al­ism,” wrote his­tor­i­an Joyce Ap­pleby, “is Amer­ica’s pe­cu­li­ar form of Euro­centrism.”

As Amer­ica and Europe have changed over time, so have the at­trib­utes that ex­cep­tion­al­ists claim dis­tin­guish us from them. But for the con­tem­por­ary Right, there are ba­sic­ally three: 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 lim­ited gov­ern­ment and free en­ter­prise, any­one can get ahead. Un­for­tu­nately for con­ser­vat­ives, each of these be­liefs is de­clin­ing fast.

For cen­tur­ies, ob­serv­ers have seen Amer­ica as an ex­cep­tion to the European as­sump­tion that mod­ern­ity brings sec­u­lar­ism. “There is no coun­try in the world where the Chris­ti­an re­li­gion re­tains a great­er in­flu­ence over the souls of men than in Amer­ica,” de Toc­queville wrote. In his 1996 book, Amer­ic­an Ex­cep­tion­al­ism: A Double-Edged Sword, Sey­mour Mar­tin Lip­set quoted Karl Marx as call­ing Amer­ica “pree­m­in­ently the coun­try of re­li­gi­os­ity,” and then ar­gued that Marx was still cor­rect. Amer­ica, wrote Lip­set, re­mained “the most re­li­gious coun­try in Christen­dom.”

Today’s con­ser­vat­ives of­ten cast them­selves as de­fend­ers of this re­li­gious ex­cep­tion­al­ism against Obama’s al­legedly sec­u­lar­iz­ing im­pulses. “Des­pite the fact that our cur­rent pres­id­ent has man­aged to avoid ex­plain­ing on at least four oc­ca­sions that we are en­dowed by our cre­at­or,” de­clared Gin­grich at a 2011 can­did­ates for­um, “the fact is that what makes Amer­ic­an ex­cep­tion­al­ism dif­fer­ent is that we are the only people I know of in his­tory to say power comes dir­ectly from God.”

Empty Pews National Journal

But in im­port­ant ways, the ex­cep­tion­al Amer­ic­an re­li­gi­os­ity that Gin­grich wants to de­fend is an ar­ti­fact of the past. The share of Amer­ic­ans who re­fuse any re­li­gious af­fil­i­ation has ris­en from one in 20 in 1972 to one in five today. Among Amer­ic­ans un­der 30, it’s one in three. Ac­cord­ing to the Pew Re­search Cen­ter, mil­len­ni­als — Amer­ic­ans born after 1980 — are more than 30 per­cent­age points less likely than seni­ors to say that “re­li­gious faith and val­ues are very im­port­ant to Amer­ica’s suc­cess.” And young Amer­ic­ans don’t merely at­tend church far less fre­quently than their eld­ers. They also at­tend far less than young people did in the past. “Amer­ic­ans,” Pew notes, “do not gen­er­ally be­come more [re­li­giously] af­fil­i­ated as they move through the life cycle” — which means it’s un­likely that Amer­ica’s de­cline in re­li­gious af­fil­i­ation will re­verse it­self simply as mil­len­ni­als age.

Amer­ic­ans re­main far more will­ing than Europeans to af­firm God’s im­port­ance in their lives (al­though that gap has closed some­what among the young). But when the sub­ject shifts from be­lief in God to as­so­ci­ation with churches, Amer­ica’s famed re­li­gious ex­cep­tion­al­ism vir­tu­ally dis­ap­pears. In 1970, ac­cord­ing to the World Re­li­gion Data­base, Europeans were over 16 per­cent­age points more likely than Amer­ic­ans to es­chew any re­li­gious iden­ti­fic­a­tion. By 2010, the gap was less than half of 1 per­cent­age point. Ac­cord­ing to Pew, while Amer­ic­ans are today more likely to af­firm a re­li­gious af­fil­i­ation than people in Ger­many or France, they are ac­tu­ally less likely to do so than Itali­ans and Danes.

Even more in­ter­est­ing is the reas­on for this change. Many of the Amer­ic­ans who today es­chew re­li­gious af­fil­i­ation are neither athe­ists nor ag­nostics. Most pray. In oth­er words, Amer­ic­ans aren’t re­ject­ing re­li­gion, or even Chris­tian­ity. They are re­ject­ing churches. There are vari­ous ex­plan­a­tions for this. As Prin­ceton’s Robert Wuth­now notes in his book After the Baby Boomers, the single and child­less his­tor­ic­ally at­tend church at lower rates than mar­ried par­ents do. And wo­men who work out­side the home at­tend less than wo­men who don’t. Which means that with wo­men mar­ry­ing later, hav­ing chil­dren later, and work­ing more out­side the home, it’s lo­gic­al that church at­tend­ance would drop.

But it’s not just changes in fam­ily and work pat­terns that drive the growth of re­li­gious non­af­fili­ation. It’s polit­ics. In the mid-20th cen­tury, lib­er­als were al­most as likely to at­tend church as con­ser­vat­ives. But start­ing in the 1970s, when the Re­li­gious Right began agit­at­ing against abor­tion, fem­in­ism, and gay rights, lib­er­als began to identi­fy or­gan­ized Chris­tian­ity with con­ser­vat­ive polit­ics. In re­cent years, the Re­li­gious Right’s op­pos­i­tion to gay mar­riage has proved par­tic­u­larly ali­en­at­ing to mil­len­ni­als. “The ac­tions of the Re­li­gious Right,” ar­gue so­ci­olo­gists Mi­chael Hout and Claude Fisc­her, “promp­ted polit­ic­al mod­er­ates and lib­er­als to quit say­ing they had a re­li­gious pref­er­ence.” In their book, Amer­ic­an Grace: How Re­li­gion Di­vides and United Us, Robert D. Put­nam and Dav­id E. Camp­bell cite a study sug­gest­ing that many “young Amer­ic­ans came to view re­li­gion “¦ as judg­ment­al, ho­mo­phobic, hy­po­crit­ic­al, and too polit­ic­al.” Today, ac­cord­ing to Pew, the re­li­giously un­af­fili­ated are dis­pro­por­tion­ately lib­er­al, pro-gay-mar­riage, and crit­ic­al of churches for med­dling too much in polit­ics. Not co­in­cid­ent­ally, so are Amer­ica’s young.

What is grow­ing in con­tem­por­ary Amer­ica, in oth­er words, is something long as­so­ci­ated with Europe: an­ti­cler­ic­al­ism. In Europe, noted the late polit­ic­al sci­ent­ist James Q. Wilson in a 2006 es­say on Amer­ic­an ex­cep­tion­al­ism, the ex­ist­ence of of­fi­cial state re­li­gions led sec­u­lar­ists to see “Chris­ti­ans as polit­ic­al en­emies.” Amer­ica, Wilson ar­gued, lacked this polit­ic­al hos­til­ity to or­gan­ized re­li­gion be­cause it sep­ar­ated church and state. But today, even without an es­tab­lished church, the Re­li­gious Right plays such a prom­in­ent and par­tis­an role in Amer­ic­an polit­ics that it has spurred the kind of an­ti­re­li­gious back­lash long as­so­ci­ated with the old world. Barack Obama is the be­ne­fi­ciary of that back­lash, be­cause voters who say they “nev­er” at­tend re­li­gious ser­vices favored him by 37 per­cent­age points in 2008 and 28 points in 2012. But he’s not the cause. 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.

If the cham­pi­ons of Amer­ic­an ex­cep­tion­al­ism see re­li­gion as one key di­vid­ing line between the new and old worlds, they see Amer­ica’s spe­cial mis­sion over­seas as an­oth­er. “I be­lieve,” de­clared Rom­ney in 2011, that “we are an ex­cep­tion­al coun­try with a unique des­tiny and role in the world “¦ that of a great cham­pi­on of hu­man dig­nity and hu­man free­dom.” For many Wash­ing­ton con­ser­vat­ives, that unique world role gives Amer­ica unique ob­lig­a­tions: We can­not stand aside while evil tri­umphs. But it also gives Amer­ica unique priv­ileges: We need not be bound by the opin­ions of oth­ers. As George W. Bush de­clared in his 2004 State of the Uni­on ad­dress, Amer­ica does not need a “per­mis­sion slip” from oth­er na­tions to pro­tect it­self and ful­fill its mis­sion in the world.

But young Amer­ic­ans are far less likely than their eld­ers to en­dorse this ex­cep­tion­al glob­al role. They want the U.S. to do less over­seas; and what Amer­ica must do, they want done more con­sen­su­ally. Amer­ic­ans un­der 30, for in­stance, are 23 per­cent­age points more likely than older Amer­ic­ans to say the United States should take its al­lies’ in­terests in­to ac­count, even if that means com­prom­ising our own. They are 24 points more fa­vor­able to the United Na­tions than Amer­ic­ans over 50, the largest age gap in the 17 coun­tries that Pew sur­veyed. And as with re­li­gious af­fil­i­ation, this gen­er­a­tion gap with­in the United States is erod­ing the gap between Amer­ic­ans and Europeans. Among re­spond­ents over 50, Pew found in 2011, Amer­ic­ans were 29 per­cent­age points more likely than Bri­tons to deny that their coun­try needed U.N. ap­prov­al be­fore go­ing to war. Among re­spond­ents un­der 30, by con­trast, the gap was only 8 points.

Were young Amer­ic­ans merely em­bra­cing mul­ti­lat­er­al­ism over uni­lat­er­al­ism, this shift wouldn’t be so fun­da­ment­al. But for con­ser­vat­ives, Amer­ica’s ex­cep­tion­al role in the world isn’t merely about what we do over­seas. What we do over­seas ex­presses our be­lief in ourselves. It’s no co­in­cid­ence that Rom­ney’s cam­paign mani­festo was titled No Apo­logy: Be­lieve in Amer­ica, a ref­er­ence to Obama’s sup­posed tend­ency to apo­lo­gize for Amer­ica’s glob­al mis­deeds. In Lowry and Pon­nuru’s words, Obama threatens Amer­ic­an ex­cep­tion­al­ism be­cause he threatens “Amer­ica’s civil­iz­a­tion­al self-con­fid­ence.”

Measuring Up National Journal

That’s where things get in­ter­est­ing, be­cause, as con­ser­vat­ives sus­pect, Amer­ic­ans’ de­clin­ing be­lief in our spe­cial vir­tue as a world power really is con­nec­ted to our de­clin­ing be­lief in our spe­cial vir­tue as a people. And the young are lead­ing the way. A 2013 poll by the Pub­lic Re­li­gion Re­search In­sti­tute found that while al­most two in three Amer­ic­ans over 65 call them­selves “ex­tremely proud to be Amer­ic­an,” among Amer­ic­ans un­der 30 it is few­er than two in five. Ac­cord­ing to a Pew study in 2011, mil­len­ni­als were a whop­ping 40 points less likely than people 75 and older to call Amer­ica “the greatest coun­try in the world.”

Young Amer­ic­ans, in fact, are no more “civil­iz­a­tion­ally self-con­fid­ent” than their European coun­ter­parts. When Pew asked re­spond­ents in 2011 wheth­er “our cul­ture is su­per­i­or” to oth­ers, it found that Amer­ic­ans over the age of 50 were, on av­er­age, 15 points more likely to an­swer yes than their coun­ter­parts in Bri­tain, France, Ger­many, and Spain. Amer­ic­ans un­der 30, by con­trast, were ac­tu­ally less likely to agree than their peers in Bri­tain, Ger­many, and Spain. And as the mil­len­ni­als, who are still reach­ing adult­hood, con­sti­tute an ever-grow­ing share of Amer­ica’s adult pop­u­la­tion, Amer­ic­ans are be­com­ing a people no more likely to as­sert their na­tion­al su­prem­acy than are Europeans. In 2002, ac­cord­ing to Pew, Amer­ic­ans were 20 per­cent­age points more likely than Ger­mans to de­clare their cul­ture su­per­i­or to that of oth­er na­tions. By 2011, the gap was down to 2 points.

One reas­on for this shift is demo­graph­ic. Ac­cord­ing to the Pub­lic Re­li­gion Re­search In­sti­tute, Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans and His­pan­ics, who com­prise a lar­ger share of Amer­ica’s young than of its old, are less likely to call them­selves “ex­tremely proud” of the United States than whites are. In their skep­ti­cism of uni­lat­er­al for­eign policy and overt pat­ri­ot­ism, young Amer­ic­ans are also re­flect­ing broad­er na­tion­al and in­ter­na­tion­al trends. Mil­len­ni­als are com­ing of age at a time when Amer­ica’s re­l­at­ive power over­seas has de­clined. They’re also products of an edu­ca­tion­al sys­tem that, more than in the past, em­phas­izes in­clu­sion and di­versity, which may breed a dis­com­fort with claims that Amer­ica is bet­ter than oth­er na­tions.

But however im­port­ant these long-term trends, they can’t ex­plain the ab­rupt­ness of the shift away from ex­cep­tion­al­ist at­ti­tudes about Amer­ica’s role in the world. For this, we must look to George W. Bush.

Ever since Karl Man­nheim’s writ­ing in the 1920s, so­ci­olo­gists have ob­served that people are most in­flu­enced by events that oc­cur in their late teens and early 20s — once they sep­ar­ate from their par­ents but be­fore they es­tab­lish stable life­styles and at­ti­tudes of their own. For most mil­len­ni­als, these plastic years co­in­cided with the Bush pres­id­ency. And it is Bush’s vis­ion of Amer­ica’s ag­gress­ive, un­fettered world role, es­pe­cially as mani­fes­ted in the Ir­aq War, that young Amer­ic­ans are re­belling against.

Young Amer­ic­ans ac­tu­ally began the Bush pres­id­ency more sup­port­ive of in­vad­ing Ir­aq than the pop­u­la­tion at large. But their dis­il­lu­sion­ment has proved far more in­tense. Between 2002 and 2008, the per­cent­age of older Amer­ic­ans who sup­por­ted the Ir­aq War dropped 15 points. Among Amer­ic­ans un­der 30, by con­trast, it dropped a whop­ping 47 points. As young Amer­ic­ans turned against the war, they turned against Bush’s ex­cep­tion­al­ist vis­ion of an Amer­ica with unique bur­dens and priv­ileges. Even more fun­da­ment­ally, they turned against the chest-thump­ing, “We’re No. 1” brand of pat­ri­ot­ism that of­ten ac­com­pan­ied it. In 2004, Jon Stew­art — whose com­edy show that year reg­u­larly drew more young view­ers than any oth­er cable news show — pub­lished Amer­ica (The Book), in which, ac­cord­ing to one re­view­er, “no as­pect of our pat­ri­ot­ic pride is too sac­red to be sac­ri­ficed on the al­tar of irony.” The fol­low­ing year, Stew­art’s col­league, Steph­en Col­bert, launched The Col­bert Re­port, which oc­ca­sion­ally fea­tured him wrapped nude in the Amer­ic­an flag. Between 2003 and 2011, ac­cord­ing to Pew, the per­cent­age of Amer­ic­ans call­ing them­selves “very pat­ri­ot­ic” dropped by less than 3 points among older Amer­ic­ans but by 10 points among mil­len­ni­als.

This turn against ex­cep­tion­al­ist for­eign policy — like young Amer­ica’s turn against or­gan­ized re­li­gion — has un­doubtedly boos­ted Obama’s polit­ic­al ca­reer. Had he not op­posed the Ir­aq War, and then seen the war prove cata­stroph­ic, it’s un­likely he would have won the Demo­crat­ic nom­in­a­tion, let alone the pres­id­ency. Among an­ti­war voters, he beat John Mc­Cain by 54 points. But as with dwind­ling re­li­gious af­fil­i­ation, Obama’s pres­id­ency has been more the res­ult of the de­cline Amer­ic­an ex­cep­tion­al­ism than its cause. If any pres­id­ent bears re­spons­ib­il­ity for the pub­lic’s sour­ing on the idea that the United States can play by its own rules on the world stage, it is Bush, as­sisted by many of the same con­ser­vat­ive politi­cians and pun­dits who now be­moan Amer­ic­an ex­cep­tion­al­ism’s de­mise.

Amer­ic­an ex­cep­tion­al­ism’s third, and most fun­da­ment­al, con­tem­por­ary mean­ing is about neither re­li­gion nor for­eign policy. It’s about mo­bil­ity. Start­ing in the 19th cen­tury, for­eign ob­serv­ers began not­ing that white Amer­ic­ans were less likely than Europeans to be pris­on­ers of their birth. Be­cause Amer­ica’s white poor could more eas­ily rise above their par­ents’ sta­tion, they did not con­sti­tute a stat­ic, ag­grieved work­ing class — and were less temp­ted by so­cial­ism. In the words of Prin­ceton his­tor­i­an Daniel Rodgers, “So­cial­ism’s weak­ness in the United States was taken as fur­ther proof of the point: that the old rules of caste and class re­la­tions had been su­per­seded.”

For the most part, today’s con­ser­vat­ives lust­ily en­dorse this ex­cep­tion­al­ist nar­rat­ive. “Class is not a fixed des­ig­na­tion in this coun­try,” de­clared Paul Ry­an in 2011. Un­like Europe, where “masses of the long-term un­em­ployed are locked in­to the new lower class,” Amer­ica is “an up­wardly mo­bile so­ci­ety.” Lowry and Pon­nuru add, “In Amer­ica, there really hasn’t been a dis­af­fected pro­let­ari­at — be­cause the pro­let­ari­at has got­ten rich.”

But con­ser­vat­ives worry that by en­cour­aging re­li­ance on gov­ern­ment and dis­cour­aging in­di­vidu­al ini­ti­at­ive, Obama is mak­ing Amer­ica more like Europe. Obama, warns former Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate Michele Bach­mann, is hook­ing Amer­ic­ans on the “crack co­caine of [gov­ern­ment] de­pend­ency.” “It’s not a tra­di­tion­al Amer­ica any­more,” Fox’s Bill O’Re­illy des­paired on the night Obama won reelec­tion. “People feel that they are en­titled to things” from the state.

Fortunate Ones National Journal

When con­ser­vat­ives worry that Amer­ica is not as eco­nom­ic­ally ex­cep­tion­al any­more, they’re right. A raft of stud­ies sug­gests that up­ward mo­bil­ity is now rarer in the United States than in much of Europe. But if Amer­ica’s ex­cep­tion­al eco­nom­ic mo­bil­ity is largely a myth, it’s a myth in which many older Amer­ic­ans still be­lieve. Among the young, by con­trast, at­ti­tudes are catch­ing up to real­ity. Ac­cord­ing to a 2011 Pew poll, young Amer­ic­ans were 14 points more likely than older Amer­ic­ans to say that the wealthy in Amer­ica got there mainly be­cause “they know the right people or were born in­to wealthy fam­il­ies” rather than be­cause of their “hard work, am­bi­tion, and edu­ca­tion.” And as young Amer­ic­ans in­tern­al­ize Amer­ica’s lack of eco­nom­ic mo­bil­ity, they are de­vel­op­ing the very class con­scious­ness the United States is sup­posed to lack. In 2011, when Pew asked Amer­ic­ans to define them­selves as either a “have” or a “have-not,”  older Amer­ic­ans chose “have” by 27 points. In con­trast, young Amer­ic­ans, by a 4-point mar­gin, chose “have-not.” Ac­cord­ing to the ex­cep­tion­al­ist story line, Amer­ic­ans are all sup­posed to con­sider them­selves “middle class,” re­gard­less of their ac­tu­al eco­nom­ic for­tunes. For seni­ors, that’s largely true. Ac­cord­ing to a 2012 Pew study, they were 43 points more likely to call them­selves “middle” than “lower” class. Among young Amer­ic­ans, by con­trast, the per­cent­age call­ing them­selves “middle” and “lower” class was vir­tu­ally the same.

And in the fi­nal un­do­ing of the ex­cep­tion­al­ist nar­rat­ive, young Amer­ic­ans are ex­press­ing great­er in­terest in “so­cial­ism,” al­though it’s un­clear what they mean by it. A 2011 Pew study found that while Amer­ic­ans over 30 favored cap­it­al­ism over so­cial­ism by 27 points, Amer­ic­ans un­der 30 nar­rowly favored so­cial­ism. Com­pared with older Amer­ic­ans, mil­len­ni­als are 36 points more likely to prefer a lar­ger gov­ern­ment that provides more ser­vices over a smal­ler one that provides few­er.

As mil­len­ni­als grow older, Amer­ic­ans as a whole — whose ac­tu­al eco­nom­ic mo­bil­ity is no longer ex­cep­tion­al — are be­com­ing less ex­cep­tion­al in their at­ti­tudes about class. Between 1988 and 2011, the per­cent­age of Amer­ic­ans who iden­ti­fied as “have-nots” doubled, from few­er than one in five to more than one in three. In 1988, Amer­ic­ans earn­ing un­der $30,000 a year were 18 points more likely to call them­selves “haves.” By 2011, those num­bers, ad­jus­ted for in­fla­tion, had flipped: The poorest Amer­ic­ans were 15 points more likely to call them­selves “have-nots.”

Amer­ic­ans are also be­com­ing less ex­cep­tion­al in their views of cap­it­al­ism. In 2003, ac­cord­ing to GlobeS­can, Amer­ic­ans were more than 14 per­cent­age points more likely than Itali­ans, Bri­tons, Ca­na­dians, and Ger­mans to say the “free mar­ket eco­nomy is the best sys­tem on which to base the fu­ture of the world.” By 2010, they were al­most 2 points less likely.

When con­ser­vat­ives ac­know­ledge these trends, they of­ten chalk them up to Obama’s policies, which have sup­posedly drained Amer­ic­ans of their rugged in­di­vidu­al­ism and ha­bitu­ated them to gov­ern­ment handouts. “Once the pub­lic is hooked on gov­ern­ment health care,” Lowry and Pon­nuru note, “its polit­ic­al at­ti­tudes shift left­ward.” But Obama is less the driver of this shift in eco­nom­ic at­ti­tudes than the be­ne­fi­ciary. It’s cer­tainly true that Obama won the votes of Amer­ic­ans skep­tic­al that they can rise via the un­fettered mar­ket. Among the ma­jor­ity of 2012 voters who be­lieve Amer­ica’s eco­nom­ic sys­tem fa­vors the wealthy, Obama beat Rom­ney by 45 points. But Obama is not the reas­on so many Amer­ic­ans be­lieve that. For more than a cen­tury, com­ment­at­ors have chalked up Amer­ic­ans’ sup­port for cap­it­al­ism and lack of eco­nom­ic re­sent­ment to Amer­ica’s ex­cep­tion­al up­ward mo­bil­ity. It’s un­clear when ex­actly Amer­ic­an up­ward mo­bil­ity began to de­cline. But it’s not sur­pris­ing that, even­tu­ally, that de­cline would cause class at­ti­tudes to harden.

The ques­tion ex­cep­tion­al­ists should be ask­ing is why Amer­ica, once vaunted for its eco­nom­ic mo­bil­ity, now trails much of the ad­vanced world. Single-par­ent fam­il­ies clearly play a role, since poor chil­dren born in­to two-par­ent homes are far more up­wardly mo­bile than those who are not. Hous­ing pat­terns that se­greg­ate the poor from the middle class also seem to lim­it poor kids’ chances of get­ting ahead. But eco­nom­ic in­equal­ity is also a big part of the story. Across the world, the Uni­versity of Ot­t­awa’s Miles Corak has demon­strated, coun­tries with high­er in­equal­ity suf­fer lower mo­bil­ity. The same is true in­side the United States: The flat­ter a city is eco­nom­ic­ally, the more likely its poor will rise.

Part of the reas­on is “op­por­tun­ity hoard­ing.” In re­cent dec­ades, the wealth gap between the richest Amer­ic­ans and every­one else has dra­mat­ic­ally widened. Rich Amer­ic­ans have used this in­flux of cash to give their chil­dren spe­cial ad­vant­ages that keep them from los­ing their spots atop the in­come lad­der to chil­dren born with less­er means. Think about test pre­par­a­tion, which be­came a na­tion­al in­dustry only in the 1970s. Or the way wealthy par­ents sub­sid­ize un­paid in­tern­ships or buy ex­pens­ive houses to gain ac­cess to the best pub­lic schools. In the early 1970s, rich fam­il­ies spent four times as much on their chil­dren’s edu­ca­tion as poor ones. Today, they spend al­most sev­en times as much. Cul­ture plays a large role in this. If the rich didn’t value edu­ca­tion, they wouldn’t spend their cash on it. But un­til re­cently, they didn’t have so much cash to spend. As a pa­per by Stan­ford so­ci­olo­gists Pablo Mit­nik, Erin Cum­ber­worth, and Dav­id Grusky notes, “In­equal­ity provides priv­ileged fam­il­ies with more re­sources that can then be lav­ished on their chil­dren, re­sources that raise their chances of se­cur­ing de­sir­able class po­s­i­tions for them­selves.” Wheth­er this lav­ish­ing has con­trib­uted to an ab­so­lute de­cline in up­ward mo­bil­ity in the United States in re­cent dec­ades, it has cer­tainly con­trib­uted to Amer­ica’s de­cline re­l­at­ive to oth­er ad­vanced coun­tries.

All of which begs an­oth­er ques­tion that con­ser­vat­ive ex­cep­tion­al­ists should be ask­ing: What’s be­hind skyrock­et­ing in­equal­ity? Why do the top 1 per­cent of Amer­ic­ans, who took in roughly 11 per­cent of na­tion­al in­come in the mid-1970s, ac­count for more than double that today? Glob­al­iz­a­tion and tech­no­logy are clearly part of the story. If you’re an Amer­ic­an who works with your hands, you’re com­pet­ing with low-paid work­ers across the globe, not to men­tion ma­chines, to an ex­tent scarcely ima­gin­able a few dec­ades ago. That com­pet­i­tion pushes down wages for Amer­ic­ans without a col­lege de­gree, and widens the gap between rich and poor.

What glob­al­iz­a­tion and tech­no­logy can’t ex­plain is why in­equal­ity is so much high­er in Amer­ica than in Europe, where the same tec­ton­ic forces are at play. In­deed, if you elim­in­ate gov­ern­ment policies on tax­ing and spend­ing, Amer­ica is about as un­equal as Sweden, Nor­way, and Den­mark and a bit more equal than Fin­land, Ger­many, and Bri­tain. Amer­ica claims its place as the most un­equal ma­jor West­ern coun­try only when you add in gov­ern­ment policy. Which is to say that while glob­al­iz­a­tion and tech­no­logy may be in­creas­ing in­equal­ity every­where, they are in­creas­ing it more in the United States be­cause, com­pared with Europe, the United States re­dis­trib­utes less money from rich to poor.

Which brings us back to con­ser­vat­ives, be­cause it is their cham­pi­ons — Ron­ald Re­agan in the 1980s, Newt Gin­grich in the 1990s, George W. Bush in the 2000s — who pushed many of the policies that have boos­ted in­equal­ity. In the mid-1970s, the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment’s top tax rate for reg­u­lar in­come was 70 per­cent and its top rate for long-term cap­it­al gains was al­most 40 per­cent. When Bush left of­fice, the rate on reg­u­lar in­come had fallen to 35 per­cent and the rate on long-term cap­it­al gains was down to 15 per­cent. (That has crept up un­der Obama to al­most 40 per­cent on reg­u­lar in­come and 20 per­cent on cap­it­al gains for in­di­vidu­als mak­ing over $400,000.) These huge shifts in tax policy have been par­tially off­set by an­ti­poverty spend­ing, which has grown sig­ni­fic­antly since the 1970s, largely be­cause skyrock­et­ing health care costs have made Medi­caid far more ex­pens­ive. But even if you take that in­crease in­to ac­count, Amer­ica is still do­ing far less to com­bat in­equal­ity than oth­er ad­vanced demo­cra­cies.

If you be­lieve, as aca­dem­ics in­creas­ingly do, that eco­nom­ic in­equal­ity goes hand in hand with cal­ci­fied class re­la­tions, then dec­ades of con­ser­vat­ive policy have con­trib­uted to Amer­ica’s re­l­at­ive lack of eco­nom­ic mo­bil­ity.

This, in turn, has soured young Amer­ic­ans on the be­lief that through the free mar­ket they can rise above the cir­cum­stances of their birth. Which means that, when it comes to de­clin­ing faith in the Amer­ic­an Dream of up­ward mo­bil­ity, as with de­clin­ing faith in or­gan­ized re­li­gion and de­clin­ing faith in Amer­ica’s spe­cial mis­sion in the world, con­ser­vat­ives have helped fo­ment the very back­lash against Amer­ic­an ex­cep­tion­al­ism that they de­cry.

But in all three areas, this back­lash may ac­tu­ally prove a source of hope. It may not en­tirely re­store pub­lic be­lief in Amer­ica’s unique vir­tues, but it may re­verse some of the trends that sapped that be­lief in the first place.

Start with re­li­gion. To some, the rise in re­li­gious non­af­fili­ation is a fright­en­ing de­par­ture from Amer­ic­an tra­di­tion. It may turn out, however, to be just the chal­lenge Amer­ic­an Chris­tian­ity needs.

His­tor­ic­ally, Amer­ic­an re­li­gion has be­nefited greatly from its in­de­pend­ence from the state. In re­cent dec­ades, however, that in­de­pend­ence has been com­prom­ised. The Re­li­gious Right has be­come a wing of the Re­pub­lic­an Party, led by power brokers who speak bib­lic­ally but act polit­ic­ally. In re­sponse, many young Amer­ic­ans have be­gun vot­ing against the GOP on Sundays by de­clin­ing to at­tend church.

Their ali­en­a­tion has jol­ted re­li­gious lead­ers and con­trib­uted to a new will­ing­ness to ques­tion the cor­rupt­ing en­tan­gle­ment between churches and par­tis­an polit­ics. “When I talk to neigh­bors or strangers and tell them that I try my best to fol­low Je­sus,” wrote Dav­id Kuo, an evan­gel­ic­al who worked for Ral­ph Reed, John Ash­croft, Wil­li­am Ben­nett, and George W. Bush, “their first thoughts about me are polit­ic­al ones — they fig­ure I don’t care about the en­vir­on­ment, I sup­port the war in Ir­aq, I op­pose abor­tion.”¦ That is what they as­so­ci­ate with my faith.” So dis­turb­ing was this real­iz­a­tion that Kuo in 2006 pub­lished a book ar­guing, “It is time for Chris­ti­ans to take a tem­por­ary step back from polit­ics, to turn away from its se­duc­tions.”

Even Pope Francis hasn't brought young people back to the pews. (ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP/Getty Images) ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP/Getty Images

That’s be­gin­ning to hap­pen. Ac­cord­ing to John S. Dick­er­son, an in­flu­en­tial young evan­gel­ic­al pas­tor, “The pulse of evan­gel­ic­al­ism is “¦ shift­ing, in many ways for the good, from Amer­ic­an polit­ics to aid for the glob­al poor.” In­spired by Pope Fran­cis, prom­in­ent Cath­ol­ic Re­pub­lic­ans such as Paul Ry­an are ques­tion­ing wheth­er a Chris­tian­ity that blesses the lob­by­ing agenda of the cham­ber of com­merce will ever truly chal­lenge sec­u­lar so­ci­ety or reen­gage Amer­ica’s dis­af­fected young. Even Pope Fran­cis hasn’t brought young people back to the pews. (AL­BERTO PIZZOLI/AFP/Getty Im­ages)

So far, there’s no evid­ence this shift is stem­ming the rising tide of re­li­gious non­af­fili­ation. Even Fran­cis, al­though widely ad­mired by Amer­ic­an Cath­ol­ics, hasn’t yet brought them back to the pews. Still, the new spir­it of hu­mil­ity and self-cri­ti­cism among Amer­ica’s church lead­ers is healthy. And it’s un­likely it would be oc­cur­ring had young people not shattered the ste­reo­type of Amer­ic­ans as un­ques­tion­ing church­go­ers. Moreover, since most of these young Amer­ic­ans re­ject a par­tis­an church — but not a lov­ing God — they may one day cre­ate a con­stitu­ency for re­li­gious in­sti­tu­tions that spurns the tempta­tions of state power. Which is, in a way, what Amer­ic­an re­li­gious ex­cep­tion­al­ism was sup­posed to be all about.

The back­lash against Amer­ica’s spe­cial mis­sion in the world may prove heart­en­ing, too. Over the last dec­ade, that spe­cial mis­sion has jus­ti­fied policies — such as the in­va­sion, oc­cu­pa­tion, and failed re­con­struc­tion of Afgh­anistan and Ir­aq — that have cost the United States massively in money and blood. And it has jus­ti­fied ig­nor­ing in­ter­na­tion­al norms, most im­port­antly on tor­ture, which has sapped Amer­ica’s mor­al au­thor­ity. Yet many hawk­ish elites re­main loath to ac­know­ledge the lim­its of Amer­ic­an power, let alone Amer­ic­an wis­dom.

In de­sir­ing a more mod­est and con­sen­su­al for­eign policy, young people are re­cap­tur­ing the wis­dom of an earli­er era. In the 1950s, after a pain­ful and costly war in Korea, Dwight Eis­en­hower warned that by dis­patch­ing troops to op­pose every com­mun­ist ad­vance, Amer­ica would un­der­mine its eco­nom­ic strength and demo­crat­ic char­ac­ter even as it ex­ten­ded its mil­it­ary reach. Today, wheth­er it is their sup­port for a smal­ler, cheap­er mil­it­ary or their skep­ti­cism about un­checked gov­ern­ment sur­veil­lance, young Amer­ic­ans are the age group most sens­it­ive to the fin­an­cial and mor­al costs of con­tinu­ing Bush’s ex­pans­ive “war on ter­ror.” Eis­en­hower’s fear of over­reach led him to res­ist calls for send­ing U.S. troops to Vi­et­nam; young Amer­ic­ans are today 30 points more likely than their eld­ers to say the United States should avoid war with Ir­an.

Un­der­ly­ing this more mod­est for­eign policy vis­ion is a more mod­est as­sess­ment of Amer­ica it­self, a mod­esty that may look to con­ser­vat­ives such as Lowry and Pon­nuru like “lack of civil­iz­a­tion­al self-con­fid­ence.” But here, too, young Amer­ic­ans are re­claim­ing the in­sights of an earli­er time. In 1947, with politi­cians draw­ing ever bright­er lines between the vir­tue of Amer­ic­an demo­cracy and the evil of So­viet to­tal­it­ari­an­ism, George Ken­nan told stu­dents at the Na­tion­al War Col­lege, “There is a little bit of to­tal­it­ari­an bur­ied some­where, way down deep, in each and every one of us.” Ken­nan, and like-minded mid-20th-cen­tury in­tel­lec­tu­als such as Wal­ter Lippmann and Re­in­hold Niebuhr, con­sidered Amer­ica’s polit­ic­al sys­tem su­per­i­or to the So­viet Uni­on’s. But they ar­gued that, para­dox­ic­ally, what made it su­per­i­or was its re­cog­ni­tion of Amer­ic­an fal­lib­il­ity. Amer­ica, un­like the U.S.S.R., bound its lead­ers with­in re­strain­ing sys­tems of law that denied them the right to un­fettered ac­tion no mat­ter how con­vinced they were of their own good in­ten­tions. That same spir­it led the United States to help build in­sti­tu­tions like the United Na­tions and NATO, which gave smal­ler na­tions some voice over Amer­ica’s be­ha­vi­or, and won the United States a meas­ure of le­git­im­acy among its al­lies that the So­viet Uni­on nev­er en­joyed.

As young men, Lippmann and Niebuhr had seen two epic vis­ions — Woo­drow Wilson’s dream of a war to end war, and the so­cial­ist dream of a re­volu­tion to end class op­pres­sion — turn ugly. And it was their dis­il­lu­sion­ment with polit­ic­al cru­sades that woke them to the im­port­ance of build­ing re­straints against Amer­ica’s ca­pa­city to do evil rather than merely un­leash­ing its sup­posedly in­nate in­clin­a­tion to do good. Per­haps young Amer­ic­ans, hav­ing in their form­at­ive years watched Bush’s epic post-9/11 vis­ion breed lies, bru­tal­ity, and state col­lapse, and Amer­ica’s cel­eb­rated cap­it­al­ist sys­tem des­cend in­to fin­an­cial crisis, have gained their own ap­pre­ci­ation of Amer­ic­an fal­lib­il­ity. Let’s hope so, be­cause as Niebuhr and Lippmann un­der­stood, the best way to en­sure that Amer­ica re­mains an ex­cep­tion­al power — bet­ter than the pred­at­ory em­pires of the old world — is to re­mem­ber that we are not in­her­ently bet­ter at all.

The third back­lash may prove most sig­ni­fic­ant of all. Amer­ic­ans are right to cher­ish eco­nom­ic mo­bil­ity. But the myth that Amer­ica still en­joys ex­cep­tion­al mo­bil­ity has be­come an opi­ate im­ped­ing ef­forts to make that mo­bil­ity real again. When newly elec­ted New York May­or Bill de Bla­sio called for rais­ing taxes on the wealthy to fund preschool and after-school pro­grams, he was in­stantly ac­cused of “class war­fare,” as if sul­ly­ing the nat­ur­al, class­less, real­ity of New York City life. Crit­ics of the in­her­it­ance tax of­ten in­voke a myth­ic Amer­ica where the people passing on mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar es­tates to their chil­dren are lat­ter-day Hor­a­tio Al­gers who have got­ten rich be­cause of their gump­tion and hard work. They do so even though the es­tate tax af­fects just over 0.1 per­cent of Amer­ic­an fam­il­ies, the same tiny elite that in re­cent dec­ades has used its massive eco­nom­ic gains to in­su­late its chil­dren from com­pet­i­tion from the very eco­nom­ic strivers that op­pon­ents of the in­her­it­ance tax cel­eb­rate.

Since the 1970s, the con­ser­vat­ive move­ment has used the myth of a class­less Amer­ica to re­dis­trib­ute wealth up­ward, thus harden­ing class di­vi­sions, at least re­l­at­ive to oth­er na­tions. It’s no sur­prise that the young, hav­ing no memory of the more equal, more mo­bile Amer­ica of pop­u­lar le­gend, see this real­ity more clearly. And be­cause they do, they are more eager to change it. Un­like every oth­er age group, which op­posed the Oc­cupy move­ment by double di­gits, mil­len­ni­als sup­por­ted it by double di­gits.

As mil­len­ni­als con­sti­tute a lar­ger share of the elect­or­ate — rising from 29 per­cent of eli­gible voters in 2012 to a pro­jec­ted 36 per­cent in 2016 and 39 per­cent in 2020 — they are cre­at­ing a con­stitu­ency for politi­cians will­ing to both ac­know­ledge Amer­ica’s lack of class mo­bil­ity and try to rem­edy it. The key to such an ef­fort is in­creas­ing the num­ber of poor stu­dents who gradu­ate from col­lege. Hav­ing a col­lege de­gree quad­ruples someone’s chances of mov­ing from the poorest fifth of the pop­u­la­tion to the wealth­i­est. But edu­ca­tion­ally, many poor stu­dents fall so far be­hind so early that their chances of at­tend­ing col­lege are crippled by the time they leave ele­ment­ary school. By eighth grade, chil­dren from wealthy fam­il­ies are already an as­ton­ish­ing four grade levels ahead of chil­dren who grow up poor.

There is evid­ence from France and Den­mark that ex­pand­ing preschool en­roll­ment can sig­ni­fic­antly close this per­form­ance gap. A Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion study found that en­rolling low-in­come chil­dren in high-qual­ity preschools could boost their life­time earn­ings by as much as $100,000. Build­ing on such data, de Bla­sio has fam­ously pro­posed mak­ing preschool uni­ver­sal in New York City, to be paid for with a tax on people earn­ing over $500,000 a year. Now New York Gov. An­drew Cuomo has gone one bet­ter, prom­ising uni­ver­sal preschool throughout the state. Pres­id­ent Obama pro­posed something sim­il­ar in his re­cent State of the Uni­on ad­dress.

These ef­forts still face res­ist­ance, but they stand any chance at all only be­cause of the grow­ing re­cog­ni­tion that Amer­ica is not the highly mo­bile na­tion its cheer­lead­ers pro­claim it to be. To Mitt Rom­ney, the pub­lic’s grow­ing ali­en­a­tion from this and oth­er na­tion­al myths may re­flect a dis­turb­ing re­fus­al to “be­lieve in Amer­ica.” But “dis­con­tent,” Thomas Edis­on once quipped, “is the first ne­ces­sity of pro­gress.” And by chal­len­ging the com­fort­ing stor­ies we tell about ourselves, a new Amer­ic­an gen­er­a­tion might just be­gin the long, hard work of mak­ing Amer­ica ex­cep­tion­al again.


The au­thor, a Na­tion­al Journ­al con­trib­ut­ing ed­it­or, is a pro­fess­or at the City Uni­versity of New York and a seni­or fel­low at the New Amer­ica Found­a­tion.

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