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?

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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.

THE RISE OF AN­TI­CLER­IC­AL­ISM

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.”

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.

NON­IN­TER­VEN­TION­ISM

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.”

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.

CLASS-CON­SCIOUS­NESS

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.

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.

THE TURN­AROUND

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.”

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.

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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.

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.

THE RISE OF AN­TI­CLER­IC­AL­ISM

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.”

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.

NON­IN­TER­VEN­TION­ISM

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.”

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.

CLASS-CON­SCIOUS­NESS

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.

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.

THE TURN­AROUND

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.”

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.

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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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