Exceptionalism Doesn’t Work That Way

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

WASHINGTON - NOVEMBER 19: Newly elected freshman members of the upcoming 112th Congress pose for a class photo on the steps of the U.S. Capitol on November 19, 2010 in Washington, DC. . This week the new members have been undergoing orientation before taking office in January. House Democrats lost over 60 seats in the mid-term elections giving control of the house to the Republicans. 
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Feb. 3, 2014, midnight

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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