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Taking Exception

Every now and then a piece of writing captures the mood of the moment and the essence of an ideology so completely that it warrants special attention. This is certainly the case with “An Exceptional Debate: The Obama Administration’s Assault on American Identity,” an essay (and cover story) by Richard Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru in the March 8 issue of National Review. Lowry and Ponnuru’s thesis—that President Obama is an enemy of “American exceptionalism”—is hardly original. It is so widely held and so frequently asserted on the right, in fact, that it can almost be described as conservative conventional wisdom. Still, NR’s treatment of the subject stands out. Lowry and Ponnuru aim for comprehensiveness, and they maintain a measured, thoughtful tone throughout their essay, marshalling a wide range of historical evidence for their thesis and making well-timed concessions to contrary arguments. It’s hard to imagine this key conservative claim receiving a more cogent and rhetorically effective defense. Which is precisely what makes the essay’s shortcomings so striking. While its authors clearly mean it to stand as a manifesto for a resurgent conservative moment, the essay far more resembles a lullaby—a comforting compilation of consoling pieties set to a soothingly familiar melody. The perfect soundtrack to a peaceful snooze.

Let’s begin at the beginning, with definitions. Lowry and Ponnuru aim to convince their readers that the President of the United States denies the idea that lies at the core of American identity: that the country is exceptional. But what makes America exceptional? This is what the authors tell us: Americans affirm a creed that upholds “liberty, equality (of opportunity and respect), individualism, populism, and laissez-faire economics.” These principles then combine with “other aspects of the American character—especially our religiousness and our willingness to defend ourselves by force—to form the core of American exceptionalism.”

Some of this is faintly ridiculous. (Is anything less exceptional in human history than a country’s willingness to defend itself by force?) As for the rest, it’s either a string of American banalities and clichés—or an abstract of the Republican Party platform. The next several paragraphs of the essay make it very clear that it’s the latter. That’s right: Lowry and Ponnuru expect their readers to believe that what makes our country exceptional is that large numbers of Americans affirm the ideology of the modern conservative movement. But that’s not quite right. Through long stretches of the essay they go much further—to imply that America is exceptional because the nation’s creed is the ideology of the modern conservative movement.

Follow the bouncing ball: the fact that “a profit-seeking company” founded Jamestown and that Puritan merchants wrote “In the name of God and of profit” at the top of their ledgers; that, in a “telling coincidence,” Adam Smith’s “free-market classic” The Wealth of Nations was published in the same year as the Declaration of Independence; that Benjamin Franklin’s name “comes from the Middle English meaning freeman, someone who owns some property”; that Abraham Lincoln supposedly hated few things more than “economic stasis”—all of these and many other anecdotes are supposed to add up to an endorsement of “the American economic gospel” (read: libertarian economic gospel) about “wealth and its creation.” Meanwhile, other cherry-picked facts in later paragraphs serve to highlight the American fondness for democratic elections, the country’s incorrigible patriotism and religiosity, and its “missionary impulse” to “export our model of liberty” to the world, often at the point of a gun.

If Lowry and Ponnuru merely wished to trace the origins of several influential strands of economic and political thinking in American history—the strands that the modern conservative movement has woven into a politically potent ideological tapestry—the story they tell would be unobjectionable, if a little quirky in its emphases. But that is not their aim at all. What Lowry and Ponnuru want to accomplish is something far more pernicious—namely, to relegate contrary voices in our national narrative to the periphery of our history, and perhaps even to read them out of our history altogether.

It’s a very old ideological trick—one that conservatives have mastered over the past several decades. From Allan Bloom blaming the campus violence of the 1960s on Heidegger’s Rektoratsrede to Sarah Palin’s twangy tributes to the folksy wisdom of average Americans, it has been deployed in various idioms for various purposes over the years. But the picture it presents is always the same. On one side of an unbridgeable divide stand true Americans, devoted to God and country, liberty and virtue; on the other is an insidious assortment of liberals, leftists, radicals, secularists, and foreigners. Yes, foreigners. At its most effective, the narrative has always traced the origins of national corruption not to an aspect of American history or culture but rather to the influence of harmful foreign ideas.  

That’s why halfway through their essay Lowry and Ponnuru veer off on an otherwise inexplicable disquisition on European critics of the United States, which they then identify as the source of virtually any argument or political position that has diverged from the ideology of modern conservatism. Jane Addams, Herbert Croly, New Deal economist Stuart Chase—all of them, and many more, failed to understand and appreciate America’s exceptional character and sought to replace it with “the best innovations of the modern dictatorial movements taking over in Europe” during the 1920s and ‘30s. That’s America for you: Members of the modern conservative movement squared off against the European-inspired liberal fascists, forever searching in desperation for “a foreign template to graft onto America.” If only the latter could be convinced not to hate—let alone to like or love—their country. But alas. . . .

It should be clear by now where Lowry and Ponnuru believe Barack Obama’s presidency has gone wrong. Instead of patriotically affirming the American exceptionalist creed—instead, that is, of governing like a Republican—he’s placed our national character “under threat” and set out “to change the country fundamentally.” Liberalism necessitates such radical change because liberals give their allegiance not to the country they actually inhabit but rather “to a hypothetical, pure country that is coming into being”—an ideal that looks suspiciously like the sclerotic welfare states of continental Europe. And that's the danger—that in pursuing a liberal public policy agenda, which amounts to a “rush to social democracy,” the president will succeed in making us “less free, less innovative, less rich, less self-governing, and less secure”—in sum, less American. While Lowry and Ponnuru generously admit that it is “madness to consider President Obama a foreigner,” they nonetheless insist that “it is blindness to ignore that American exceptionalism has homegrown enemies”—enemies such as the president of the United States.

But of course there is far more to America than is dreamt of Lowry and Ponnuru’s ideologically inspired homily. Take their risible charge that liberal patriotism is defective because it sometimes puts more faith in the American future than in its past or present. Nowhere in their 5,000-word article do Lowry and Ponnuru acknowledge that significant numbers of Americans—very much including the current occupant of the White House—have very good historical reasons to feel something less than uncomplicated delight in the country’s past.

Yes, America’s principles are admirable, and the vast majority of liberals admire them deeply. But it is most certainly not the case, as Lowry and Ponnuru piously write, that America’s creed of liberty—including the principle of equality of opportunity and respect—was “open to all” from the beginning. On the contrary, it was closed to many until quite recently. Indeed, it remains nearly closed to this day in the impoverished, blighted ghettos of West Philadelphia, just blocks from my office at the University of Pennsylvania, where thousands of pampered students live and study in a profoundly different world—one structured to provide them with all the knowledge and skills they’ll need to take full advantage of the countless unequal opportunities that our country places before them.

Like many conservatives, Lowry and Ponnuru appear to be untroubled by the chasm that separates these two worlds. Sure, it’s a source of “political tension.” But it’s nothing to be overly concerned about, because, they tell us, a 2003 Gallup poll showed that “31 percent of Americans expect to get rich, including 51 percent of young people and more than 20 percent of Americans making less than $30,000 year.” That’s right: Lowry and Ponnuru think it’s a very good thing indeed that millions of Americans are deluded about their future life prospects—in fact, these senior editors of National Review give every indication of hoping to perpetuate the delusion.

And let’s face it: they have a point. The United States would not benefit from the kind of social and political unrest that would follow from the shattering of its citizens’ economic pipe dreams. Conservatives like Lowry and Ponnuru respond to this fact by upholding the fiction that America has always been a land of equal opportunity for all. Liberals respond by crafting policies that they hope will bring the country into closer conformity to the ideal of equal opportunity for all. That’s one way to define the division of labor that separates our nation’s parties at this moment in our history. What should disgust all historically informed citizens is the smarmy and ignorant insinuation that the liberal response—the one that seeks to make the United States a fairer and freer nation for more of its citizens—is something less than authentically American.

Lowry and Ponnuru are right about one thing: liberal love for the United States is complicated by criticism. And that appears to be something the right simply cannot abide, or perhaps even understand. How else to explain the bizarre passage of their essay in which Lowry and Ponnuru slam President Obama for failing to “defend the country’s honor” when a foreign critic “brought up the Bay of Pigs” during an overseas trip? Apparently “acknowledging that America has been a force for good” in the world, as Obama did, is not enough. The man who leads the nation that is by almost any measure indisputably the most powerful on earth must go further—to make a fool of himself and the country by defending an escapade from half-a-century ago that nearly everyone acknowledges was an embarrassing blunder. But that’s not all. According to Lowry and Ponnuru, he must also robustly defend American exceptionalism—and thus American moral superiority—before foreign audiences, evidently because it’s the president’s duty to provoke anger and resentment, and thus opposition to our global leadership, around the world.

Lots of conservatives turned on George W. Bush by the end of his presidency. But here we see that if Bush didn’t exist, the right would have had to invent him. His proud parochialism, his simple-minded and insecure suspicion of intelligence, his swaggering self-righteousness—all of it is the natural expression of contemporary conservatism's outlook on the world.

Alexis de Tocqueville, a hero to many on the right, noted with concern nearly two centuries ago that Americans were prone to “the perpetual utterance of self-applause.” For all of his prescience, I suspect the great Frenchman would be surprised and disappointed to find that all these years later, at a time when the country faces daunting long-term challenges, one of the nation's two governing ideologies has come to define itself by its singular dedication to the proposition that the standing ovation never stop. 

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