Friday, November 12, 2010

Mocking American Exceptionalism by Jonah Goldberg

November 10, 2010 //WSJ

In 2008, when asked if he believed in American exceptionalism, President Obama responded, "I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism." This reminded me of the wonderful scene in Pixar's The Incredibles in which the mom says, "Everyone's special," and her son replies, "Which is another way of saying no one is."

But at least the president made room for the sentiment that America is a special place, even if he chalked it up to a kind of benign provincialism. Not so Michael Kinsley, who recently penned an essay for Politico titled "U.S. is not greatest country ever," in which he mocked those who traffic in this exceptionalism nonsense.


Not to be outdone, Daily Beast columnist Peter Beinart railed against the GOP's "lunatic notion" of America's exceptionalism. In particular, Beinart was infuriated by Senator-elect Marco Rubio's claim that "America is the single greatest nation in all of human history." Doesn't the Florida politician know, Beinart wonders, that China and Brazil are opening opportunities to their citizens too? According to Beinart, Rubio - the son of Cuban exiles - is too ideologically blinkered to know that "the American dream of upward mobility is alive and well, just not in America."

What's bizarre about Beinart and Kinsley's rendition of American exceptionalism is that it hinges on the premise that the idea of American exceptionalism is an artifact of right-wing jingoism, xenophobia, or ignorance. Even Obama flirts with this sort of thing every time he chalks up opposition to his agenda to the fear, bigotry, or small-mindedness of the "bitter" souls "clinging" to their antiquarian beliefs.

Forget that every Fourth of July we celebrate the fact that we fought the Revolutionary War to become an exceptional nation. From their dismissive condescension, you'd think these three educated men didn't know that American exceptionalism has been a well-established notion among scholars for more than a century.

"The position of the Americans is therefore quite exceptional," wrote Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America, "and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one." Ever since, historians have argued that America's lack of a feudal past, its Puritan roots, the realism of its revolutionary ambitions, and many other ingredients contributed to America's status as the "first new nation," to borrow a phrase from Seymour Martin Lipset, who spent his life writing about American exceptionalism.

E. L. Godkin, the Irish-born editor of The Nation, observed in 1867 that the lack of a class-based system, the existence of an open frontier, and an optimism that comes with political and economic liberty marked the U.S. as a very different land from Britain, never mind the European continent. In 1906, German sociologist Werner Sombart released his book Why Is There No Socialism in the United States? in which he pointed to similar factors.

Ever since, left-leaning intellectuals have been taking dead aim at American exceptionalism. The notion that America has its own way of doing things - separate and distinct from Europe's - has been one of the greatest impediments to Europeanizing America's political and economic institutions.

Now that Europe has turned its back - at least temporarily - on lavish Keynesian spending, folks like Beinart must turn to developing countries such as China and Brazil for inspiration. Countries that pay millions of workers pennies a day are not normally role models for the Left. But, hey, if it makes Republicans appear backward, they'll give it a shot.

Ultimately, it's not that liberals don't believe in American exceptionalism so much as they believe it is holding America back, which might explain why they're lashing out at the people who want to keep it exceptional. But that too is nothing new. "The Coolidge myth has been created by amazingly skillful propaganda," editorialized The Nation in 1924 about the unfathomable popularity of Calvin Coolidge. "The American people dearly love to be fooled."

For the record, I'm with Rubio. America is the greatest country in the world. That doesn't mean it's perfect. But it is, and remains, the last best hope of Earth.
But, by all means, Democrats, listen to the sophisticates who chortle at the idea that there's anything especially good about America. That will solve Obama's "communication problem."

Rick:

This is the issue. Obama's election, notwithstanding the100+ year transition from slavery thru civil rights to his election, was the symbol of American exceptionalism. The problem is that he doesn't believe in it as indicated by his outreach to the Muslim world and the rest of his foreign policy. It is a failing of modern liberals/progressives in my view.The conservative preference for small government, self-help/responsibility as a core part of U.S. society is a part of trying not to lose what is perceived by them to have made America great and exceptional.

Me:

I think the trouble with Goldberg’s op ed, and the line of reasoning it typifies, is that, typical of Goldberg particularly, this reasoning goes nowhere, says very much and is not thought through. It's sloganeering parading as analysis.

Obama is not so far off the mark when he says that he believes in American exceptionalism the way Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism. Which is to say, it’s a subjective view. I think you believe in Sutinian exceptionalism, the way we all do about ourselves, unless the world has battered that out of us.

But what point consequential does Goldberg’s scolding of Obama, and those who take his view, raise: absurd arguments about whether America is the greatest country in the history of the word? What, practical, turns on that?

Do you for one moment think that Obama has any lesser sense of America’s creedal legacy, its revolutionary birth, its slavery past, its overcoming that, its democratic institutions, its constitutional republicanism, its once undiminished standing in the world in power and wealth, now no longer the case, than any previous presidents, than Marco Rubio, than Sarah Palin?

Goldberg (and you) makes a connection between the belief of some, Obama for allegedly one, in America’s allegedly “unexceptionalism” and certain policies foreign, and domestic, he ideologically opposes: wariness to use force, attempts at multi lateral solutions (as excelled in, by the way, by Bush 41), government solutions to some problems such as the TARP bail outs and stimulus spending to ward off a depression or significantly more unemployment, some type of rationalized health care, social security and other such policies. He says:

“Ever since, left-leaning intellectuals have been taking dead aim at American exceptionalism. The notion that America has its own way of doing things - separate and distinct from Europe's - has been one of the greatest impediments to Europeanizing America's political and economic institutions”

and

“Now that Europe has turned its back - at least temporarily - on lavish Keynesian spending, folks like Beinart must turn to developing countries such as China and Brazil for inspiration. Countries that pay millions of workers pennies a day are not normally role models for the Left. But, hey, if it makes Republicans appear backward, they'll give it a shot.”

and

“Ultimately, it's not that liberals don't believe in American exceptionalism so much as they believe it is holding America back, which might explain why they're lashing out at the people who want to keep it exceptional. But that too is nothing new. "The Coolidge myth has been created by amazingly skillful propaganda," editorialized The Nation in 1924 about the unfathomable popularity of Calvin Coolidge. "The American people dearly love to be fooled."

I suggest to you that Obama, contra Goldberg’s crackpottery, is centrist, is pragmatic, understands the potency and the limits of American power, and makes policy not out of clich├ęs, such as American exceptionalism, but out of his and his advisors’ analysis of the best utilization of that potency in any particular context, and which requires an understanding of the limits the context gives rise to.

Here is a microcosm of Godberg’s inanity: “But, by all means, Democrats, listen to the sophisticates who chortle at the idea that there's anything especially good about America. That will solve Obama's ‘communication problem.’”. Is that what his argument really boils down to: Obama doesn’t think there’s anything "especially good" about America, and all that’s bad about his politics flows from that? I can’t believe you would give such simple minded tripe one second of your positive consideration.

And, goodness gracious, what does Obama’s outreach to the Muslim world have to do with him being a Goldbergian non exceptionalist? It’s not wise to try to foster friendships and alliances? It's not wise to to try to ameliorate international acrimony? It’s not wise to avoid the indiscriminate use of power on some chest thumping ground? It's not wise, for one instance, to try to stand against the Israeli ideological right?

And what in God’s name are you talking about when you say, “and the rest of his foreign policy”? Don’t you think that the last two years (almost) of foreign policy have a lot of components, some working out, some not so much? Is it all just one big, failed meatball, wrecked, fundamentally, by a belief in unexceptionalism? I’ll suggest to you that that the discrete instances of his foreign policy stand to be judged by more sophisticated criteria than such way too overarching slogans, which are, truth be known, substitutes for thought and pretexts for silly ideology.

Another big meatball: “modern liberals/progressives”! This formulation suffers from the same weaknesses which attend Goldberg’s intoning of “Exceptionalism”. For just one example, Obamacare: the signature policy of “modern liberals/progressives”: right? Except what do you say about Romney’s implanting that policy’s model in Massachusetts when he was governor, or that model having been touted by Republicans under Dole? Honestly, things are too complex for such an empty, broad brush label, respectfully, itself, if you think more about it, just another example of a substitute for thought and analysis and a pretext for silly ideology.

Ben:

One thing that is interesting about the debate concerning American "exceptionalism" is that the quintessential American document, the Declaration, makes a claim, not to exceptionalism, but to universalism, as in we hold these truths to be self-evident, that ALL men are created equal , that THEY are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights..... From one point of view the 100+ year transition from slavery to presidency was the fulfillment of that universal , not exceptional, claim to equality and rights.

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