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Still Taking Exception

There have been several responses to the Lowry/Ponnuru essay on American exceptionalism. Damon Linker’s is particularly withering, and Conor has written a very effective rebuttal as well, but the best is probably from Democracy in America (via Scoblete):

Ranking all countries on these subscores, America comes in a multi-way tie for 30th place. So according to a respected NGO often considered to be on the centre-right (though the board is politically diverse), America is not the freest country in the world, or most democratic. It isn’t second or third either. It’s merely in the top tier.

This is the most effective response because it cuts the legs out from under the self-congratulatory hegemonist boasting that is at the heart of the essay. It is important to remember that lurking behind most arguments on behalf of “American exceptionalism” is a demand for unending American hegemony and supremacy. This seems especially true of mainstream conservative arguments on this score. To the extent that Obama does not indulge in self-congratulatory bluster and arrogant hectoring of other nations, they find his embrace of American exceptionalism to be insufficient or non-existent.

What might be worth considering is how much ground America has lost at home in terms of freedom, democracy, individualism, openness and dynamism while we have been vainly pursuing the role of hegemon and would-be democratizer of the world. Maybe even twenty years ago the claim that America was “freer, more individualistic, more democratic, and more open and dynamic than any other nation on earth” could have withstood scrutiny. Now it is rapidly becoming something that nationalists tell one another to keep their spirits up.

Part of the change is a measure of the genuine expansion of these goods in other parts of the world. There is more and better competition, so to speak, than there used to be, and at the same time we have been stagnating or regressing. That is something Americans can take pride in for our part in helping to make that happen, but it also means that we cannot continue to congratulate ourselves for a unique and superior status that we have long since ceased to have. This should also teach us that we need to return to a patriotism that does not boast and does not need to boast of the greatness of our country.

The certainty that ours is the best country in every significant political and economic category blinds us to admitting errors that need to be corrected, and the obsession with national greatness distracts us with power projection and coercion as substitutes for the building and maintaining of the foundations of a prosperous, self-governing republic. While we have been minding everyone else’s business, we have been neglecting our own. If we would have America be exceptionally free, prosperous and creative, we need to concentrate far more of our attention and resources on America, and we need to manage those resources far more prudently and carefully. The good news in being behind so many other free, flourishing nations in these rankings is that it tells us that they have the means to take care of their own problems and will manage just fine on their own.

The Lowry/Ponnuru essay was a more elaborate expression of the same inane “We’re #1!” rhetoric that Marco Rubio offered up to CPAC last month. As we have already seen, Rubio’s grasp of both domestic and foreign affairs was lacking, and his boasts of unique and superior American economic strength and opportunity bore little relationship to reality. In its key claim that America is superior in all these ways, the essay is similarly detached from the way things are today. Like Rubio’s speech, the essay describes a struggle between those who would preserve this exaggerated American greatness and those who would destroy it. Rubio claimed that the fate of the nation’s identity would be decided in the upcoming election. Lowry and Ponnuru are not quite so ridiculous as to say this, but they do claim that there is an “assault” on American identity underway that will result in changing our national character.

As Conor points out, Obama not only embraces American exceptionalism (as I havesaid for a while), but he also did so in the very same speech that Lowry and Ponnuru, along with countless others, have cited in their attempt to prove the opposite. This is what Obama’s mainstream conservative critics have been doing for the last year: they take one phrase that they don’t like, ignore the rest of Obama’s remarks in the same speech, and concoct entire theories on Obama’s view of the world from that one phrase. The myth of the “apology tour” had its origin in this kind of misrepresentation. When Obama acknowledged that Americans had indulged a lot of cheap anti-European sentiment in recent years, his critics never admitted that he had denounced “insidious” anti-Americanism on the European side in the next breath. Lowry and Ponnuru returned to an old favorite of critics who invented the “apology tour.” They specifically focused on Obama’s refusal to take Daniel Ortega’s bait. Rather than dignify the ridiculous Marxist’s tirade at the Summit of the Americas with a direct response, which Lowry, Ponnuru and their colleagues seem to have desperately wanted, Obama effectively dismissed Ortega as the irrelevant demagogue that he is. Nonetheless, Obama remains far too wedded to the idea of the necessity of American “leadership,” and so to some extent he still partakes of the American exceptionalism that Andrew Bacevich identified as part of the ideology of national security.

Of course, Lowry and Ponnuru cannot actually point to very much on national security policy that they dislike*, which is why they are reduced to whining about the non-response to Ortega, and spend most of their time complaining about the attempted transformation of America with still more intrusive domestic government. Even so, they are convinced that they are seeing the “waning of America’s civilizational self-confidence,” which worries them because it means we might be less willing to kill foreigners for no good reason mount the “forward defense of freedom.”

This is where their essay, like the Mount Vernon statement last month, becomes most incoherent. If we take seriously their charge that Obama and his agenda represent a departure from American tradition and an embrace of social democracy, and if we agree that we should resist this in the name of defending that which is distinctively American, what are we to make of the national security state whose interests and actions the likes of Lowry and Ponnuru routinely defend? The security and warfare state is no less and actually far more alien to these shores than any entitlement program. It is far more dangerous to the constitutional government that truly was one of the most admirable achievements of our ancestors, and it goes against the grain of most of our national history. A huge standing army, military outposts scattered around the globe, perpetual war and the arbitrary use of force by executive order–are these really compatible with the national character Lowry, Ponnuru and Rubio claim to cherish? Of course they are not, which reminds us that their dedication here is no more meaningful than that of most of the would-be “constitutionalist conservatives” who gathered near Mount Vernon.

* Obama and the Democrats did just approve PATRIOT Act reauthorization shortly after this essay came out. I eagerly await the pained cries of protest from all those “constitutionalist conservatives” and defenders of American identity we have been hearing from lately.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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