My, That Is An Exceptional 6 Train

Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru in National Review:

The Left’s search for a foreign template to graft onto America grew more desperate. Why couldn’t we be more like them — like the French, like the Swedes, like the Danes? Like any people with a larger and busier government overawing the private sector and civil society? You can see it in Sicko, wherein Michael Moore extols the British national health-care system, the French way of life, and even the munificence of Cuba; you can hear it in all the admonitions from left-wing commentators that every other advanced society has government child care, or gun control, or mass transit, or whatever socialistic program or other infringement on our liberty we have had the wisdom to reject for decades.

Matthew Schmitz at The League:

Lowry and Ponnuru seem to believe that mass transit is a “socialistic program” and an “infringement on our liberty.” Presumably they think this because mass transit is built and administered by the government and supported, quite often, by taxes. But the exact same thing is true of highways. Would Lowry and Ponnuru denounce the Interestate system as socialistic on the same grounds?

Their casual slander also dishonors one of the recently passed heroes of the conservative movement, Paul Weyrich. Weyrich co-founded the Heritage Foundation and founded the Free Congress Foundation. Lowry and Ponnuru, who both probably knew him, also know that he was as American and un-socialistic as they come. Weyrich realized that transit was, in some cases, an eminently reasonable way of transporting people. If  Lowry and Ponnuru are unsettled by the fact that Europeans have more transit than we do, they should look back to the time when America had both more transit and less government than Europe did, or than it does now. If you’d like to read more on the conservative case for transit, see David Schaengold here.

Matthew Yglesias:

But of course they have nothing to say about genuine infringements of liberty like minimum parking requirements, maximum lot occupancy rules, building height limits, prohibitions on accessory dwellings, etc. that are mainstays of America’s centrally planned suburbs. That’s because to them what really matters isn’t socialism or liberty (certainly nobody who cares about liberty could be as enthusiastic about torture as National Review writers are) but Americanness. Even here, though, their critique falls badly flat. The world’s largest subway systems are in Japan and South Korea—not socialistic Europe—followed by New York City right here in the United States. Multiple-unit train control was invented in Chicago, as part of the world’s first electrically driven railway. I believe that all of the world’s 24-hour rapid transit systems (NYC Subway, Chicago L, NY-NJ PATH) are in the United States of America.

Brad DeLong:

Can people please stop bringing forward Ramesh Ponnuru as a “reasonable conservative” now?

Damon Linker at TNR on the rest of the essay:

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.

More Yglesias:

In this telling, there’s something insidious about asking if they don’t do something better someplace else. But of course another way of looking at it is that you by definition can’t find examples of alternatives to the US status quo by looking at the US. That’s why you regularly see the Cato Institute touting Chile’s pension system or Heritage extolling the virtues of Sweden’s K-12 education or David Frum talking up French nuclear power. After all, we’ve never attempted to shift from a guaranteed pay-as-you-go pension system to a mandatory savings one in the United States. Nor do we have any examples of widespread operation of public elementary schools by for-profit firms. Nor do we have a robust nuclear power sector. So if you want to explore these ideas—ideas that conservatives often do want to explore—you need to look at models from abroad.

And there’s nothing wrong with that! So why isn’t it okay for liberals to talk about French health care or Finnish education or Danish energy policy? As Barack Obama once said, when you look at the right sometimes it’s like they’re proud of being ignorant.

Mark Murray at MSNBC:

And the cover story in the latest National Review, entitled “Defend Her: Obama’s Threat to American Exceptionalism,” contends: “The president has signaled again and again his unease with traditional American patriotism. As a senator he notoriously made a virtue of not wearing a flag pin. As president he has been unusually detached from American history: When a foreign critic brought up the Bay of Pigs, rather than defend the country’s honor he noted that he was a toddler at the time. And while acknowledging that America has been a force for good, he has all but denied the idea that America is an exceptional nation.”

Of course, Obama was asked whether he believes in American exceptionalism while visiting Europe during the NATO summit. His response: “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism. I’m enormously proud of my country and its role and history in the world. If you think about the site of this summit and what it means, I don’t think America should be embarrassed to see evidence of the sacrifices of our troops, the enormous amount of resources that were put into Europe postwar, and our leadership in crafting an Alliance that ultimately led to the unification of Europe. We should take great pride in that.”

That question Obama was asked defined American exceptionalism as the United States being “uniquely qualified to lead the world.” Historians typically regard American exceptionalism as why the U.S. didn’t have socialist revolutions or strong working-class movements like most of Europe did in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Yet the conservative definition of American exceptionalism — particularly in the National Review article — is aimed at Obama’s efforts to reform the nation’s health-care system, enact cap-and-trade (which, ironically, is based on market principles), etc. Here’s National Review summing up what American liberals want: “Why couldn’t we be more like them — like the French, the like the Swedes, like the Danes? Like any people with a larger and busier government overawing the private sector and civil society?”

But if you read Obama’s speeches — from the president campaign and now as president — you see a president with a different idea of American exceptionalism: America’s unique ability to evolve and become a more perfect union. “This union may never be perfect,” he said in his famous ’08 speech on race, “but generation after generation has shown that it can always be perfected.”

“In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given,” he said in his inaugural address. “It must be earned.”

Here’s what he said in his Berlin speech during the presidential campaign: “We’ve made our share of mistakes, and there are times when our actions around the world have not lived up to our best intentions. But I also know how much I love America. I know that for more than two centuries, we have strived — at great cost and great sacrifice — to form a more perfect union; to seek, with other nations, a more hopeful world.”

So it’s not that Obama doesn’t think America is an exceptional nation; his own words debunk that critique.

Rather, it’s that conservatives and liberals have two very different ideas of what “exceptional” means.

UPDATE: Matthew Lee Anderson

Samuel Goldman at PomoCon

James Poulos at PomoCon

UPDATE #2: Conor Friedersdorf at The American Scene

Victor Davis Hanson at The Corner

Friedersdorf on Hanson

DiA at The Economist

Greg Scoblete

Daniel Larison

UPDATE #3: Lowry and Ponnuru responds to critics

John Holbo on the reponse

Matthew Yglesias on the response

UPDATE #4: Friedersdorf responds to the response

Goldman responds to the response

Schmitz responds to the response

UPDATE #5: More Larison

UPDATE #6: Peter Lawler

UPDATE #7: James Poulos and Robert Farley on Bloggingheads

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One response to “My, That Is An Exceptional 6 Train

  1. Pingback: What We’ve Built Today « Around The Sphere

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