Richard Lowry, Ramesh Ponnuru（翻译∶徐斌 曹宇）
作为美国的保守派， 我们想要保守什麽？答案很简单∶美国例外论（American exceptionalism）的支柱。因此保守派所了解的这种美国例外论的存续，是保守派质疑奥巴马政策的核心。
简单地说，英国社会最具个人主义的一点在于其持异议的革新教派新教徒（dissenting low-church Protestants）。他们来到北美的东海岸。在这里，英国政治思想中最为自由的边缘派－－反对王室的乡村辉格党人以及如詹姆士-哈灵顿（James Harrington）这样的共和主义理论家，成为了主流。所有的一切使美国成为英国的例外，而相比欧洲大陆，英国已经是一个例外。美国脱胎于英国的自由主义，注定会开花结果，成为人类有史以来最自由的政体。
这一切使得美国人完成一场革命，却保持著连续性。当托克维尔说到美国人能够不经历革命却享受著革命的成果时，可能有些夸大，但并不离谱。曾经存在的旧欧洲遗毒，如政教合一的教会、长子继承等等，很快就被清除。美国人继承了英国的自由主义传统，并将其发扬光大，使其成为所有美国人的信条。对这一信条的具体理解千差万别，但是基本框架足够清楚。已故的李普塞特（Seymour Martin Lipset ）将其定义为自由、（机会与人格的）平等、个人主义、民本主义以及自由放任的经济政策。这一信条与美国性格（the American character）的其他方面，尤其是我们的宗教信念和以武力捍卫自身的愿望，共同构成了美国例外论的核心。
宪法的消极特征反映了其基本目标∶保护人民的自由。形成鲜明对照的是，即使在二战之前，欧洲的宪法就为政府利益创设了积极的权力。正如玛丽-安-格兰特（Mary Ann Glendon）所指出的，这些区别“是不同的法律特征，并深深扎根于对国家及其效能的文化认识中”。
这一自由的框架造就了历史上最伟大的商业共和国的繁荣。如历史学家沃尔特-米德（Walter Russell Mead）指出，在西方过去的几个世纪里，三个伟大的海上霸权－－先是荷兰，继之英国，最终是我们－－都曾在一段时间内占据世界秩序的顶峰。三者都有强大海军和精密的财政体系，都首要关心利用贸易来增加国家财富。
回到殖民地时期。约翰-斯蒂尔-乔丹（John Steele Gordon）在其《财富帝国》（An Empire of Wealth）一书中提醒我们，建立詹姆斯敦（Jamestown）的是追求利润的弗吉尼亚公司。在新英格兰，清教徒商人在账簿的页眉处写下“以上帝和利益之名”。甚至在独立革命之前，我们就已是世界上人均最为富裕的国家了。显而易见，亚当-斯密出版有关古典的自由交易市场的《国富论》，正值1776 年《独立宣言》发表，国父们大都读过这本书。因为没有中世纪的累赘和强大、根深蒂固的特权利益的阻碍，斯密的思想可以成为美国经济分配的基础。乔丹写道∶ “比起其他主要国家，美国在较长时期中一直更为接近斯密的理想。”
在这个相对宽松的政府（light handed government）提供的空间内，一个热爱商业、努力奋进、有著永不牯 熙 y力的民族，急速成为有史以来最为强大的经济力量。美国并不存在心怀不满的无产阶级，因为工人阶级也变得富有了。恩格斯一针见血地说∶“美国是纯粹的资产阶级国家，甚至没有封建主义的过去，并且以自己纯粹的资产阶级制度而自豪。”他是对的。
传统的马克思主义者声称，美国是由资产阶级的执行委员会统治。这并非赞美，但大体正确。看看典型的美国人本杰明-富兰克林，其名字就来自于中古英语“自由人”之意，即有产者。拿破仑批驳英国人为“店小二式的民族”（a nation of shopkeepers），那我们就是“富兰克林式的民族”（a nation of Franklins）。
这一观点是美国经济信条的核心。美国对财富的态度以及它的成就在发达国家中独树一帜。尽管，我们的收入差距比其他欧洲国家大，但并不是因为我们的穷人更糟。事实上，他们比英国10 %的最底层民众都要好。只是因为我们的富人太富有了。贫富差距造成了政治紧张，但并没有达到如国外观察者可能期望的那样危险，这部分得利于典型的美国精神。2003年的民调显示，31%的美国人希望变得富有，其中51%是年轻人，20%以上是年收入不到3万的美国人。这并不仅仅是盲目的乐观。美国仍然是一个流动的社会，最底层的过半民众都能在10年内摆脱这一阶层。这样，我们仍作为一个例外迈入21世纪。美国政府的总开支在近期攀升，但此前仍只占GDP的 36%。在欧洲，这一数字更高——英国是44%，法国是53%，瑞典是56%。当除去国防花费时，这一差别更加明显。
今天，与其他国家相比，我们仍然拥有更多竞选官职和更频繁的选举。甚至多数法官和执法官员都是选举产生的。与其他发达国家的情况相比，我们的联邦政府中，有著比公务员更多的政治任命的官员。如班菲尔德（Edward C. Banfield）和威尔逊（James Q. Wilson）所合写到的，“事实上，这里没有政治以外的‘行政’领域。”在欧洲，情形却极为相反，并随著欧盟的崛起而愈演愈烈。布鲁塞尔的欧盟机构独揽了更多的决策权，以摆脱对个别国家的民主责任。当重要的欧盟问题提交公投时，选民却只有一个正确选项。当这些国家投错了选票时，选举将一次次地举行，直至他们屈从。这一欧洲风格的官僚政治中，精英式的高压手段身处危险之中，因为其非民主本质和对美国精神的诅咒。
在整个20世纪，威尔逊、罗斯福、卡特的民主理想主义（the democratic idealism）都展现了这一美国思想的主旋律。这一旋律最好能与审慎和现实主义调和，以避免愚蠢的冒险主义。里根总统示范了这恰到好处的融合，他避免了（除了黎巴嫩的惨痛例外）危险的对外干预，同时软硬兼施地引导苏联自掘坟墓。
在1930年代，新政知识分子滔滔不绝地谈论布尔什维克主义。罗斯福的智囊图尔斯-蔡斯（Truster Stuart Chase）热切地说∶“为什麽就苏联独享改造世界的乐趣？”他的话显露了进步主义构想的乌托邦根基和对于某种激进的社会改造的向往，这样的改造只有在专制国家中才容易实现。另一个榜样就是意大利的法西斯主义，新政簇拥者们对其仔细钻研，并在某些具体方面进行模仿。
左派努力寻求适合美国的国外范例，但总是更加绝望。为什麽我们不能更像法国、瑞士或荷兰呢？为什麽我们不能像在强大、繁忙的政府下生活的人呢？但他们的私人领域（the private sector）和公民社会正受到威慑。你能在精神病人身上、在迈克尔-摩尔（Michael Moore 编者注∶美国极左的电影导演）颂扬的英国国民医疗保障体系中、在法国的生活方式中、甚至在古巴的救济体系中看到这些，也能在那些左派评论员的谆谆教导中听见这些∶其他发达国家的儿童接管，或枪支管制，或公共交通，或各种社会主义的规划，或其他对自由的侵害。对此，我们已经明智地抵御了数十年。
当代自由主义不满于美国例外论，总统奥巴马执政的第一年就应当放在这一背景中看待。总统已经不止一次表示他对于美国传统爱国主义的不安。当奥巴马还是参议员时，他就臭名昭著地（notoriously）以不佩戴国旗徽章为美德。作为总统，他竟然淡忘了美国的历史∶当一个国外评论家提起猪湾事件（Bay of Pigs）时，他竟没有维护国家的荣誉，只是表明当时自己还是珊珊学步的小孩。当重申美国一直以来都是追求善好的一股力量时，奥巴马却几乎否认美国是一个例外的民族。去年春季在欧洲访问时，当被问及是否相信美国例外论，奥巴马竟回答∶“我会相信美国例外论，犹如我察觉到英国人会相信英国例外论，希腊人会相信希腊例外论。”（他提及这些失落的帝国是否只是一个巧合？）在这方面，总统体现了自由主义的主流情感。我们并不是质疑他（或者他们）希望同胞能够生活得更好的真诚。但是，现代自由主义知识分子已经遇到众所周知的艰难时刻，他们即使感受到民众的爱国主义，也要在这个问题上表现得体。从罗蒂到吉特林 （Todd Gitlin），他们已声明，他们期盼一个即将到来的假想的纯粹的国家，而不是现在居住的国家。
从美国历史的语境中看，奥巴马认为自己是后威尔逊的传统（ post-Wilsonian tradition）。这一传统正逐渐取代国父们的传统。奥巴马也努力加速这一改变。我们已经在政府权力方面赶上欧洲标准。在2010年，美国政府开支估计将高达GDP的44%。随著婴儿潮时代的人群正迈向老年，退休导致的养老保障需求将激增，政府开支将进一步上升。一个颠覆性的现像是，去年竟然是一个美国的总统敦促欧洲大陆开支更多的经费去抵御金融危机。奥巴马最为优先考虑的事项将不可避免地是进一步扩大政府权力。
奥巴马医保政策的进一步国有化（nationalizing our system），可能会永远改变美国人和政府之间的关系。它将使得联邦政府破天荒头一遭，命令所有美国人去购买指定的产品。而且在其他国家，社保系统已经变成无期限的通行证，使得政府以提供充分的医疗保障为口实，施行更多税收和开支。一旦公众沉迷于政府的健康保障，其政治态度就会左倾（shift leftward）。（这个系统的弊端，比如配给不均，总是容易归咎于资金不足。因此，即使民众对这个系统不满，最终也只能就范。）自由的劳动市场，已经是美国表现个人主义和活力的保证。但是，只为了使工会更加容易接收新会员，总统奥巴马却试图推翻长达70年的美国劳动法案。民主党希望扭转工会人员的下降趋势。这一措施的效果十分明显。当美国联合汽车工会（UAW）帮助摧毁通用汽车公司和克莱斯勒公司之后，奥巴马政府迅速接管了两个公司的大部分控制权。
自由派立法者们危及了我们的活力与自治。他们获得越来越多的权力，去独自决定长远的政策，比如，环保局（EPA）有权决定如何规制碳排放，甚至在无需国会通过“限制排放与交易许可”（cap-and-trade）法案。因此，这个机构对经济有著非凡的控制力量，却不对全体选民负责。不良资产救助计划（The Troubled Asset Relief Program）最终沦为行政部门的蜜罐，他们可以为了任何目的从中获取权力。政府越来越脱离人民的控制，而人民本该是政府权力的来源。
如果我们的政治现在看起来火热，那是因为摆在我们面前的中心问题是，是否放弃我们作为一个例外民族的传统共识。例外并不等于完美。古老的反帝国主义者（anti imperialist）的说法富含智慧∶“不管我的国家是对还是错；如果对，就保持，如果错，就做对。”当美国只是经历了230年历程，就如同其他帝国一样渐渐步入落日的宿命时，美国人并不想成为这样的例外，这一点无疑是对的。 【全文完】
An Exceptional Debate
The Obama administration’s assault on American identity
By RICHARD LOWRY & RAMESH PONNURU
It’s almost a commonplace on the left that conservatives are “nihilists” for their opposition to President Obama. It’s opposition for opposition’s sake, an unprincipled exercise in partisan obstruction — mindless, toxic, destructive. When directed at Obama, “no” is an indefensible word, devoid of philosophical content.
Another, different charge has traditionally been leveled at conservatives — that they are “radicals.” This criticism was made of National Review right at the beginning. Conserva¬tives want to tear down the state, overturn precedent, reverse the direction of history. They are imprudent and incautious in their pursuit of a blinkered ideological agenda, in other words fundamentally unconservative.
So conservatives get it coming and going. Our opposition to the Left is deemed nihilistic and our affirmative agenda radical. These dueling critiques point to a paradox at the heart of American conservatism. We aren’t Tories, concerned with preserving the prerogatives of an aristocratic elite or defending tradition at all costs. Instead, we’re advocates of the dynamism of an open society. Through most of human history and still in many places in the world, that would make us the opposite of conservatives. Not in America.
What do we, as American conservatives, want to conserve? The answer is simple: the pillars of American exceptionalism. Our country has always been exceptional. It is freer, more individualistic, more democratic, and more open and dynamic than any other nation on earth. These qualities are the bequest of our Founding and of our cultural heritage. They have always marked America as special, with a unique role and mission in the world: as a model of ordered liberty and self-government and as an exemplar of freedom and a vindicator of it, through persuasion when possible and force of arms when absolutely necessary.
The survival of American exceptionalism as we have known it is at the heart of the debate over Obama’s program. It is why that debate is so charged. In his first year, Obama tried to avoid the cultural hot buttons that tripped up Bill Clinton and created the “gays, guns, and God” backlash of 1994. But he has stoked a different type of cultural reaction. The level of spending, the bailouts, and the extent of the intervention in the economy contemplated in health-care and cap-and-trade legislation have created the fear that something elemental is changing in the country. At stake isn’t just a grab bag of fiscal issues, but the meaning of America and the character of its people: the ultimate cultural issue.
To find the roots of American exceptionalism, you have to start at the beginning — or even before the beginning. They go back to our mother country. Historian Alan Macfarlane argues that England never had a peasantry in the way that other European countries did, or as extensive an established church, or as powerful a monarchy. English society thus had a more individualistic cast than the rest of Europe, which was centralized, hierarchical, and feudal by comparison.
It was, to simplify, the most individualistic elements of En¬glish society — basically, dissenting low-church Protestants — who came to the eastern seaboard of North America. And the most liberal fringe of English political thought, the anti-court “country” Whigs and republican theorists such as James Harrington, came to predominate here. All of this made Amer¬ica an outlier compared with England, which was an outlier compared with Europe. The U.S. was the spawn of English liberalism, fated to carry it out to its logical conclusion and become the most liberal polity ever known to man.
America was blessedly unencumbered by an ancien regime. Compared with Europe, it had no church hierarchy, no aristocracy, no entrenched economic interests, no ingrained distaste for commercial activity. It almost entirely lacked the hallmarks of a traditional post-feudal agrarian society. It was as close as you could get to John Locke’s state of nature. It was ruled from England, but lightly; Edmund Burke famously described English rule here as “salutary neglect.” Even before the Rev¬olution, America was the freest country on earth.
These endowments made it possible for the Americans to have a revolution with an extraordinary element of continuity. Tocqueville may have been exaggerating when he said that Americans were able to enjoy the benefits of a revolution without really having one, but he wasn’t far off the mark. The remnants of old Europe that did exist here — state-supported churches, primogeniture, etc. — were quickly wiped out. Amer¬icans took inherited English liberties, extended them, and made them into a creed open to all.
Exact renderings of the creed differ, but the basic outlines are clear enough. The late Seymour Martin Lipset defined it as liberty, equality （of opportunity and respect）, individualism, populism, and laissez-faire economics. The creed combines 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.
Liberty is the most important element of the creed. To secure it, the Founders set about strictly limiting government within carefully specified bounds. Im¬mediately upon the collapse of British government in America, the states drew up written constitutions and neutered their executives. They went as far as they could possibly go to tame the government — indeed, they went farther, and had to start over to get a functioning state. But even this second try produced a Constitution that concentrated as much on what government could not do as on what it could.
The Founders knew what men were capable of, in the positive sense if their creative energies were unleashed and in the negative sense if they were given untrammeled power over others. “It may be a reflection on human nature,” Madison wrote in a famous passage in Federalist No. 51 describing the checks in the Constitution, “that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”
The Constitution’s negative character reflected its basic goal: to protect people in their liberty. In stark contrast, European constitutions, even prior to World War II, established positive rights to government benefits. As Mary Ann Glendon notes, these differences “are legal manifestations of divergent, and deeply rooted, cultural attitudes toward the state and its functions.”
This framework of freedom made possible the flourishing of the greatest commercial republic in history. As historian Walter Russell Mead notes, over the last several centuries of the West, three great maritime powers have stood for a time at the pinnacle of the international order: the Dutch, then the English, and finally us. All three had powerful navies and sophisticated financial systems, and were concerned primarily with increasing national wealth through commerce.
Consider the very beginning. John Steele Gordon reminds us in his book An Empire of Wealth that the Virginia Company — a profit-seeking corporation — founded Jamestown. In New En¬gland, the Puritan merchants wrote at the top of their ledgers, “In the name of God and of profit.” Even before the Revolution, we were the most prosperous country per capita in the world.
In a telling coincidence, the publication of Adam Smith’s world-changing free-market classic, The Wealth of Nations, coincided with the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Many of the Founders read the book. Without the medieval encumbrances and the powerful, entrenched special interests that plagued other countries, the United States could make Smith’s ideas the basis of its economic dispensation. Gordon writes, “The United States has consistently come closer to the Smithian ideal over a longer period of time than any other major nation.”
In the latitude provided by this relatively light-handed gov¬ernment, a commerce-loving, striving, and endlessly inventive people hustled its way to become the greatest economic power the world has ever known.
In America, there really hasn’t been a disaffected proletariat — because the proletariat has gotten rich. Friedrich Engels had it right when he carped that “America is so purely bourgeois, so entirely without a feudal past and therefore proud of its purely bourgeois organization.”
The traditional Marxist claim about the U.S. was that it was governed by the executive committee of the bourgeoisie. This was not intended as a compliment, but it was largely true. Look at the archetypal American, Benjamin Franklin, whose name comes from the Middle English meaning freeman, someone who owns some property. Napoleon dismissed the British as “a nation of shopkeepers”; we are a nation of Franklins.
Abraham Lincoln, a de facto Founding Father, is an exemplar of this aspect of America. “I hold the value of life,” Lincoln said, “is to improve one’s condition.” There are few things he hated more than economic stasis. He couldn’t abide Thomas Jefferson’s vision of a nation of yeoman farmers living on their land forevermore, blissfully untouched by the forces of modern economic life. （Appropriately enough, Jefferson died broke.） Lincoln captured the genius of American life when he said, “The man who labored for another last year, this year labors for himself, and next year he will hire others to labor for him.”
That sentiment is at the heart of the American economic gospel. American attitudes toward wealth and its creation stand out within the developed world. Our income gap is greater than that in European countries, but not because our poor are worse off. In fact, they are better off than, say, the bottom 10 percent of Britons. It’s just that our rich are phenomenally wealthy.
This is a source of political tension, but not as much as foreign observers might expect, thanks partly to a typically American attitude. A 2003 Gallup survey found that 31 percent of Amer¬icans expect to get rich, including 51 percent of young people and more than 20 percent of Americans making less than $30,000 a year. This isn’t just cockeyed optimism. America remains a fluid society, with more than half of people in the bottom quintile pulling themselves out of it within a decade.
And so we arrived in the 21st century still a country apart. Prior to its recent run-up, total government spending was still only about 36 percent of GDP in the U.S. In Europe, the figure was much higher — 44 percent in Britain, 53 percent in France, and 56 percent in Sweden. （The difference is starker when only non-defense spending is compared.）
Politically, we have always been more democratic, more populist than other countries. Edmund Burke said of the low-church Protestants who flocked here, “They represent the dissidents of dissent and the protest wing of the Protestant religion.” The Scotch-Irish who settled the hinterlands were even more cussed. It wasn’t very easy to tell any of these people what to do, as colonial governors learned to their regret.
Later, in the 19th century, the Federalists tried to create a kind of aristocracy. They got rich and set themselves up as grandees. Knowing that many members of this self-designated ruling class started life in the same state they had, their neighbors didn’t take kindly to these pretensions. The Federalist party wasn’t long for this world — a lesson in how poorly elite condescension plays in America.
Today, we still have more elections for more offices more often than other countries. Even many judges and law-enforcement officials are elected. In the federal government, political appointees have greater sway over the civil service than is the case in other developed countries. As Edward C. Banfield and James Q. Wilson have written, “There is virtually no sphere of ‘administration’ apart from politics.”
In Europe, the opposite is the case and has become more so with the rise of the European Union. Brussels is arrogating more decision-making to itself, removed from the locus of democratic accountability in individual nations. When important EU questions are put to the voters in referenda, there is only one correct answer, and when nations vote the “wrong” way, elections are held over and over again until they succumb. This European-style politics of bureaucratic, elite high-handedness is dangerous in its undemocratic nature and anathema to the American char¬acter.
We have managed to preserve a remarkable national spirit. At over 70 percent, more Americans express pride in their country than Western Europeans do in theirs. In terms of demography, we are the youngest advanced country in the world, and our population continues to grow as that of Western Europe is projected to decline.
Americans are more religious than Europeans. In the 18th century, American religious dissenters supported overthrowing state-supported churches because it would allow them to compete on an even playing field with other denominations. In that competition, America saw an explosion of religious feeling and became the most evangelical country in the world.
Religion gained authority and vitality from its separation from the state, and religion-inspired reform movements, from abolitionism to the civil-rights movement, have been a source of self-criticism and renewal. Today, 73 percent of Americans believe in God, compared with 27 percent of Frenchmen and 35 percent of Britons, according to a 2006 Financial Times survey.
All of this means that America has the spirit of a youthful, hopeful, developing country, matched with the economic muscle of the world’s most advanced society and the stability of its oldest democratic institutions.
This national spirit is reflected in our ambitious and vigorous foreign policy. We were basically still clinging to port cities on the eastern seaboard when we began thinking about settling the rest of the continent. There never was a time when we were an idyllically isolationist country. We wanted to make the continent ours partly as a matter of geopolitics: France, Spain, and Britain were wolves at the door. But throughout our history, we have sought not just to secure our interests abroad, but to export our model of liberty.
This missionary impulse is another product of the American Revolution, which took English liberties and universalized them. The Founders thought we would play an outsized role in the world from the very beginning. We would be an “empire of liberty,” Jefferson said. He believed that the flame of liberty, once lit on our shores, would inevitably consume the world.
This strain in American thought was expressed throughout the 20th century in the democratic idealism of Wilson, FDR, and Carter. At its best, this tendency has been tempered by prudence and realism so as to avoid foolish adventurism. Reagan exemplified the appropriate mix, as he avoided （with the painful exception of Lebanon） risky foreign interventions at the same time he ushered the Soviet Union to its grave through a shrewd combination of hard and soft power.
But make no mistake: America is still a martial nation with a no-nonsense, hit-back-harder Jacksonian temperament when challenged. Historically, it has responded to attacks, whether at Fort Sumter or Pearl Harbor, with overwhelming force and the maximum plausible effort to spread our democratic system. In this sense, George W. Bush’s response to 9/11 — two foreign wars, both justified partly as exercises in democratization — was typically American.
Our defense spending constituted half of the world’s defense spending in 2003. With a few exceptions （the British, the Canadians）, we are the only Western nation that is able and willing to conduct major combat operations overseas. Even when Afghanistan was considered “the good war” by the rest of the world, we had to do most of the heavy lifting.
None of this is to say, of course, that America is perfect. No nation can be. But one can only regard with wonderment what America stands for and all that it has accomplished in its amazing, utterly distinct adventure in liberty.
There have always been those who take exception to American exceptionalism. Europeans developed a cottage industry in travel writing about America, most of it — although not all, with Tocqueville the most important ex¬ception — scandalized by the riotous freedoms of these restless, stubborn, commerce-crazy, God-soaked barbarians. The Amer¬ica of these portraits was simultaneously primitive and decadent: “grotesque, obscene, monstrous, stultifying, stunted, leveling, deadening, deracinating, roofless, uncultured,” as James Ceaser summarizes the critique in Reconstructing America. Many of America’s European critics hoped that, over time, America would lose its distinctiveness. It would become just another developed Western country: more centralized, more elitist, more secular, less warlike, and less free. In short, a quieter, more civilized place.
The American Left has shared this maddened perplexity at its country’s character and this hope for its effacement. Marxists at home and abroad were always mystified by the failure of socialism in the U.S. They thought that, as the most advanced capitalist society, we would have had the most restive proletariat. Instead we have had a broad and largely satisfied middle class. Even our unions, in their early history, were anti-statist, their radicalism anarchistic rather than socialist. At the Progressive convention of 1912, Jane Addams saw “a worldwide movement toward juster social conditions” that “the United States, lagging behind other great nations, has been unaccountably slow to embody in political action.”
Hence the search for foreign models. In the early 20th century, the Left was fascinated with all things German and brimmed with enthusiasm for Bismarck’s welfare state. Woodrow Wilson, in a sentiment typical of progressive intellectuals, deemed Bismarck’s creation an “admirable system”; he was less admiring of the American Founding. Herbert Croly, the founder of The New Republic and one of the most significant progressive intellectuals of the era, was another Bismarck admirer. Croly advocated rule by “expert social engineers” to bring to these shores the best innovations of the modern dictatorial movements taking over in Europe.
New Deal intellectuals gushed over Bolshevism in the 1930s. FDR Brain Truster Stuart Chase enthused, “Why should Rus¬sians have all the fun of remaking a world?” His statement captured the utopian underpinnings of the progressive project and the yearning for the kind of radical remaking of society that was readily attainable only in countries that gave themselves over entirely to the state. The other model was Italian fascism, which New Dealers studied closely and in important respects aped.
The New Deal was a watershed, but America didn’t lurch all the way to socialism. The power of the central government increased, a welfare state was born, and unionization advanced. But even in the midst of the Great Depression, typically Amer¬ican attitudes still prevailed. In a 1935 Gallup survey, Americans by a wide margin thought the government was spending too much.
After World War II, a Left that had been gaining strength in Europe for decades finally realized its social-democratic ambitions. The U.S. followed a different course. In the academy, a perverse version of American exceptionalism took root: an exceptionalism of criminality, conquest, and oppression. Amer¬ica was special only in its misdeeds and failings; all cultures were to be celebrated except our own. The exceptionalism of Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky, in milder form, occupied the commanding heights of our education system. It has worked to trash our Founding, to wipe out our historical memory, and to create a guilty conscience among our ruling elite.
In politics, however, the country’s progress away from its character continued to be “unaccountably slow.” American government continued to grow, particularly during the Johnson and Nixon years; the states became ever more one of the federal government’s key client groups rather than checks on its power. But the individualistic American character began to reassert itself after its mid-century dormancy. Americans saw the stagflation of the 1970s as an indictment of Big Government rather than a crisis of capitalism. Ronald Reagan won the presidency of a nation that, by European standards, was still a freewheeling cowboy economy and democracy — and made it even freer.
Deregulation exposed unions to competitive pressures that they could not survive. The U.S. quickly came out of its post-Vietnam defensive crouch. And religion, rather than fading away, became more publicly assertive in response to perceived threats. Bill Clinton’s Democratic presidency did more to confirm than to alter these trends.
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.
President Obama’s first year in office should be seen in the context of contemporary liberalism’s discomfort with American exceptionalism.
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. Asked whether he believed in American exceptionalism during a European trip last spring, Obama said, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exception¬alism.” （Is it just a coincidence that he reached for examples of former hegemons?）
In this respect the president reflects the mainstream sentiment of American liberals. We do not question the sincerity of his, or their, desire to better the lot of his countrymen. But modern liberal intellectuals have had a notoriously difficult time coming up with a decent account of patriotism even when they have felt it. From Richard Rorty to Todd Gitlin, they have proclaimed their allegiance to a hypothetical, pure country that is coming into being rather than to the one they inhabit.
Given the liberal gestalt, it is perhaps unsurprising that every important aspect of American exceptionalism has been under threat from President Obama and his allies in Washington. Obama has frankly and correctly described their project as to change the country fundamentally.
On those occasions when Obama places himself in the con¬text of American history, he identifies himself with the post-Wil¬sonian tradition — with, that is, the gradual replacement of the Founders’ design. He seeks to accelerate it.
Already we are catching up to the European norm for government power. In 2010, government spending in the U.S. will reach an estimated 44 percent of GDP. With entitlements for the elderly on a path to explode with the retirement of the Baby Boomers, the trend is toward more convergence. In a strange reversal, last year it was an American president urging continental Europeans to spend more to combat the recession. Two of his highest priorities would drastically, and probably irreversibly, expand the government’s footprint.
American liberals have long been embarrassed about our country’s supposedly retrograde policies on health care and energy, especially compared with Europe’s nationalized health insurance and carbon rationing. So they tried to use their un¬precedented power after the 2008 elections to bring the U.S. into line. They sought to limit carbon emissions. That legislation would simultaneously represent a massive indirect tax increase, an extension of the tentacles of government regulation into every sector of the economy, and an empowerment of new bureaucratic instruments to control and direct economic development.
Obama’s health-care policy would change the relationship of people to government, probably forever, by further nationalizing our system. It would have the federal government, for the first time, order all Americans to purchase a specified product. And socialized health-care systems in other lands have become endless warrants for more taxing and spending, as both are justified as necessary to delivering adequate health care. Once the public is hooked on government health care, its political attitudes shift leftward. （The system’s flaws, such as rationing, tend to be attributed to underfunding, so that even discontent with it ends up entrenching it.）
Free labor markets have been an expression of American individualism and a contributor to American dynamism. But President Obama has attempted to upend seven decades of American labor law in order to make it easier for unions to collect new members. Democrats hope to reverse the unions’ decline. Tellingly, after the United Auto Workers helped wreck GM and Chrysler, the Obama administration handed it a large share of control over the two companies.
Corporations, meanwhile, are also becoming more dependent on government handouts. Rivalry between business and political elites has helped to safeguard American liberty. What we are seeing now is the possible emergence of a new political economy in which Big Business, Big Labor, and Big Government all have cozy relations of mutual dependence. The effect would be to suppress both political choice and economic dynamism.
The retreat from American exceptionalism has a legal dimension as well. Obama’s judicial nominees are likely to attempt to bring our Constitution into line with European norms. Here, again, he is building on the work of prior liberals who used the federal courts as a weapon against aspects of American exceptionalism such as self-government and decentralization. In¬creasingly, judicial liberals look to putatively enlightened foreign, and particularly European, opinion as a source of law capable of displacing the law made under our Constitution.
Liberal regulators threaten both our dynamism and our self-government. They are increasingly empowered to make far-reaching policy decisions on their own — for instance, the EPA has the power to decide, even in the absence of cap-and-trade legislation passed by Congress, how to regulate carbon emissions. The agency thus has extraordinary sway over the economy, without any meaningful accountability to the electorate. The Troubled Asset Relief Program has turned into a honeypot for the executive branch, which can dip into it for any purpose that suits it. Government is increasingly escaping the control of the people from whom it is supposed to derive its powers.
Inevitably, the transformation of America at home is being accompanied by a shift in its policies toward the rest of the world. Since the 1940s America has been the crucial undergirding of the international order. Its power and sway are a stabilizing influence in every region of the world, and it provides international public goods, from the policing of sea lanes to humanitarian interventions. It is also, in keeping with its missionary history, the chief exponent of liberty in the world.
Obama is turning his back both on the overarching vision of freedom and on the prudence, and mislabeling his approach “realism.” He has been positively allergic to the word “demo¬cracy.” His administration has shown very little interest in defending human rights around the world, whether in China or in Cuba. During the Iranian election crisis, he was even cooler to the protesters in the streets than the Europeans were.
His hesitance to advocate American ideals is not a return to the realpolitik of Nixon or the first Bush. A deep naïvete informs his policy. He believes that our enemies can be persuaded, merely through sweet talk and blandishments, to abandon their cold-blooded interests and their most deeply held ambitions. This is impossible without developing the kind of leverage over them in which Obama seems to have little interest. Yes, Reagan negoti¬ated with the Soviets, but only when they had a leader who was a reformer and the arms build-up and the prospect of SDI had tilted the correlation of forces — to use the Marxist argot — in our direction. Under the sway of Obama’s anti-idealism, the U.S. is less interested in serving as a champion of liberty; his policies will also reduce our power, and thus our effectiveness should we choose to wield it again.
In many of Obama’s performances overseas （the Nobel acceptance speech is an exception）, there has been a dismaying defensiveness. It’s almost as though he doesn’t think we deserve to stand up for our ideals or for our interests, and believes that our record of sins, hypocrisies, and affronts makes a posture of apologetic passivity the only appropriate one. This posture raises a disturbing possibility: that the waning of America’s civilizational self-confidence is part and parcel of the change Obama is effecting.
In Europe, we see a civilization that is not willing to defend itself: nations that will surrender their sovereignty, cultures that will step aside to be supplanted by an alien creed, peoples that will no longer make the most meaningful investment in the future by reproducing. There is a sense that history is over and Europeans are just waiting for someone to turn out the last light in the last gallery of the Louvre.
The popular revolt against Obama’s policies is a sign that Americans are not prepared to go gentle into that good night. Other factors are of course in play — most important, the weak economy — but the public is saying “No” to a rush to social democracy.
Although the conservatives, libertarians, and independents who oppose Obama’s health-care initiative may not put it in quite these terms, they sense that his project will not just increase insurance premiums but undermine what they cherish about America. Those Americans who want to keep our detention facility at Guantanamo Bay think it necessary to protect our security — but they also worry, more profoundly, that our leaders are too apologetic to serve our interests. Americans may want change, even fundamental change, but most of them would rather change our institutions than our national character.
It is madness to consider President Obama a foreigner. But it is blindness to ignore that American exceptionalism has homegrown enemies — people who misunderstand the sources of American greatness or think them outdated. If they succeed, we will be less free, less innovative, less rich, less self-governing, and less secure. We will be less.
As will the world. The Europeans can afford a foreign policy devoted nearly exclusively to “soft power” because we are here to defend them and mount the forward defense of freedom. Who is going to do that for us, when we are no longer doing it for ourselves? Who will answer the call when America is no longer home?
If our politics seems heated right now, that is because the central question before us is whether to abandon our traditional sense of ourselves as an exceptional nation. To be exceptional is of course not to be perfect. The old anti-imperialist saying — “My country right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; if wrong, to be set right” — has considerable wisdom. But Americans are right not to want to become exceptional only in the 230-year path we took to reach the same lackluster destination as everyone else.