"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," begins Damon Linker's response to Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru's National Review cover story, subtitled "The Obama administration’s assault on American identity." And indeed, what follows is a lengthy defense of American exceptionalism which, coincidentally, sounds a lot like the clichés Republicans tell the country about Real Americans.
To be sure, Lowry and Ponnuru have evidence for their proposition. They adopt Seymour Martin Lipset's definition of the American creed as "liberty, equality (of opportunity and respect), individualism, populism, and laissez-faire economics" along with "our religiousness and our willingness to defend ourselves by force" as the "core" of American exceptionalism. I'm not going to concern myself with the questionable inclusion of "populism" and "religiousness" in this definition, and I think the absurdity of calling the "willingness to defend ourselves by force" exceptional speaks for itself. But insofar as they trace our roots back to our lack of a feudal past, our ties to English liberty, and our industriousness and inventiveness, there isn't anything false about how they ground the American creed. It's just that they only emphasize what is most conducive to their thesis. At best, their historical survey is very incomplete and therefore not terribly useful.
When Lowry and Ponnuru get to our contemporary political moment, they go far astray. Fundamentally they see the typical American as an entrepreneur. They cite a 2003 Gallup poll that found "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 a year" as if the yearning for financial success is the same thing as actually achieving financial success. What happens when the vast majority of these people fail to become rich? Lowry and Ponnuru's silence provides the answer: They fail as Americans. And the reason they fail is that they will come to rely less on their own bootstraps and more on the state, like all those Europeans who use mass transit.
At this point, President Obama, the left, and all those pernicious "foreign ideas" start getting attention. Never mind that conservative think tanks routinely cite foreign models of public policy approvingly when it suits them; Lowry and Ponnuru have grave warnings about the left's embrace of European socialism and the radicals' intent to "search for a foreign template to graft onto America." Things like public funding for mass transit, you see, lead to central authority and planning, which leads to tyranny. This is the contemporary state of the conservative intellectual movement: peddling arguments straight out of Liberal Fascism.
But if this is the state of the conservative intellectual movement, the belief that movement conservatism represents the soul of American identity has a very specific implication. The charge is that American liberals are attempting to create a utopia at the expense of American exceptionalism, which the essay fervently celebrates. Lowry and Ponnuru explicitly say that perfection is impossible, which is true, and in line with conservative principle. But contemplating the essay one spots a fable at play: America's golden age is coming to an end, to be replaced by one in which "we will be less free, less innovative, less rich, less self-governing, and less secure. We will be less." We will have lost, in other words, the closest thing the world has ever seen to a paradise on Earth. This is how conservatives "Immanentize the Eschaton."
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