Conservatism Is Still Identity Politics no Matter how Reasonable You Make It Sound

Given the ideological chasm that has developed in American politics between people who pay attention to such things, it's worthwhile, in my view, to take careful note of how liberals criticize other liberals, and conservatives other conservatives. Writing in the Claremont Review of Books, this is how Ramesh Ponnuru criticizes two recent books that allege to know what lurks in the heart of the 44th president:

Perhaps the real solution to the mystery of Obama is that there is no mystery at all. Obama's political views are consequential because he is the president, but they show little sign of being especially interesting aside from that. Genus liberal, species academic, character type pragmatic: That classification seems adequate. His heart belongs to the Left, and his heart of hearts to Barack Obama.

Such an assessment is so banal that one wonders why anyone would need to make it, which says quite a lot about the intellectual environment serious conservatives have to work within. Ponnuru is discussing Radical-in-Chief: Barack Obama and the Untold Story of American Socialism, by Stanley Kurtz and The Roots of Obama’s Rage, by Dinesh D’Souza, two books that both suffer from the same flaw: a preposterous need to explain the actions of the president as motivated by some deeper-held ideology that hardly stands up under scrutiny. But while Ponnuru laudably makes these rather obvious critiques, he actually shares a number of assumptions about Obama and liberalism's "otherness." Consider how Ponnuru begins his review:

There is a mysterious quality to President Barack Obama. His family background-the Kenyan bigamist father, the time in an Indonesian household-is unusual for an American. His almost entirely non-commercial, and sometimes anti-commercial, career provides few points of contact with the experience of most Americans. Obama's political strategy turned the public's unfamiliarity with him and his aloofness toward it into glamour. His slogans were vague even by the standards of political campaigns. In the prologue to his second book, The Audacity of Hope (2006), he famously remarked that he served as a blank screen on which others of different political views could project their hopes.

Lurking behind these assumptions, of course, is an essay Ponnuru co-authored with Rich Lowry a year ago that suggested liberalism was fundamentally un-American because its tenets grate against American exceptionalism (essay here, my critique). Now, this argument has not aged very well in the past 13 months. I find it incomprehensible that anyone would argue with a straight face that Barack Obama has paid insufficient homage to American exceptionalism during his time in office. Moreover, while their essay speaks to a general incompatibility between European socialism and American rugged individualism, it is an effort to embody these traits within the person of Obama himself (that's why the essay's subtitle is "The Obama administration’s assault on American identity").

Ponnuru is a thoughtful conservative who is lightly rapping two lesser writers for overstating their case. His scold: There is no need to invent elaborate explanations for what motivates Obama, nor focus solely on him, when there is a larger critique of liberalism to be made. But Ponnuru himself has done just that. Now, facing the probability that Republicans could blow a major opportunity to unseat an incumbent Democrat by being consumed by birtherism and a full-on assault of the welfare state, a space has emerged for Reasonable Conservatives and Reasonable Republicans to contrast themselves with the wild-eyed yahoos. But fundamentally, the message remains: They're not one of Us.