How Conservatism Eroded American Exceptionalism
February 26, 2014
Feb 26, 2014
7 Min read time
What is really striking is how long-lasting aspects of American exceptionalism have been in a era when one might have expected global homogenization.
In a well-researched and provocative National Journal column, journalist Peter Beinart seeks to jujitsu conservatives’ charges that President Obama has undermined “American exceptionalism.” Beinart argues that American exceptionalism—by which he means America’s sharp differences from Old-World Europe—is “ending.” Young Americans, he states with data, look increasingly just like young Europeans in their religiosity, class consciousness, and nationalism. Beinart flips the right-wing charge, however, arguing that Obama’s arrival is the result, not the origin, of this convergence and, moreover, that it is largely conservative policies that are ending American exceptionalism. Neatly done.
I offer some reservations. Beinart exaggerates the convergence of Americans with other western peoples. What is really striking is how long-lasting aspects of American exceptionalism have been in a era when one might have expected global homogenization. (For an earlier discussion of exceptionalism, see here.)
A Glass Half . . . What?
A data note to start: Beinart draws on a variety of international polls to make his points. Using polls to compare across countries, however, can be tricky for a few reasons.  Here, I draw on the high-standard International Social Survey Programme (ISSP) and to a lesser degree, another scholarly institution, the World Values Survey WVS).
Americans’ high level of religiosity has always been considered a major part of our exceptionalism. The post-1980s rise in the proportion of Americans who tell survey researchers that they have no particular religious identification suggests to Beinart that young Americans now abstain from religion as much as young Europeans do. However, avowals or disavowals of a religious identity may not be the best way to understand such differences and Beinart is probably overusing this indicator of religiosity. 
Young Americans remain distinctively religious and supportive of churches. In the 2008 ISSP surveys on religion, Americans under forty years old were more likely to express confidence in churches than were under forty-year-olds in fiften other comparable, western nations; only young Finns expressed more faith in churches.  Young Americans also stood out in asserting Judeo-Christian beliefs. They were far likelier than their western peers to agree that “I know God really exists and have no doubts about it.” Sixty-two percent of them also said that they definitely believed in heaven; Irish youth came in second at a distant 41 percent.  Finally, young Americans report attending church at much higher rates than any under forty-year-olds among the fifteen national samples except the Irish and Italians. 
Even today, even among the under-40s, Americans express levels of religious commitment much higher than Europeans and other westerners. Some suspect that Americans are religiously exceptional only in lip service, but the whole picture suggests that Americans’ distinctiveness in this regard is far from ending.
Americans have been exceptionally reluctant to describe their society as riven by class differences and exceptionally reluctant to have government compensate for inequalities. Beinart presents some data to suggest that the Great Recession and widening economic gaps of recent years have now made young Americans more class conscious in an old-world style. However, while the Great Depression seemed to have propelled the creation of Americans’ modest welfare state many decades ago, but it is unclear the Great Recession is moving Americans that way again (see here).
ISSP data show that young Americans still differ from other young westerners on class issues. Americans were less likely than others to complain about inequality,  which is striking given that the U.S. is the most economically unequal nation in the West. Young Americans were least likely among fifteen nationalities to agree that it is the role of government to reduce such inequalities and third-least likely to agree that the “government should provide a decent standard of living for the unemployed.” 
This paradox—that Americans face unusually wide economic inequality and yet fail to see it, or if they do see it, do not support doing much about it – has for generations caused many social scientists to scratch their heads and many social reformers to bang their heads. Even now, in the “Second Gilded Age,” this sort of exceptionalism persists.
Beinart also argues that the younger Americans have lost some of the swaggering nationalism that used to characterize us as recently as the early 2000s. There is indeed some evidence of that in the data he reports and other data as well. Similarly, Beinart argues that young Americans have lost interest in taking on international leadership. These trends he plausibly lays at the doorstep of G. W. Bush’s Iraq War.
Yet, this trend may actually return us to a classic American position: isolationism. Some would argue that the post-World War II era of global involvement is not traditional American exceptionalism, but a mid-20th-century deviation from it. Obama’s reluctance to forcibly promote democracy abroad may reveal him as more traditionally American than the Bushes were.
At the Core
At least with respect to religion and class consciousness – and especially, the government’s role with regard to class—it seems that even young Americans still testify to how culturally different the United States is than other western nations (especially nations in the Old World). What is more striking than any slight convergence with the Europeans is how, in a century seemingly defined by globalism—an interdependent global economy, instant global communications, and a widely shared mass culture—young Americans still appear to be distinctive, even exceptional, in how they understand life and the world.
Beinart is right that in some ways the conservative tide has undermined elements of that exceptionalism. The politicization of churches by the Religious Right has created blow-back on organized religion. The rush to release the rich from social responsibilities and the reluctance to help average Americans cope with economic misfortune has disillusioned more Americans about the national premise that hard work will get you ahead.  But the conservative tide has also entailed a wave of messaging to reinforce the elements of American exceptionalism: the strong ideological campaign to insist on an “I’ve got mine, Jack” outlook; the rise of explicit libertarian philosophy and practical off-shoots like gun-carry laws; and the attack on government at all levels. There is, also, as others have noted, the way that conservative forces have created a self-fulfilling prophecy in Washington: making government dysfunctional.
 Comparisons are messy because of translation issues, of course, but also because samples are drawn differently, interview procedures differ between nations (in-person, telephone, web), and deeper cultural subtleties.
 In the U.S., declaring your religious identification is declaring your personally-chosen religiosity. Elsewhere, stating a religious identification is more like a reporting your demographic or official identity; once a Catholic almost always a Catholic. Thus, in the U.S., the percentage of under-40-year-olds who say that they have no religious identification is about the same as the percentage of who say they never attend services, but in Norway, for example, about twice as many say they never attend services as say they have no religious identification (ISSP 2008, 2010).
 The comparisons here and elsewhere are with central and western European countries plus Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. ISSP 2008, Q. 8c. In the WVS, American under-30-year-olds were much likelier to express confidence in churches than peers in 13 other countries, Finland included (WVS 2005-08; item “Confidence: Churches”).
 God: 56 percent of Americans under forty (the Portuguese were second at 43 percent): ISSP 2008, Q.16. Heaven: ISSP 2008, Q.18b.
 Attendance: the 2008 and 2011 ISSP’s. In the larger, 2008 ISSP, reported weekly attendance rates were 28 percent for the young Irish, 22 percent for young Italians, and 21 percent for young Americans. Next were the British at 15 percent.
 In the 2009 ISSP, Q. 6a., Americans under 40 ranked 5th from the bottom of 15 nationalities is saying that income differences were too large.
 2009 ISSP, Q’s 6b., 6c. Also, in the 2005-08 WVS, young Americans (under thirty) were least likely among fourteen nationalities to say that incomes should be made more equal (Item “Income equality”) and by far the least likely to agree that taxing the rich and subsidizing the poor was “an essential characteristic of democracy” (Item “Democracy: Governments Tax . . .”).
 In the 2005-08 WVS, Americans under thirty were fourth among fourteen nationalities in saying they were very proud of their nationality (trailing only the other former English colonies). They were among the least likely to say they were willing to fight for their country and showed the widest gap between themselves and the 50+ respondents; Americans of that advanced age were among the nationalities most likely to say they would be willing to fight.
 Trends in Pew survey answers to whether hard work can get you ahead.
Image: Stuart Rankin
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February 26, 2014
7 Min read time