So maybe Americans aren’t so different from Europeans after all? If you read a lot of the opinion press—poor lamb—you might be getting the idea that we’re all social democrats now. This would be sad news for Republicans.
Since the dawn of the Obama Tyranny, they have been hoping to frame a stark political contrast between themselves on the one hand, as guardians of American exceptionalism—the spirit of entrepreneurship, small government, self-reliance, individualism, robust commerce, and all the rest of it—and, on the other, Democrats who, while perfectly nice people and terrifically patriotic, have tendencies in the opposite direction, toward an expansive, European view of government intervention, stricter regulation of business, a more lavish provision for the poor, a preference for public over private action, and all the rest of that.
The contrast would flatter Republicans, Republicans reasoned, because Americans themselves are great examples of American exceptionalism, and believers in it. Thus the election this fall and the one two years from now would be a clash of world views, with contending ideas about America’s uniqueness and its place in the world, about what kind of country we all want to have. It would be exhilarating! If true.
And now come many people willing to tell us it isn’t true—even people who wish it were. The notion has been in the air for a while, but I first picked up its scent in a review of The Battle, a new book by Arthur C. Brooks, in the liberal magazine the American Prospect. The theme of The Battle is this same clash-of-world-views idea—the battle of the title is the national argument over American exceptionalism that Brooks thinks is fast approaching. The reviewer, Brink Lindsey, works for the Cato Institute, the libertarian hothouse. A small government guy himself, he might have been thought to be sympathetic.
But no. Lindsey mocked Brooks’s argument by caricaturing it: “Supporters of free markets are defending a unique and precious American heritage, while [their Democratic opponents] have thrown in with the foreigners—worst of all, with effete, decadent Europeans.” In rebuttal Lindsey cited polling data showing that average Americans, when they’re given a pop quiz on economics, are not nearly as amenable to free market ideas as even liberal economists are. A New York Times poll this spring, moreover, found that “76 percent of Americans think ‘the benefits from government programs such as Social Security and Medicare are worth the costs of those programs.’ ” Even Tea Partiers, the Times reported, gave overwhelming support (62 percent) to Big Government programs. Americans are statists at heart.
Lindsey didn’t use the word “hypocrites” to describe a populace that flatters itself for its rugged individualism while panting after the cushy life promised by collectivism—for talking American and living European. The charge of mass hypocrisy came from a columnist for the Washington Post, Anne Applebaum, who wrote a column picking up where Lindsey left off. “Hypocrisy is hypocrisy,” she wrote. “Look around the world and we don’t seem as exceptional as we think.” In fact, we’re worse. “We not only demand ludicrous levels of personal and political safety, we reserve the right to rant and rave against the vast bureaucracies we have created . . . to deliver it.”
This is an old argument, and it never goes away for long. It’s usually revived when articulate people with strong political convictions suddenly see the public, which moments before had been agreeing with them, veering off in a seditious direction. Only a little more than 18 months ago, American voters elected a well-schooled sophisticate to the presidency and thereby demonstrated a long overdue spiritual maturity. Now, having turned on him, they are demonstrating their bad character. Today’s Tea Partiers are up-to-date versions of the Angry White Males who fomented the Republican takeover of the House 16 years ago. One fed-up pundit back then described his feelings about these ingrates with unusual heat: “They are, in short, Big Babies.” Nyah, nyah, nyah. From the wisdom and sophistication they had shown only two years before in electing Bill Clinton and strong Democratic majorities in Congress, they had regressed to the crib, like Benjamin Button.