David Brooks: American Exceptionalism vs. Conservatism

David Brooks’ column in Friday’s (Sept. 25th) New York Times for once said something that completely resonates with me, without his usual waffling and obeisance to parochial religious sentiment: The American Idea and Today’s G.O.P..

He takes the idea of “American Exceptionalism” and explains how its use by some (conservatives, Republicans) is the opposite of its original meaning.

America was settled, founded and built by people who believed they were doing something exceptional. Other nations were defined by their history, but America was defined by its future, by the people who weren’t yet here and by the greatness that hadn’t yet been achieved.

Today there are some conservative commentators and Republican politicians who talk a lot about American exceptionalism. But when they use the phrase they mean the exact opposite of its original meaning. In fact, they are effectively destroying American exceptionalism.

These commentators and candidates look backward to an America that is being lost. Ann Coulter encapsulated this attitude perfectly in her latest book title, “Adios, America.” This is the philosophy of the receding roar, the mourning for an America that once was and is now being destroyed by foreign people and ideas.

Out of this backward- and inward-looking mentality comes a desire to exclude. Donald Trump talks falsely and harshly about Hispanic immigrants. Ben Carson says he couldn’t advocate putting “a Muslim in charge of this nation.”

This is an example of the bias toward thinking there were some mythical “good old days” when things were better than they are now, when men were wiser and citizens more moral, in contrast to our current debased state; another perspective on this is the similarly age-old complaint about “kids these days”.

Whereas in fact — this is where we apply evidence to try to overcome bias — the world is a safer, more inclusive, etc etc, place than it was 20 years ago, or 50, or 250. The founding fathers were not gods; their conclusions should be examined and rethought just as much as… any religious text.

As Peter Wehner, a longtime conservative writer who served in the Bush administration, wrote in the magazine Commentary: “The message being sent to voters is this: The Republican Party is led by people who are profoundly uncomfortable with the changing (and inevitable) demographic nature of our nation. The G.O.P. is longing to return to the past and is fearful of the future. It is a party that is characterized by resentments and grievances, by distress and dismay, by the belief that America is irredeemably corrupt and past the point of no return. ‘The American dream is dead,’ in the emphatic words of Mr. Trump.”

With some references to the reality behind conservative fear and paranoia:

This pessimism isn’t justified by the facts. As a definitive report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recently found, today’s immigrants are assimilating as fast as previous ones. They are learning English. They are healthier than native-born Americans. Immigrant men age 18 to 39 are incarcerated at roughly one-fourth the rate of American men.

We’ve mentioned this immigrant issue before.

My take on American Exceptionalism is that it’s an example of the self-enhancement bias. Obama mentioned once that other countries [think, France!] are pleased to imagine themselves similarly exceptional, and was excoriated by the right.

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