Once Obama was elected, American exceptionalism became as Palin had defined it—a proxy for the patriotism that the new president lacked. From there, it took just a rhetorical sleight-of-hand to link Obama’s deficiency of Americanism to America’s advancing decline. The conflation was consummated by Charles Krauthammer in an influential October 2009 article for The Weekly Standard titled “Decline Is a Choice: The New Liberalism and the End of American Ascendancy.” To make his case, he leaned on an Obama quote from a press conference at a NATO conference in Strasbourg, France, that spring. In response to a question from Edward Luce, a Financial Times reporter (and himself the author of a subsequent declinist tome subtitled America in the Age of Descent), the president had answered, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” In Krauthammer’s view, this was proof that Obama was endorsing American decline, for “if everyone is exceptional, no one is.”
Since then it’s been pile-on time on the right, usually with that one Obama quote brandished as the smoking gun. The president is constantly being lashed for his lack of commitment to American exceptionalism, much as he was slapped around during the 2008 campaign for not at first slavishly donning a flag lapel pin. Newt Gingrich helped lead the way with a campaign book titled A Nation Like No Other: Why American Exceptionalism Matters; he explained that he is an “American exceptionalist” because he believes in “fundamentally rebuilding the America we inherited,” as opposed to Obama, who “believes in fundamentally undermining the America we inherited.” Mitt Romney’s contribution to the genre, No Apology, is one long dirge for how America has lost its greatness in the Obama era’s bankrupt “reorientation away from a celebration of American exceptionalism.”
“On the right, the word ‘exceptional’—or ‘exceptionalism’—lately has become a litmus test” is how the columnist Kathleen Parker accurately characterized her fellow conservatives last year when chastising Obama for not obediently saying “that word ‘exceptional’ ” during his 2011 State of the Union address and instead “studiously” avoiding “the word conservatives long to hear.” The only flaw in her argument is that no American president has ever publicly referred to “American exceptionalism” in the more than eight decades since Stalin coined it—with the sole exception of Obama. According to the American Presidency Project at the University of California, Santa Barbara—a repository of all the presidents’ public words, eagerly mined by fact-checking bloggers in response to exceptionalism fetishists like Parker—George W. Bush did at least use exceptional in office, albeit twice in reference to his torpedoed Supreme Court nominee, Harriet Miers.
It doesn’t take much imagination to understand why Obama, branded as an outlier to the “real America” by Palin in 2008, would be held to a different standard than his predecessors by a modern GOP that is almost as lily-white as Mayberry. But declinists not normally engaged in conservative partisan politics have fallen into the American-exceptionalism trap as well by buying wholeheartedly into the right’s elevation of Stalin’s coinage from near obscurity to a jingoistic buzz term. Murray writes that the country will be on the right track “only when we are talking again about why America is exceptional and why it is so important that America remain exceptional.” Friedman and Mandelbaum second the motion: American exceptionalism “has to be earned continually” and “is now in play.” Their intention may not be to join the right in tarring Obama with America’s collapse, but in this hothouse political climate that is the practical effect.
That many of the problems cited by our declinists are real is beyond debate, starting, in my view, with the three-decade-long collapse of fundamental economic fairness that’s been charted by Timothy Noah, Joseph Stiglitz, Jacob Hacker, Paul Pierson, and others. We are living in “a country run by the rich, for the rich,” in the succinct summation of the financial blogger Felix Salmon. Most of the declinist authors have other worthy critiques of present-day America to offer as well, and with good reason. Hardly a week goes by without the tarnishing of another major American institution, from JPMorgan to Penn State, or a random calamity like the carnage in Colorado.
None of this makes us No. 2 to China, an autocracy riddled with state and business corruption and often abridging the basic human rights that, for all our lapses, are more often honored than not in 21st-century America. We’re not Greece. We’re not even post-empire England. But if we were to slip into so much as a tie for No. 1, that would drive many Americans nuts, because if anything is baked into the national character, it is that we must be the alpha dog, the leader of the pack, the undisputed world champion. Yet the alpha dogs of our own economy now inhabit a realm so far removed from most of their fellow countrymen that the whole idea of No. 1 is becoming an unattainable abstraction to those below. This is why the platitudes to be found in some of the declinist books fall flatter than usual. When Murray airily calls for “a civic Great Awakening” and a return to “founding virtues,” or when Friedman and Mandelbaum urge us “to reconnect with the values and ideals that made the American Dream so compelling,” the words have about as much value as a subprime mortgage in the context of our current Gilded Age.