The Exceptionalism backlash

By Rich Lowry

President Barack Obama learned from Bill Clinton’s mistakes in 1993-94. He ran, relative to Clinton, a buttoned-up transition. He sought to avoid Clinton’s tactical miscues on health care. And he steered clear of cultural land mines.

The backlash against Democrats in 1994 was famously attributed to “gays, guns and God.” Obama has mostly avoided stoking opposition around that hot-button triad, but faces a backlash almost indistinguishable in feel and intensity. Why?

Big government became a cultural issue. The level of spending, the bailouts and the intervention in the economy contemplated in health-care reform and cap-and-trade created the fear that something elemental was changing in the country — quickly, irrevocably, without notice.

Obama has run up against the country’s cultural conservatism as surely as Clinton did. But Obama is encountering its fiscal expression, the sense that America has always been defined by a more stringently limited government than other advanced countries. It’s an “American exceptionalism” backlash.

The roots of our exceptionalism extend all the way back to our mother country, England, which was less centralized, hierarchical and feudal than the rest of Europe. Taking England’s incipient liberalism and stretching it to its logical conclusion, we became the most liberal polity ever known to man.

We arrived in this century still a country apart. Prior to its recent run-up, total government spending remained about 36 percent of GDP in the U.S. In Europe, the figure was higher — 44 percent in Britain, 53 percent in France and 56 percent in Sweden, and they spend less on defense than we do.

The left has long been scandalized by our cussed differentness. Progressive intellectuals last century looked to alternative foreign models like Bismarck’s Germany. You can hear the same plaint in contemporary liberalism: Why can’t we be more like them — like the French, like the Swedes, like any people with a larger, busier government overawing the private sector and civil society?

Obama is answering the call. Spending is sneaking up to European levels — an estimated 44 percent of GDP this year — even before the baby boomers retire. He seeks to give us European-style health-care, energy and labor policies.

Abroad, Obama has often displayed a dismaying defensiveness about his country. He appears to have an allergy both to U.S power and to the word “democracy.” In John Bolton’s pungent phrase, he’s a “post-American president.”

All of this has created a roiling reaction. The ground troops of this revolt aren’t the Christian right activists of 1994. Instead, they are tea-partiers driven by the growth of government. Their catchphrase of “taking back the country” isn’t an appeal to power so much as a clarion call to preserve the foundations of the country’s distinctiveness. The debt, for them, isn’t just about fiscal probity, but our way of life.

Of course, the American tradition has ample room for government expansion or the welfare state wouldn’t already be so large, and Obama is weighed down as well by the weak economy. But his rush to social democracy has touched a raw cultural nerve. He’s avoided “God, guns and gays,” and hit on something more profound.

Rich Lowry is editor of the National Review.

© 2010 by King Features Synd., Inc.