How Conservatism Eroded American Exceptionalism

Claude S. Fischer

(26/FEB/2014) 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. [1] 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).

Religion: Anticlericalism

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. [2]

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. [3] 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. [4] 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. [5]

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