I asked for Conservatives to explain the seeming-hatred directed at President Obama from the Right in this country, and I got some great, detailed, thought-provoking responses. I could quibble about little things (Is it Obama’s fault that Congress choose to pass a law that essentially gives law-making power to the Executive branch? That seems more like a good reason to detest a Congress that has been consistently eroding its own constitutional authority for over a hundred years.) but I think it’s safe to say that the most fundamental objection to Obama stems from the belief that he does not ascribe ardently enough to the notion of American exceptionalism. (Correct me if that’s not the fundamental concern.)
I’m still not aware of any particular policy decisions which definitively prove this theory. Sure, Democrats are always for being multilateralists when they make use of organizations like NATO or the U.N. There’s a pretty distinct double-standard on these groups when it comes to the way they are employed by Presidents of different parties. Beyond those, I’m not sure what Obama has officially done. But I am aware of the things he’s said and written, and I think words matter and should fall into the “actions” category I asked for. These words also relate directly to the question of Obama’s interactions with our allies. One of the charges is that Obama has lowered our standing with them. I tried to find some data to back up this claim. It turns out that our standing, at least as measured by polling, has dramatically improved under Obama, at least in the numbers I could find. In the year he took office, we made dramatic gains. Check out page 5 of this report. A more recent article details the improvement based on polling data throughout the world. Part of this might simply be a reaction to the global antipathy toward Bush, a world-wide sigh of relief. But we should also be willing to consider the possibility that Obama’s speeches made in other countries, and his comments regarding our own which have been broadcast around the world, have increased our soft power, something Conservatives like Donald Rumsfeld reluctantly acknowledged is absolutely essential to defeating terrorism and undermining tyrants around the globe.
Take, for example, the situation between the U.S., Britain, and Argentina regarding the Falklands, pointed out by one of the commenters. Despite the anti-Obama slant to the article, it can’t identify any actual harm done by the Obama administration’s advocacy of diplomatic talks between the British and Argentine government over the islands. Perhaps it will tick off the British, but they remain among our strongest allies in the world and like Obama a lot more than American Conservatives do. But look at the flip side. Chavez is a nutjob. He’s on TV in his country for four hours or more a day, ranting about how the evil imperialists in America only want to destroy Argentina. He gets up at the U.N. and calls Bush names to increase his popularity back home. Now he’s been undermined in the eyes of his people. We’re not crazy. We’re also not capitulating or “tossing our allies under the bus as appeasement.” Chavez didn’t get the Falklands. He didn’t even get a sit-down with the British. He was just made to look foolish.
Or consider the case with our relationship with Israel. Obama has taken a beating for saying that negotiations related to the two-state solution should start with the pre-1967 borders and then be worked out in a series of land swaps. This is exactly what the Bush roadmap said, too. The problem is that the Israelis, though desiring the pre-1967 borders as a starting point and demanding land swaps in order to maintain control over Jerusalem, didn’t want their ultimate bargaining position stated aloud. They wanted to demand more, then work to the place that Obama announced. As someone who’s been involved in formal negotiations (of the contract variety, not the peace-in-the-middle-east kind) I understand not wanting to have your final position made public. I also understand that the President is rightly frustrated with the Israeli government’s continued construction of new settlements which the Israelis know they will just demolish later, and which rile up the Palestinians and the rest of the Arab word. Putting pressure on the Israelis might piss them off, but it won’t really diminish the ultimate settlement because the tough negotiating will be about the land swaps themselves, and they already knew we expected those as part of the Bush roadmap. Obama might have hurt himself with Conservatives, both in Israel and in the U.S., but he didn’t really give anything to the Palestinians and he undermined the Jihadist Imams who want to paint Israel and the U.S. with the same brush when Israel is doing things that the U.S. has long opposed. Creating a little political distance between ourselves and Israel is in our national interest, especially if it can be done so inexpensively; Israel didn’t really lose anything, Palestine didn’t really gain anything. The only losers were terrorists and Obama’s ratings in Florida. I’d call that a gutsy move. The Israeli ambassador might say that our nations’ relationship is in the worst shape it’s been in in 35 years, but at the end of the day Israel is still completely dependent on us for their security (their soldiers might be bad-asses, but they are bad-asses holding American guns) and we will continue to provide them with all the necessary security guarantees. Again, a net increase in America’s soft power.
But did these increases in our soft power need to come at the expense of our projected notion of American exceptionalism? Perhaps. It depends on what we mean by that. I think that might be the crux of the conservative antipathy towards Obama. If I am understanding the conservative definition of American exceptionalism correctly, conservatives would prefer a weaker America as long as it fits into a very specific definition of “American,” to a stronger America which fits the definition of “American” actually held by the majority of its people.
My friend who comments as Green Globule writes that conservatives are “not looking across the ocean for a better model.” This is ironic, since the term “exceptional” was first applied to America by Alexis de Tocqueville, a Frenchman. If he’s not a guy from across the ocean who is responsible for this particular model, then perhaps credit should go to the first people to use the phrase “American exceptionalism.” That would be The American Communist Party of the 1920s, who used it to describe why they thought the Great Leap Forward would take a long time to occur here. Only, their definition isn’t really the modern Conservative variant, because they believed it was our “natural resources, industrial capacity, and absence of rigid class distinctions” that would postpone the working class from rising up and offing the rich. When modern Conservatives talk about American exceptionalism, I don’t think they’re talking about our coal deposits or the fact that we don’t self-identify as working-class and aristocrats. Green Globule points to our freedom of speech and our right to bear arms. On these grounds, I think Obama fares very well. Though he talked about closing background check loopholes to prevent the mentally ill from getting guns in the wake of the Gabrielle Giffords shooting (any talk about guns from a Democrat raises red flags with some), he is also the first modern Democratic President, to my knowledge, to acknowledge the second amendment is an individual rather than a corporate right. That is huge, coming from a legal scholar who could tell you every argument from those who say it’s a corporate right based on the placement of a comma, and who often avoids politically impossible questions by laying out both sides, slowly, methodically, until the questioner gives up. Obama went out on a limb to say that, angering some gun control folks on his left, and has expanded the right to carry guns into national parks (a particularly big deal in Alaska, where much of the state is National Parks and where you really want to be armed). So if American exceptionalism is the right to bear arms, Obama should be in pretty good standing with Conservatives.
And what about free speech (my personal favorite of our rights)? I think this, along with the other rights guaranteed in the first amendment, is actually the most important element of what makes America great. I think the FCC should be allowed to regulate frequencies so my remote control car doesn’t show up on my radio and so my radio doesn’t control my remote control car. Beyond that, I’d get rid of it altogether. Want to burn a flag? Fine. It’s a stupid protest. It doesn’t tell me what you’re opposed to, specifically. Do you hate CIA intervention in Pakistan, or hate cotton? Mostly it just tells me you don’t like my country, which makes me less inclined to listen to what you have to say. But I love that we have the right to do it. Want to call the most conservative news network “fair and balanced”? Go right ahead, and if people believe that then maybe they’ll also believe I can bench 500 lbs., I’ve climbed Mt. Everest twice, and I have a credit score that makes me worthy of a loan of ten billion dollars. I love, love, love free speech. As an English teacher, it’s my livelihood. Without it, I’d be a propaganda teacher, and that doesn’t sound nearly as fun as my job. As a novelist, it’s my hobby. As a video game playing, novel reading, internet addicted movie buff, my life is pretty much free speech and sleep. So what has Obama done to diminish free speech? What has he done to diminish the freedom of the press, the freedom of assembly, or the freedom of religion? Tonight, at the first Republican debate, the candidates fell all over each other discussing Islam, with one candidate saying no Muslim would serve in his cabinet (at least not the kind of Muslim who would want to kill us) and another comparing Muslims to communists and Nazis. And which party has been at the forefront of the movement to censor the arts? Or to pass laws preventing flag burning (which later had to be overturned by the Supreme Court)? In fact, aside from protecting the rights of corporations to donate anonymously to campaigns (Scalia says Democracy is a full contact sport when it comes to signing petitions, and I agree, but apparently the anonymity of a political donation is part of its “speech”) how have Conservatives protected the freedom of speech better than Liberals? This might be part of a libertarian’s definition of American exceptionalism (and is the place where I’m most on board with libertarianism) but it cannot be the bedrock of modern Conservatives’ definition.
Is a Conservative’s definition of American exceptionalism based on our freedom from government intrusion into our lives? That depends on what you want to be free to do. If Brian wants to marry Larry, even if most Americans want these guys to have this right, even if the state can show no definitive reason why their marriage should be prevented which is not based in a particular religious ideology, even if Brian and Larry live in a different state that wants to give them permission to do so, it’s Conservatives who want the government to step in and tell them they can’t. And if a woman and her doctor decide she needs an abortion, Conservatives want the government to step in and stop that. In fact, when the Supreme Court says the government can’t stop that, Conservatives busy themselves passing state laws that tell the doctor he has to wait a period of time, show her an ultra-sound of the fetus, give her a lecture filled with demonstrably false information about the dangers of the procedure, and then complete the procedure before the delay they caused! Want to buy some marijuana for the pain from your chemotherapy? How about an OD on opiates because you’re in misery from an untreatable illness? No, the Conservative’s definition of American exceptionalism can’t be based strictly on freedom. Just some freedoms. The ones they like.
Maybe it’s based on our wealth. We are the richest nation in the world, in total terms. That means that we’re the richest people, on average. Of course, that is of great consolation to people who don’t know the difference between a median and a mode. But if you try to do anything to help more Americans enjoy that wealth, you are a socialist or a communist, a redistributor of wealth, an oppressor who makes slaves of the poor through the soft bigotry of low expectations. (Modern Conservatives do not like this kind of slavery. They did protect the other kind, though, because, as Green Globule points out, Conservatives “first concern is against new mistakes, especially those at the national level which are hardest to undo.” You know, like the 13 Amendment barring slavery. Somebody had to make sure we didn’t jump to that decision too hastily, right?) But some Conservatives are threatening to refuse to up the debt ceiling (in exchange for concessions to limit a woman’s liberty to get a Pap Smear at a Planned Parenthood, no less) and that is the single quickest way to make sure the U.S. is no longer the wealthiest nation in the world, so this can’t be the foundation for Conservatives’ definition of American exceptionalism, either. Oh, and if our wealth were the measure of American exceptionalism, Conservatives would feel lukewarm about Reagan, the first Bush, and Obama, hate George W. Bush, and their favorite President of the last thirty years would be Bill Clinton.
Or maybe it’s our military might. This strikes me as unlikely, since there’s a great deal of dispute within the Conservative movement about whether we should be isolationists, shoring up our military defenses, or neo-conservatives, flexing our military muscles abroad to protect our global interests. Regardless, Obama seems to have split the difference. He hasn’t over-extended the military the way the Iraq and Afghanistan conflict have, but did double-down on Afghanistan and has shown he’s perfectly willing to use the military in Libya, Yemen, and Pakistan. You can take issue with some of those choices (I certainly do), but I don’t see how he could generate such hatred by splitting the difference in the other side’s internal debate.
So, if it’s not our 1st or 2nd amendment rights, it’s not our freedom from government intrusion into our lives, it’s not our wealth, and it’s not our military might, what is the definition of American exceptionalism which Obama lacks? I have a theory.
I think the Conservative definition of American exceptionalism is tautological. In essence, they believe America is better because it’s America, and Americans are better because they’re American. Only, their definition of American is only the Conservative they see in the mirror. This can be pretty easily demonstrated. Conservatives do not like it when you point out that America has made mistakes. Liberals get pilloried for this. But ask a Conservative if the majority of Americans were right to cast a ballot for Barack Obama, and they’ll tell you it was a mistake, that we are “on the wrong track.” If you talk about how we were wrong when the CIA assassinated Allende, the democratically elected leader of Chile, they’ll call you unpatriotic. But the Bay of Pigs Fiasco? A Democrat’s mistake. The whole Constitution should be read from the floor of Congress because it’s perfect, right? Now, who wants to read that 3/5ths part?
My friend Derek wrote, “Conservatives hold America as a country and an ideal in the absolute highest regard. We do believe America is exceptional. We do believe in a Divine blessing on this nation. Therefore we reject anyone who would do any thing to diminish that exceptionalism as Obama has by apologizing for America…” First of all, even when I was a Christian, I found that notion of a Divine blessing abhorrent. The idea that God prefers Americans not only shows a lazy or willful misreading of scripture, but it’s offensive not just to people outside our borders, but to Christians here, too. It reminds me of those post-game interviews when the reporter stick the microphone in the face of the star of the winning team and he thanks God for the victory. Yeah, because God preferred your team. And you’ll lose next week because God is wishy-washy. If this is the bedrock of the Conservative definition of American exceptionalism, then that God prefers the country where one of the founding principles is that the government of that country shall establish no religion which might acknowledge His preference. That God is either very humble or quite stupid.
As for apologizing for America, Green Globule echoed this sentiment somewhat when he wrote, “When I read Dreams from my Father, the one thing I was looking for above all else was that he loved and respected this country and that he believed in it. I found nothing of the sort, and generally only the opposite.” Here’s the lynchpin of the difference between the Conservative definition of America and the Progressive’s: Obama is considered un-American because he points out that America isn’t perfect. That’s considered “apologizing for America.” I shouldn’t have to write this, but for an African American growing up in the 60s in America, the country wasn’t perfect. Men were being lynched for having skin the same color as his just when he was trying to figure out his racial identity. Acknowledging that doesn’t mean a person hates America, or is apologizing for it. Recognizing that fact, and many other negative facts about American history, is part and parcel of the Progressive’s definition of American exceptionalism: America keeps getting better! We started out with slavery written into our Constitution, but we got better. Women couldn’t vote, but we got better! Children had to work twelve hour shifts, seven days a week, in dangerous conditions, but (thanks to Big Government nanny-state regulations) we got better! Somebody else invented the automobile, but we built it cheaper, faster, and better! Somebody else made it into space first, but we got to the moon! We mistreated lots of different groups of our fellow Americans for a host of deplorable reasons, and we still do, but to diminishing degrees because we keep getting better! Hell, Democracy was invented by other people, and, Green Globule, they lived “across the ocean,” but they are dead and gone and we are still here making it better. And someday we will take gay marriage and some variation on national healthcare and we’ll just keep on getting better.
But it’s not a fait accompli that we’ll just go on making it better. The single biggest threat to what really makes America great is the idea that our greatness is finished, that we don’t need to look across the ocean for new ideas to take and improve because we can just sit on our hands as Americans and God’s divine blessing will keep us on top. This, I think, is really at the heart of the hatred of Obama, and it’s also the origin, at its extreme, of the whole “Birthir” movement. It’s not that Obama was born in Hawaii and spent time overseas. McCain was born in Panama and nobody found that disqualifying. It’s that Obama is willing to look at other models and listen to other ideas. He’s not blinded by the kind of ultra-nationalism that says that everything foreign is inferior and suspect and probably evil. I may disagree with him on the conclusions he comes to about half of those ideas. I may even find some of his policies infuriating. But when I have to choose between Obama and someone who is trying to placate a constituency that sees any recognition of our country’s mistakes as a sign of a lack of patriotism and any idea from any other country as dismissible, I will choose him. Odds are, most Americans will make the same choice.
And maybe that’s a mistake. We do make those.
But I vote that we keep getting better.