Ponnuru and Lowry respond to their critics . I’m the sure the sphere will be all over this within hours. But a few particularly egregious points are worth noting.
1) Ponnuru and Lowry claim that Obama rejects American exceptionalism in favor of the “Wilsonian project of relocating American greatness not in our fixed constitutional principles but in our supposed ability to transcend those principles.” This is silly for a three reason, apart from the atrocious grammar.
a) The “Wilsonian project” in no way excludes American exceptionalism. Nor could anyone who’s ever read Wilson think so. Instead, it offers a different view of what makes American exceptional than Ponnuru and Lowry’s. That view may be unconvincing, or even pernicious. But it attributes the same quasi-providential status to the American regime that they insist on.
b) The difference between “Wilsonian” exceptionalism and the NR kind doesn’t revolve around transcendence of constitutional principles. It’s a disagreement about what those principles are, and the rank order among them. Does the Constitution’s promise of a “more perfect union” trump its formal limitations of government? Are the blessings of liberty material as well as political and juridical? To condemn progressivism as hostile, as such to founding principles is to avoid the argument on the merits, and to ignore the long history of sincere attempts to articulate a left-wing conception of American values. Regrettably, that’s the tendency of the whole piece.
c) Ponnuru and Lowry admit that Obama has explicitly acknowledged America’s exceptional principles and role. But they dismiss this with the observation that it “would be remarkable if any president did not say such things.” Which is true enough. But in that case, the argument becomes trivially psychologizing: Obama SAYS he believes in American exceptionalism, but he doesn’t really MEAN it. As far as I can tell, Ponnuru and Lowry present no evidence for that conclusion except some quotes in which Obama suggests that the election of a black man, namely himself, to the presidency was sort of a big deal. I guess that can be seen as narcissistic. But I seem to recall a similar sentiment expressed in the pages of NR and Commentary back in November.
2) The psychologizing continues a few paragraphs later when Ponnuru and Lowry reaffirm their contention that liberals, progressives, etc. support the policies they do because they secretly think Europe is cooler. Support for mass transit is highlighted: “we suspect that much of the enthusiasm for these subsidies among liberals is based on mass transits association with Europe.” Well, I know a lot of progressives and mass transit enthusiasts. And I can’t think of a single one who appreciated the reliable trains, quiet buses and streetcars, and clear bike lanes found in many European cities BECAUSE they’re European. Actually, many Americans find it pleasant and convenient to travel this way. And they wonder, not unreasonably, if it wouldn’t be nice to enjoy similar infrastructure at home. It’s true that arguments for mass transit often fail to consider the real differences of the American landscape and lifestyle. But that’s a serious question worth debating in particular cases—what works in Berlin may also be good for New York, but probably not for Tucson —rather than the status envy of Upper West Siders.
3) Victor Davis Hanson is praised for the observation that America exceptionalism is connected with the lack of a feudal past. Ponnuru and Lowry admit that ” Sadly, a worse institution took root here, but never became part of the national psyche.” The worse institution, of course, is slavery. But anyone who can say that slavery and the ideology of white supremacy NEVER became PART of the national psyche really should not be taken seriously as a guide to the American character, although how large a part and for how long are open to dispute. Don’t take my word for it, though. Go back to point (1)—all you need to do is read Wilson.