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Bad News For “Exceptionalism;” Great News For Progress

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When conservatives say American exceptionalism is imperiled, they're onto something. In fundamental ways, America is becoming less exceptional. Where [Newt] Gingrich and company go wrong is in claiming that the Obama presidency is the cause of this decline. It's actually the result. Ironically, the people most responsible for eroding American exceptionalism are the very conservatives who most fear its demise.

As Peter Beinart notes in his terrific essay from which the quote above is drawn (and the one following), the foundation upon which today's right-wing depends to justify American exceptionalism is weakening. Demographics--among other considerations--strongly suggest that hopes for shoring up those supporting principles are fading, with little chance that the process can be reversed.

As America and Europe have changed over time, so have the attributes that exceptionalists claim distinguish us from them. But for the contemporary Right, there are basically three: our belief in organized religion; our belief that America has a special mission to spread freedom in the world; and our belief that we are a classless society where, through limited government and free enterprise, anyone can get ahead.

The problem, as Beinart demonstrates and as everyday experiences suggest, is that the perception most progressives--and of greater significance, the Millennials--now have about conservative leadership isn't exactly a glowing one. Millennials in particular are shaping their political assessments and developing their world views from lessons taught by the foreign-policy failings of, and resulting wars during, the George W. Bush Administration; the economic struggles we've all endured, which stem in no small part from (and are sustained by) Republican Party policies and practices; along with their joined-at-the-hip ties to the (fundamentalist in particular) Christian Right. These failings, not the least among them the glaring discrepancy in income benefits accruing to the wealthy at the expense of the rest of us, are causing a distinct shift away from any inclinations to accept right-wing political viewpoints.

What Millennials think may not matter too much to most of us today (or their pronouncements are casually dismissed), but we ought to be paying attention. Conservatives more so.

Those budding voices are next in line. Their perceptions and attitudes about what's right and what's not and thus needs to be addressed will shape our future much more powerfully than a conservative ideology unwilling to let go of their quaint, if not jaded, recollections of life in the 1950s and the 1960s.

The all-too-common instances of judgmental, exclusionary practices by those who claim allegiance to Christian values suggest they either need to go back and compare notes about the checklists they're working from, or appreciate what so many now understand: it's a short distance from espoused beliefs to hypocrisy and society-wide harm resulting from actions and policies supporting those principles.

As E.J. Dionne recently noted in another of his stellar efforts:

Politicians talk about family values but do almost nothing to help families. They talk about parental responsibility but do almost nothing to help parents. They talk about self-sufficiency but do precious little to make self-sufficiency a reality for those who must struggle hardest to achieve it.  

How often can we hear that government should be more responsive to the problems Americans face now? But the vogue for simply assuming that government cannot -- or should not -- do much of anything about those problems leads to paralysis.
Our current discussion of what constitutes 'freedom' is shaped far too much by a deeply flawed right-wing notion that every action by government is a threat to personal liberty and that the one and only priority of those who care about keeping people free is for government to do less than it does.

None of those ideological demonstrations are going unnoticed. They may reinforce the kinship felt by those on the right besieged by progress and life in the 21st Century, but what they do and what consequences ensue aren't occurring in a protective bubble. Real people in real situations are enduring real hardships made worse by policies beholden to honoring principles more than fashioning solutions.
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Say what you will about the next generation of American leaders, they are not stupid. Hypocrisy is a bit tough to hide on a national stage when so many fellow right-wingers are singing the same tune. It's getting a lot harder to hide the damage or explain it away.

As I've cited in two separate series from my Looking Left and Right blog, resistance to change is a widely-accepted trait associated with conservative identity and ideological principles. One leading researcher on the subject, John Jost (with colleagues), offered * this observation: 

The idea is that there is an especially good fit between needs to reduce uncertainty and threat, on the one hand, and resistance to change and acceptance of inequality, on the other, insofar as preserving the [inegalitarian] status quo allows one to maintain what is familiar and known while rejecting the risky, uncertain prospect of social change.

Unfortunately for conservatives, change will not alter course to accommodate base ideological tenets just because.... Failure to join in the debate will of course make an uncertain future all the more uncertain. Is that wise for them or for us?

Stubborn insistence on preserving the old ignores the influx and influence of different and multi-cultured demographics, for one thing. Conservatism's pre-disposed aversion to social change does little other than increase the intensity of by-now frequent displays of fear--and on the far side of extreme, a healthy dose of paranoia. Actions do have consequences.

The left ignores that at its peril; the right's failure to appreciate how fear and paranoia play themselves out in the real world is every bit as potentially harmful.
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The pathological unwillingness to accept a changing society moving ahead with 21st-century inclinations and needs regardless of fervent pleas to return to "how America used to be" cannot possibly be of any enduring benefit. Millennials aren't tainted by the experiences of decades past that still heavily influence conservatism's hopes for restoring the manufactured recollections of simple and idyllic days gone by.

To simultaneously dig their heels in that much more in stubborn defiance of reality and that changing world community will do little more than make conservatives increasingly irrelevant as time passes.

Looking backward is an option. So, too, is looking forward.

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Looking Left and Right: Inspiring Different Ideas, Envisioning Better Tomorrows Rich Turcotte is a retired attorney, former financial advisor, and now a writer. Through his work, he hopes to encourage a new level of civility and (more...)

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