Ponnuru and Lowry try to defend American exceptionalism by mattsteinglass
March 9, 2010, 10:56 am
Filed under: Conservatism

Here’s how Ramesh Ponnuru and Rich Lowry respond to Damon Linker’s critique of their essay on American exceptionalism.

‘Conservatives like Lowry and Ponnuru’ supposedly uphold ‘the fiction that America has always been a land of equal opportunity for all. Liberals respond by crafting policies that they hope will bring the country into closer conformity to the ideal of equal opportunity for all. That’s one way to define the division of labor that separates our nation’s parties at this moment in our history.’ Yes, that is one way: a childish and smug way, as well as an inaccurate one. (It’s not liberalism’s deep concern for the opportunities of poor people that motivates its opposition to school choice.)

Ponnuru and Lowry offer no other examples of liberal policies that are not genuinely motivated by concern for the poor. It’s just school choice. But on what basis do Ponnuru and Lowry claim “liberalism” is opposed to school choice? Liberals are divided on school choice. There’s no good recent nationwide polling data on how many liberals support different versions of school choice, be it vouchers, charter schools, or choice between different public schools. But 75% of residents of the District of Columbia, the most Democratic district in the country, supported the federally funded school voucher program there. Robert Reich and Cory Booker have supported school voucher programs. Charter and magnet schools are strongly supported by liberal constituencies.

More important, to the extent that liberals oppose school choice, I guarantee you that “concern for the opportunities of poor people” is precisely what motivates them. Opponents of school choice argue that giving parents the opportunity to exit schools leads to higher-attention, wealthier parents with more social capital taking their kids out, while the poorest kids with the least social capital, precisely the kids who need the most help, are left behind in collapsing, defunded institutions. (There is ample evidence to support this claim from existing charter-school programs.) They also argue that voucher programs always end up underfunded, and effectively become a way for the middle and upper classes to wash their hands of educating lower-class kids. They argue that only a sense of social solidarity can produce schools that effectively serve both rich and poor kids, and that programs for poor people are poor programs.

These arguments may be wrong, they may be unrealistic, they may be naive, and they may derive much of their political strength from a coincidence with the interests of teachers’ unions. Or they may be right. But they are absolutely motivated by concern for the opportunities of poor people. It is as offensive for Ponnuru and Lowry to state otherwise as it would be for me to state that their support for school choice is not motivated by concern for the opportunities of poor people, and to imply that they are really just interested in getting taxpayer-funded private school tuition support for middle-class Republican voters.


8 Comments so far
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It’s very hard for me to see the American left as distinctly egalitarian or particularly concerned with equality of opportunity as compared to the right. I mean, I know that’s in the underlying philosophy but it isn’t easy to recognize. Both sides are infatuated with “middle class families,” and the injustices middle class families suffer under.

That said, my biggest issue with American exceptionalism isn’t the fatuous arguments, the superiority or the moral equivalency but that I don’t see the point. If we’re exceptional or not doesn’t impact in any way that I can figure our national moral duties or practical concerns.

Comment by citifieddoug

I don’t really agree about the egalitarianism issue. America has a two-class society with relatively little economic mobility and greater inequality compared to European countries. Liberals and progressives talk about this, and a lot of liberal and progressive priorities (universal health care, more progressive taxation) are aimed at redressing it. Conservatives essentially never talk about shrinking the class divide. Conservatives usually refuse even to use the term “class”, and would generally be opposed to any effort by government to deliberately make American society more egalitarian, if by “egalitarian” you mean “a smaller Gini coefficient, i.e. less of an income gap from top to bottom”. Conservatives will only go along with efforts to increase “equality of opportunity”; even using that language is a pre-concession by liberals to conservative sensibilities.

Basically I think it’s a step too far to say there’s really no gap between right and left on this issue. I think you have to give a bit more credit to the CW than that: the right really is generally more concerned with keeping government from interfering in private economic life, and the left really is generally more concerned with promoting equality of both outcomes and opportunities. Both parties pay lip service to the other idea, which confuses the picture, but at heart they do have different levels of commitment on these issues.

Comment by Matt Steinglass

Your headline is a little misleading. “American Exceptionalism” has far relevance to US foreign policy than it does domestic. It basically states that since we are so great, we have a “responsibility” to “help” the rest of the world be just like us. It is used by hypocritical elites that don’t necessarily believe it but use the rhetoric to get the American people to do the world’s dirty work (a $950 Billion dollar global security budget), a policy that you unfortunately believe in but really hate having to admit (permanent basing of American troops in Europe – subsidizing the unsustainable welfare state there, Russia must follow “Western norms”, etc).

Regarding your response above, I wish you could respond once and for all to this question:

If everything you say about the class system in the USA is so bad, then living in Asia really must be a nightmare for you. Are you there because you want to be or are you there because you must be (for personal reasons that are none of my business)?

Comment by frankb

frankb, we’ve been over this before I think. The US does not subsidize the unsustainable welfare state in Europe. If the US pulled its troops out of Europe, Europeans wouldn’t care. There is no military threat to Europe. When US defense spending was half as high as it is today (in the late ’90s), Europe didn’t care, and European countries were not forced to cut their social spending or increase military spending. The US keeps its troops in Europe for its own reasons.

Vietnam has a gini coefficient that’s about the same as the US’s. Unfortunately, it is getting worse, and I think that’s a bad thing and that in many ways Vietnamese society is heading in the wrong direction. This is particularly true because people who become rich in Vietnam generally do so because they start with pre-existing advantages in social capital and access to state and corporate resources. And that’s also true of the US. However, I and my family are not a part of society here, and can never be; this is not a multicultural society. That’s why we ultimately plan to move back to Europe or the US, which I find to be societies that are based on ideals that more closely comport with my own. This is not surprising: having grown up in a Euro-American society, I naturally share the values of Euro-American societies.

Comment by Matt Steinglass

Matt, I didn’t expect you to disagree and I don’t think you’re wrong in terms of the underlying philosophies, but, apart from Hanoi-based journalist ideologues, the commitment on both sides seems thin to me. You can say that the universal healthcare is an attempt to redistribute wealth but Barack Obama didn’t even campaign on the idea and he isn’t saying it now. From my perspective, it seems that the real argument between left and right in 2010 is over which results should be managed politically.

I’ve been taken pretty well in by the “dynamism” argument, that the effective thing would be to generate wealth and generate opportunity rather than to focus on redistributing both. The elements of that campaign would be to improve public education, improve support for parents who want to work, liberalize immigration and keep both the domestic and international business climates cautiously and narrowly regulated. I see no large movement making priorities of those things.

The only real difference I can credit is that the left has the overwhelming advantage among smart advocates such as yourself. But I’m much too egalitarian to credit intelligence as evidence.

Comment by citifieddoug

To give Ponnuru and Lowry their due, I do think that when they selected school choice, they picked an issue where liberals are most vulnerable to accusations of hypocrisy. As Jonathan Kozol has written, when the issue stopped being whether blacks would be legally barred from attending white schools and started being whether to send their own kids to increasingly impoverished and violent largely-black schools, white liberals abandoned urban public school systems. The left mobilized enough strength in the ’60s to break down legal barriers, but it never mobilized enough strength to build the kinds of cross-race, cross-class communities that could create real social solidarity. That kind of social transformation in a very diverse and stratified society may be a utopian dream.

But while in the ’90s I also believed that growing the pie was more important than dividing it more fairly, I’ve since changed my mind. In fact, I’ve become increasingly convinced that people won’t bake bigger pies unless they expect them to be divided fairly. The claim that one person’s wealth doesn’t mean another person’s poverty is really an axiomatic, ideological assumption, and in a lot of cases it turns out not to be true.

Comment by Matt Steinglass

I classify that particular adage as “kinda” or “sometimes” true. I do believe the act of creating wealth to be (almost) axiomatically beneficial, but there are plenty of other ways to become and remain wealthy.

I think we have common ground on this: I also think people won’t bake bigger pies unless they expect a decent piece. I’d even say that’s why capitalism and social democracy are compatible. I’m just not sure social democracy and blocs of voters are compatible.

Comment by citifieddoug

Yes, we have been over this before. If Europeans don’t care if we pull our troops out of Bosnia and Kosovo, then how about we do so?

The evidence is overwhelming that we subsidize welfare states there “to keep the lid on” so that instability does not break out. The latest and most glaring examples are the IMF bailouts for Hungary, Romania, Latvia and soon Greece. Why doesn’t the EU bailout its own? Answer: when you have imperial chumps like the USA, why not have them do it?

Not unsustainable welfare states? Read Robert Samuelson’s article here:

Comment by frankb

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