An indignant Democrat of my acquaintance accuses conservatives of hypocrisy when they criticize President Obama for acting with caution and restraint in response to crisis. He accurately points out that caution and restraint represent core conservative virtues, and that most leaders on the right ripped the president during his first two years for pushing too fast for transformational change. How, then, can they attack him now for reacting too modestly, too slowly to Libya, Egypt, Japan, oil prices, or anything else?
Beyond fleeting politics of the moment, this challenge brings into focus a single explanation to two persistent mysteries:
First, how can conservatives passionately demand a smaller role for the federal government in every aspect of American life, while simultaneously insisting that Washington should play a more activist part in world affairs?
Second, why should liberals who trust the federal bureaucracy to address nearly all our domestic problems feel such powerful, palpable reluctance for that same government to assume a leadership role in the international community?
The answer to both questions centers on contrasting notions of American exceptionalism.
Nearly all citizens of the U.S. believe that our country counts as unparalleled and set apart from the rest of the world. The right views America as exceptionally blessed and righteous — chosen by God (or fate, if you prefer) to inspire humanity with distinctive ideals of liberty, self rule and free markets. The left, on the other hand, expresses an intensifying tendency to see the U.S. as exceptionally guilty (for slavery, "genocide" against Native Americans and arrogant imperialism) and exceptionally backward when it comes to "social justice." Progressives never tire of reminding us that the United States lacks the welfare state guarantees that characterize other wealthy nations, and that it tolerates a vast gap between rich and poor.
These sharply conflicting world views (or nation views, at least) inform dramatically different approaches to domestic and foreign challenges.
For conservatives, sweeping federal action is unnecessary and counterproductive when it comes to economic or social problems here in the USA. On the economy, they argue that normal business cycles would bring recovery if only government got out of the way. They point to more than a dozen downturns, all of which quickly gave way to powerful spurts of growth — except for the Great Depression which, according to the right, FDR needlessly extended with his wasteful New Deal. Republicans maintain an almost mystical faith in the American people and the powers of the market. That's why the only federal reform programs they promote with a true sense of urgency involve tax cuts, allowing more resources to remain in control of enlightened private citizens who can use those assets to repair problems more effectively than bumbling bureaucrats.
When it comes to the rest of the world, however, the right maintains far greater skepticism. The so-called community of nations (a musty euphemism that seems almost laughable today) can't heal itself without American direction and assistance. We tried leaving the world alone to solve its own problems in the isolationist 1920s and '30s, but then had to face Hitlerism and Stalinism, along with 60 million corpses in World War II.
Conservatives passionately embrace the idea that the United States is better than the rest of the world, so the American people need a strong hand from Washington far less than do beleaguered hordes in less fortunate societies around the world.
Progressives also believe that the U.S. stands out from other nations, but they tacitly or explicitly assume that we distinguish ourselves in a negative sense — encouraging greed, environmental pillage, materialism and neocolonialism. This vision of the United States gives rise to the claim that long-suffering citizens of this republic need decisive, reformist leadership from the nation's capital in order to drag the benighted USA into the 21st century, at the same time that the nation will fare better in the international arena by following the lead of multilateral organizations (as in dealing with Libya) and learning from governments with more advanced ideas.
These radically contrasting attitudes toward America and its position in the world shape the polarization at the center of today's politics. The fundamental questions that divide left and right nearly everywhere concern assessments of the United States. It's those questions that determine the point on the spectrum where individuals locate themselves:
•Is America a gift or a threat to the rest of humanity?
•Do American values count as nobler — or more dysfunctional — than, say, European values?
•Should the United States continue to lead the world or would the planet benefit from swaggering Americans learning from more civilized societies of Europe and elsewhere?
Given the sharp disagreements about the very nature of our distinctive national identity, it's not surprising that conservatives want less Washington interference at home and more Washington determination abroad, while liberals hope for less influence by the American government overseas along with a more muscular federal role in reshaping dysfunctional realities of the homeland.
In this context, Barack Obama is perfectly consistent in demonstrating aggressive leadership in stateside politics but a timorous, reluctant role in foreign affairs. His conservative critics also apply their own philosophy with unassailable coherence by demanding more American power abroad but less meddling with citizens here at home.