The End of American Exceptionalism

Conservatives are right: The attitudes they say make America special—religiosity, patriotism, and mobility—are fading. And it has nothing to do with Barack Obama.
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From the moment Barack Obama appeared on the national stage, conservatives have been searching for the best way to describe the danger he poses to America's traditional way of life. Secularism? Check. Socialism? Sure. A tendency to apologize for America's greatness overseas? That, too. But how to tie them all together?

Gradually, a unifying theme took hold. "At the heart of the debate over Obama's program," declared Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru in an influential 2010 National Review cover story, is "the survival of American exceptionalism." Finally, a term broad and historically resonant enough to capture the magnitude of the threat. A year later, Newt Gingrich published A Nation Like No Other: Why American Exceptionalism Matters, in which he warned that "our government has strayed alarmingly" from the principles that made America special. Mitt Romney deployed the phrase frequently in his 2012 campaign, asserting that President Obama "doesn't have the same feelings about American exceptionalism that we do." The term, which according to Factiva appeared in global English-language publications fewer than 3,000 times during the Bush Administration, has already appeared more than 10,000 times since Obama became president.

To liberals, the charge that Obama threatens American exceptionalism is daft. He is, after all, fond of declaring, "In no other country on Earth is my story even possible." For some progressive pundits, things hit rock bottom when conservative Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker flayed Obama for not using the words "American exceptionalism" in his 2011 State of the Union speech, even though he had called America a "light to the world" and "the greatest nation on Earth." The entire discussion, declared liberal Post blogger Greg Sargent, had become "absurd," "self-parodic," and an exercise in "nonstop idiocy."

But that's not quite right. When conservatives say American exceptionalism is imperiled, they're onto something. In fundamental ways, America is becoming less exceptional. Where 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.

To understand what's threatening American exceptionalism, one must first understand what its contemporary champions mean by the term. American exceptionalism does not simply mean that America is different from other countries. (After all, every country is different from every other one.) It means that America departs from the established way of doing things, that it's an exception to the global rule. And from Alexis de Tocqueville, who chronicled America's uniqueness in the 1830s, to Joseph Stalin, who bemoaned it in the 1920s, to social scientists like Louis Hartz, who celebrated it during the Cold War, the established way of doing things has always been defined by Europe. What makes America exceptional, in other words, is our refusal to behave like the Old World. "Exceptionalism," wrote historian Joyce Appleby, "is America's peculiar form of Eurocentrism."

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. Unfortunately for conservatives, each of these beliefs is declining fast.

The Rise of Anticlericalism

For centuries, observers have seen America as an exception to the European assumption that modernity brings secularism. "There is no country in the world where the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America," de Tocqueville wrote. In his 1996 book, American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword, Seymour Martin Lipset quoted Karl Marx as calling America "preeminently the country of religiosity," and then argued that Marx was still correct. America, wrote Lipset, remained "the most religious country in Christendom."

Today's conservatives often cast themselves as defenders of this religious exceptionalism against Obama's allegedly secularizing impulses. "Despite the fact that our current president has managed to avoid explaining on at least four occasions that we are endowed by our creator," Gingrich declared at a 2011 candidates forum, "the fact is that what makes American exceptionalism different is that we are the only people I know of in history to say power comes directly from God."

But in important ways, the exceptional American religiosity that Gingrich wants to defend is an artifact of the past. The share of Americans who refuse any religious affiliation has risen from one in 20 in 1972 to one in five today. Among Americans under 30, it's one in three. According to the Pew Research Center, Millennials—Americans born after 1980—are more than 30 percentage points less likely than seniors to say that "religious faith and values are very important to America's success." And young Americans don't merely attend church far less frequently than their elders. They also attend far less than young people did in the past. "Americans," Pew notes, "do not generally become more [religiously] affiliated as they move through the life cycle"—which means it's unlikely that America's decline in religious affiliation will reverse itself simply as Millennials age.

Americans remain far more willing than Europeans to affirm God's importance in their lives (although that gap has closed somewhat among the young). But when the subject shifts from belief in God to association with churches, America's famed religious exceptionalism virtually disappears. In 1970, according to the World Religion Database, Europeans were more than 16 percentage points more likely than Americans to eschew any religious identification. By 2010, the gap was less than half of 1 percentage point. According to Pew, while Americans are today more likely to affirm a religious affiliation than people in Germany or France, they are actually less likely to do so than Italians and Danes.

Even more interesting is the reason for this change. Many of the Americans who today eschew religious affiliation are neither atheists nor agnostics. Most pray. In other words, Americans aren't rejecting religion, or even Christianity. They are rejecting churches. There are various explanations for this. As Princeton's Robert Wuthnow notes in his book After the Baby Boomers, the single and childless historically attend church at lower rates than married parents do. And women who work outside the home attend less than women who don't. Which means that with women marrying later, having children later, and working more outside the home, it's logical that church attendance would drop.

But it's not just changes in family and work patterns that drive the growth of religious nonaffiliation. It's politics. In the mid-20th century, liberals were almost as likely to attend church as conservatives. But starting in the 1970s, when the Religious Right began agitating against abortion, feminism, and gay rights, liberals began to identify organized Christianity with conservative politics. In recent years, the Religious Right's opposition to gay marriage has proved particularly alienating to Millennials. "The actions of the Religious Right," argue sociologists Michael Hout and Claude Fischer, "prompted political moderates and liberals to quit saying they had a religious preference." In their book, American Grace: How Religion Divides and United Us, Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell cite a study suggesting that many "young Americans came to view religion ... as judgmental, homophobic, hypocritical, and too political." Today, according to Pew, the religiously unaffiliated are disproportionately liberal, pro-gay marriage, and critical of churches for meddling too much in politics. Not coincidentally, so are America's young.

What is growing in contemporary America, in other words, is something long associated with Europe: anticlericalism. In Europe, noted the late political scientist James Q. Wilson in a 2006 essay on American exceptionalism, the existence of official state religions led secularists to see "Christians as political enemies." America, Wilson argued, lacked this political hostility to organized religion because it separated church and state. But today, even without an established church, the Religious Right plays such a prominent and partisan role in American politics that it has spurred the kind of antireligious backlash long associated with the old world. Barack Obama is the beneficiary of that backlash, because voters who say they "never" attend religious services favored him by 37 percentage points in 2008 and 28 points in 2012. But he's not the cause. The people most responsible for America's declining religious exceptionalism are the conservatives who have made organized Christianity and right-wing politics inseparable in the minds of so many of America's young.

Noninterventionism

If the champions of American exceptionalism see religion as one key dividing line between the new and old worlds, they see America's special mission overseas as another. "I believe," declared Romney in 2011, that "we are an exceptional country with a unique destiny and role in the world … that of a great champion of human dignity and human freedom." For many Washington conservatives, that unique world role gives America unique obligations: We cannot stand aside while evil triumphs. But it also gives America unique privileges: We need not be bound by the opinions of others. As George W. Bush declared in his 2004 State of the Union address, America does not need a "permission slip" from other nations to protect itself and fulfill its mission in the world.

But young Americans are far less likely than their elders to endorse this exceptional global role. They want the U.S. to do less overseas; and what America must do, they want done more consensually. Americans under 30, for instance, are 23 percentage points more likely than older Americans to say the United States should take its allies' interests into account, even if that means compromising our own. They are 24 points more favorable to the United Nations than Americans over 50, the largest age gap in the 17 countries that Pew surveyed. And as with religious affiliation, this generation gap within the United States is eroding the gap between Americans and Europeans. Among respondents over 50, Pew found in 2011, Americans were 29 percentage points more likely than Britons to deny that their country needed U.N. approval before going to war. Among respondents under 30, by contrast, the gap was only 8 points.

Were young Americans merely embracing multilateralism over unilateralism, this shift wouldn't be so fundamental. But for conservatives, America's exceptional role in the world isn't merely about what we do overseas. What we do overseas expresses our belief in ourselves. It's no coincidence that Romney's campaign manifesto was titled No Apology: Believe in America, a reference to Obama's supposed tendency to apologize for America's global misdeeds. In Lowry and Ponnuru's words, Obama threatens American exceptionalism because he threatens "America's civilizational self-confidence."

That's where things get interesting, because, as conservatives suspect, Americans' declining belief in our special virtue as a world power really is connected to our declining belief in our special virtue as a people. And the young are leading the way. A 2013 poll by the Public Religion Research Institute found that while almost two in three Americans over 65 call themselves "extremely proud to be American," among Americans under 30 it is fewer than two in five. According to a Pew study in 2011, Millennials were a whopping 40 points less likely than people 75 and older to call America "the greatest country in the world."

Young Americans, in fact, are no more "civilizationally self-confident" than their European counterparts. When Pew asked respondents in 2011 whether "our culture is superior" to others, it found that Americans over the age of 50 were, on average, 15 points more likely to answer yes than their counterparts in Britain, France, Germany, and Spain. Americans under 30, by contrast, were actually less likely to agree than their peers in Britain, Germany, and Spain. And as the Millennials, who are still reaching adulthood, constitute an ever-growing share of America's adult population, Americans are becoming a people no more likely to assert their national supremacy than are Europeans. In 2002, according to Pew, Americans were 20 percentage points more likely than Germans to declare their culture superior to that of other nations. By 2011, the gap was down to 2 points.

One reason for this shift is demographic. According to the Public Religion Research Institute, African-Americans and Hispanics, who comprise a larger share of America's young than of its old, are less likely to call themselves "extremely proud" of the United States than whites are. In their skepticism of unilateral foreign policy and overt patriotism, young Americans are also reflecting broader national and international trends. Millennials are coming of age at a time when America's relative power overseas has declined. They're also products of an educational system that, more than in the past, emphasizes inclusion and diversity, which may breed a discomfort with claims that America is better than other nations.

But however important these long-term trends, they can't explain the abruptness of the shift away from exceptionalist attitudes about America's role in the world. For this, we must look to George W. Bush.

Ever since Karl Mannheim's writing in the 1920s, sociologists have observed that people are most influenced by events that occur in their late teens and early 20s—once they separate from their parents but before they establish stable lifestyles and attitudes of their own. For most Millennials, these plastic years coincided with the Bush presidency. And it is Bush's vision of America's aggressive, unfettered world role, especially as manifested in the Iraq War, that young Americans are rebelling against.

Young Americans actually began the Bush presidency more supportive of invading Iraq than the population at large. But their disillusionment has proved far more intense. Between 2002 and 2008, the percentage of older Americans who supported the Iraq War dropped 15 points. Among Americans under 30, by contrast, it dropped a whopping 47 points. As young Americans turned against the war, they turned against Bush's exceptionalist vision of an America with unique burdens and privileges. Even more fundamentally, they turned against the chest-thumping, "We're No. 1" brand of patriotism that often accompanied it. In 2004, Jon Stewart—whose comedy show that year regularly drew more young viewers than any other cable news show—published America (The Book), in which, according to one reviewer, "no aspect of our patriotic pride is too sacred to be sacrificed on the altar of irony." The following year, Stewart's colleague, Stephen Colbert, launched The Colbert Report, which occasionally featured him wrapped nude in the American flag. Between 2003 and 2011, according to Pew, the percentage of Americans calling themselves "very patriotic" dropped by less than 3 points among older Americans but by 10 points among Millennials.

This turn against exceptionalist foreign policy—like young America's turn against organized religion—has undoubtedly boosted Obama's political career. Had he not opposed the Iraq War, and then seen the war prove catastrophic, it's unlikely he would have won the Democratic nomination, let alone the presidency. Among antiwar voters, he beat John McCain by 54 points. But as with dwindling religious affiliation, Obama's presidency has been more the result of the decline American exceptionalism than its cause. If any president bears responsibility for the public's souring on the idea that the United States can play by its own rules on the world stage, it is Bush, assisted by many of the same conservative politicians and pundits who now bemoan American exceptionalism's demise.

Class Consciousness

American exceptionalism's third, and most fundamental, contemporary meaning is about neither religion nor foreign policy. It's about mobility. Starting in the 19th century, foreign observers began noting that white Americans were less likely than Europeans to be prisoners of their birth. Because America's white poor could more easily rise above their parents' station, they did not constitute a static, aggrieved working class—and were less tempted by socialism. In the words of Princeton historian Daniel Rodgers, "Socialism's weakness in the United States was taken as further proof of the point: that the old rules of caste and class relations had been superseded."

For the most part, today's conservatives lustily endorse this exceptionalist narrative. "Class is not a fixed designation in this country," declared Paul Ryan in 2011. Unlike Europe, where "masses of the long-term unemployed are locked into the new lower class," America is "an upwardly mobile society." Lowry and Ponnuru add, "In America, there really hasn't been a disaffected proletariat—because the proletariat has gotten rich."

But conservatives worry that by encouraging reliance on government and discouraging individual initiative, Obama is making America more like Europe. Obama, warns former Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann, is hooking Americans on the "crack cocaine of [government] dependency." "It's not a traditional America anymore," Fox's Bill O'Reilly despaired on the night Obama won reelection. "People feel that they are entitled to things" from the state.

When conservatives worry that America is not as economically exceptional anymore, they're right. A raft of studies suggests that upward mobility is now rarer in the United States than in much of Europe. But if America's exceptional economic mobility is largely a myth, it's a myth in which many older Americans still believe. Among the young, by contrast, attitudes are catching up to reality. According to a 2011 Pew poll, young Americans were 14 points more likely than older Americans to say that the wealthy in America got there mainly because "they know the right people or were born into wealthy families" rather than because of their "hard work, ambition, and education." And as young Americans internalize America's lack of economic mobility, they are developing the very class consciousness the United States is supposed to lack. In 2011, when Pew asked Americans to define themselves as either a "have" or a "have-not," older Americans chose "have" by 27 points. In contrast, young Americans, by a 4-point margin, chose "have-not." According to the exceptionalist story line, Americans are all supposed to consider themselves "middle class," regardless of their actual economic fortunes. For seniors, that's largely true. According to a 2012 Pew study, they were 43 points more likely to call themselves "middle" than "lower" class. Among young Americans, by contrast, the percentage calling themselves "middle" and "lower" class was virtually the same.

And in the final undoing of the exceptionalist narrative, young Americans are expressing greater interest in "socialism," although it's unclear what they mean by it. A 2011 Pew study found that while Americans over 30 favored capitalism over socialism by 27 points, Americans under 30 narrowly favored socialism. Compared with older Americans, Millennials are 36 points more likelyto prefer a larger government that provides more services over a smaller one that provides fewer.

As Millennials grow older, Americans as a whole—whose actual economic mobility is no longer exceptional—are becoming less exceptional in their attitudes about class. Between 1988 and 2011, the percentage of Americans who identified as "have-nots" doubled, from fewer than one in five to more than one in three. In 1988, Americans earning under $30,000 a year were 18 points more likely to call themselves "haves." By 2011, those numbers, adjusted for inflation, had flipped: The poorest Americans were 15 points more likely to call themselves "have-nots."

Americans are also becoming less exceptional in their views of capitalism. In 2003, according to GlobeScan, Americans were more than 14 percentage points more likely than Italians, Britons, Canadians, and Germans to say the "free market economy is the best system on which to base the future of the world." By 2010, they were almost 2 points less likely.

When conservatives acknowledge these trends, they often chalk them up to Obama's policies, which have supposedly drained Americans of their rugged individualism and habituated them to government handouts. "Once the public is hooked on government health care," Lowry and Ponnuru note, "its political attitudes shift leftward." But Obama is less the driver of this shift in economic attitudes than the beneficiary. It's certainly true that Obama won the votes of Americans skeptical that they can rise via the unfettered market. Among the majority of 2012 voters who believe America's economic system favors the wealthy, Obama beat Romney by 45 points. But Obama is not the reason so many Americans believe that. For more than a century, commentators have chalked up Americans' support for capitalism and lack of economic resentment to America's exceptional upward mobility. It's unclear when exactly American upward mobility began to decline. But it's not surprising that, eventually, that decline would cause class attitudes to harden.

The question exceptionalists should be asking is why America, once vaunted for its economic mobility, now trails much of the advanced world. Single-parent families clearly play a role, since poor children born into two-parent homes are far more upwardly mobile than those who are not. Housing patterns that segregate the poor from the middle class also seem to limit poor kids' chances of getting ahead. But economic inequality is also a big part of the story. Across the world, the University of Ottawa's Miles Corak has demonstrated, countries with higher inequality suffer lower mobility. The same is true inside the United States: The flatter a city is economically, the more likely its poor will rise.

Part of the reason is "opportunity hoarding." In recent decades, the wealth gap between the richest Americans and everyone else has dramatically widened. Rich Americans have used this influx of cash to give their children special advantages that keep them from losing their spots atop the income ladder to children born with lesser means. Think about test preparation, which became a national industry only in the 1970s. Or the way wealthy parents subsidize unpaid internships or buy expensive houses to gain access to the best public schools. In the early 1970s, rich families spent four times as much on their children's education as poor ones. Today, they spend almost seven times as much. Culture plays a large role in this. If the rich didn't value education, they wouldn't spend their cash on it. But until recently, they didn't have so much cash to spend. As a paper by Stanford sociologists Pablo Mitnik, Erin Cumberworth, and David Grusky notes, "Inequality provides privileged families with more resources that can then be lavished on their children, resources that raise their chances of securing desirable class positions for themselves." Whether this lavishing has contributed to an absolute decline in upward mobility in the United States in recent decades, it has certainly contributed to America's decline relative to other advanced countries.

All of which raises another question that conservative exceptionalists should be asking: What's behind skyrocketing inequality? Why do the top 1 percent of Americans, who took in roughly 11 percent of national income in the mid-1970s, account for more than double that today? Globalization and technology are clearly part of the story. If you're an American who works with your hands, you're competing with low-paid workers across the globe, not to mention machines, to an extent scarcely imaginable a few decades ago. That competition pushes down wages for Americans without a college degree, and widens the gap between rich and poor.

What globalization and technology can't explain is why inequality is so much higher in America than in Europe, where the same tectonic forces are at play. Indeed, if you eliminate government policies on taxing and spending, America is about as unequal as Sweden, Norway, and Denmark and a bit more equal than Finland, Germany, and Britain. America claims its place as the most unequal major Western country only when you add in government policy. Which is to say that while globalization and technology may be increasing inequality everywhere, they are increasing it more in the United States because, compared with Europe, the United States redistributes less money from rich to poor.

Which brings us back to conservatives, because it is their champions—Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, Newt Gingrich in the 1990s, George W. Bush in the 2000s—who pushed many of the policies that have boosted inequality. In the mid-1970s, the federal government's top tax rate for regular income was 70 percent and its top rate for long-term capital gains was almost 40 percent. When Bush left office, the rate on regular income had fallen to 35 percent and the rate on long-term capital gains was down to 15 percent. (That has crept up under Obama to almost 40 percent on regular income and 20 percent on capital gains for individuals making over $400,000.) These huge shifts in tax policy have been partially offset by antipoverty spending, which has grown significantly since the 1970s, largely because skyrocketing health care costs have made Medicaid far more expensive. But even if you take that increase into account, America is still doing far less to combat inequality than other advanced democracies.

If you believe, as academics increasingly do, that economic inequality goes hand in hand with calcified class relations, then decades of conservative policy have contributed to America's relative lack of economic mobility.

This, in turn, has soured young Americans on the belief that through the free market they can rise above the circumstances of their birth. Which means that, when it comes to declining faith in the American Dream of upward mobility, as with declining faith in organized religion and declining faith in America's special mission in the world, conservatives have helped foment the very backlash against American exceptionalism that they decry.

The Turnaround

But in all three areas, this backlash may actually prove a source of hope. It may not entirely restore public belief in America's unique virtues, but it may reverse some of the trends that sapped that belief in the first place.

Start with religion. To some, the rise in religious nonaffiliation is a frightening departure from American tradition. It may turn out, however, to be just the challenge American Christianity needs.

Historically, American religion has benefited greatly from its independence from the state. In recent decades, however, that independence has been compromised. The Religious Right has become a wing of the Republican Party, led by power brokers who speak biblically but act politically. In response, many young Americans have begun voting against the GOP on Sundays by declining to attend church.

Their alienation has jolted religious leaders and contributed to a new willingness to question the corrupting entanglement between churches and partisan politics. "When I talk to neighbors or strangers and tell them that I try my best to follow Jesus," wrote David Kuo, an evangelical who worked for Ralph Reed, John Ashcroft, William Bennett, and George W. Bush, "their first thoughts about me are political ones—they figure I don't care about the environment, I support the war in Iraq, I oppose abortion .… That is what they associate with my faith." So disturbing was this realization that Kuo in 2006 published a book arguing, "It is time for Christians to take a temporary step back from politics, to turn away from its seductions."

That's beginning to happen. According to John S. Dickerson, an influential young evangelical pastor, "The pulse of evangelicalism is … shifting, in many ways for the good, from American politics to aid for the global poor." Inspired by Pope Francis, prominent Catholic Republicans such as Paul Ryan are questioning whether a Christianity that blesses the lobbying agenda of the chamber of commerce will ever truly challenge secular society or reengage America's disaffected young.

So far, there's no evidence this shift is stemming the rising tide of religious nonaffiliation. Even Francis, although widely admired by American Catholics, hasn't yet brought them back to the pews. Still, the new spirit of humility and self-criticism among America's church leaders is healthy. And it's unlikely it would be occurring had young people not shattered the stereotype of Americans as unquestioning churchgoers. Moreover, since most of these young Americans reject a partisan church—but not a loving God—they may one day create a constituency for religious institutions that spurns the temptations of state power. Which is, in a way, what American religious exceptionalism was supposed to be all about.

The backlash against America's special mission in the world may prove heartening, too. Over the last decade, that special mission has justified policies—such as the invasion, occupation, and failed reconstruction of Afghanistan and Iraq—that have cost the United States massively in money and blood. And it has justified ignoring international norms, most importantly on torture, which has sapped America's moral authority. Yet many hawkish elites remain loath to acknowledge the limits of American power, let alone American wisdom.

In desiring a more modest and consensual foreign policy, young people are recapturing the wisdom of an earlier era. In the 1950s, after a painful and costly war in Korea, Dwight Eisenhower warned that by dispatching troops to oppose every communist advance, America would undermine its economic strength and democratic character even as it extended its military reach. Today, whether it is their support for a smaller, cheaper military or their skepticism about unchecked government surveillance, young Americans are the age group most sensitive to the financial and moral costs of continuing Bush's expansive "war on terror." Eisenhower's fear of overreach led him to resist calls for sending U.S. troops to Vietnam; young Americans are today 30 points more likely than their elders to say the United States should avoid war with Iran.

Underlying this more modest foreign policy vision is a more modest assessment of America itself, a modesty that may look to conservatives such as Lowry and Ponnuru like "lack of civilizational self-confidence." But here, too, young Americans are reclaiming the insights of an earlier time. In 1947, with politicians drawing ever brighter lines between the virtue of American democracy and the evil of Soviet totalitarianism, George Kennan told students at the National War College, "There is a little bit of totalitarian buried somewhere, way down deep, in each and every one of us." Kennan, and like-minded mid-20th-century intellectuals such as Walter Lippmann and Reinhold Niebuhr, considered America's political system superior to the Soviet Union's. But they argued that, paradoxically, what made it superior was its recognition of American fallibility. America, unlike the U.S.S.R., bound its leaders within restraining systems of law that denied them the right to unfettered action no matter how convinced they were of their own good intentions. That same spirit led the United States to help build institutions like the United Nations and NATO, which gave smaller nations some voice over America's behavior, and won the United States a measure of legitimacy among its allies that the Soviet Union never enjoyed.

As young men, Lippmann and Niebuhr had seen two epic visions—Woodrow Wilson's dream of a war to end war, and the socialist dream of a revolution to end class oppression—turn ugly. And it was their disillusionment with political crusades that woke them to the importance of building restraints against America's capacity to do evil rather than merely unleashing its supposedly innate inclination to do good. Perhaps young Americans, having in their formative years watched Bush's epic post-9/11 vision breed lies, brutality, and state collapse, and America's celebrated capitalist system descend into financial crisis, have gained their own appreciation of American fallibility. Let's hope so, because as Niebuhr and Lippmann understood, the best way to ensure that America remains an exceptional power—better than the predatory empires of the old world—is to remember that we are not inherently better at all.

The third backlash may prove most significant of all. Americans are right to cherish economic mobility. But the myth that America still enjoys exceptional mobility has become an opiate impeding efforts to make that mobility real again. When newly elected New York Mayor Bill de Blasio called for raising taxes on the wealthy to fund preschool and after-school programs, he was instantly accused of "class warfare," as if sullying the natural, classless, reality of New York City life. Critics of the inheritance tax often invoke a mythic America where the people passing on multimillion-dollar estates to their children are latter-day Horatio Algers who have gotten rich because of their gumption and hard work. They do so even though the estate tax affects just over 0.1 percent of American families, the same tiny elite that in recent decades has used its massive economic gains to insulate its children from competition from the very economic strivers that opponents of the inheritance tax celebrate.

Since the 1970s, the conservative movement has used the myth of a classless America to redistribute wealth upward, thus hardening class divisions, at least relative to other nations. It's no surprise that the young, having no memory of the more equal, more mobile America of popular legend, see this reality more clearly. And because they do, they are more eager to change it. Unlike every other age group, which opposed the Occupy movement by double digits, Millennials supported it by double digits.

As Millennials constitute a larger share of the electorate—rising from 29 percent of eligible voters in 2012 to a projected 36 percent in 2016 and 39 percent in 2020—they are creating a constituency for politicians willing to both acknowledge America's lack of class mobility and try to remedy it. The key to such an effort is increasing the number of poor students who graduate from college. Having a college degree quadruples someone's chances of moving from the poorest fifth of the population to the wealthiest. But educationally, many poor students fall so far behind so early that their chances of attending college are crippled by the time they leave elementary school. By eighth grade, children from wealthy families are already an astonishing four grade levels ahead of children who grow up poor.

There is evidence from France and Denmark that expanding preschool enrollment can significantly close this performance gap. A Brookings Institution study found that enrolling low-income children in high-quality preschools could boost their lifetime earnings by as much as $100,000. Building on such data, de Blasio has famously proposed making preschool universal in New York City, to be paid for with a tax on people earning over $500,000 a year. Now New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has gone one better, promising universal preschool throughout the state. President Obama proposed something similar in his recent State of the Union address.

These efforts still face resistance, but they stand any chance at all only because of the growing recognition that America is not the highly mobile nation its cheerleaders proclaim it to be. To Mitt Romney, the public's growing alienation from this and other national myths may reflect a disturbing refusal to "believe in America." But "discontent," Thomas Edison once quipped, "is the first necessity of progress." And by challenging the comforting stories we tell about ourselves, a new American generation might just begin the long, hard work of making America exceptional again.

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Peter Beinart is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and National Journal, an associate professor of journalism and political science at the City University of New York, and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation.

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