Can America Be Exceptional Again?

I’ve noticed that a reassuring phrase that’s going around lately is “American exceptionalism.” At a time when 65% of Americans tell pollsters that this country is on the decline, and more than that believe that we are headed in the wrong direction, one hope is that the U.S. can be exceptional in the future as it was in the past. There are signs that feeling exceptional has led to complacency. America has gone for no. 1 in the world for the number of students who graduate from college to no. 9, and amidst cries about the failure of our education system, we get the news that children in Shanghai are performing in basic skills better than expected. The trends seem to favor a downward slide here and an upward march there. Even in areas where one would assume that the U.S. is dominant, such as innovation and technology, we are in the middle of the pack, and our digital infrastructure lags behind, which makes no sense given that the U.S. invented the Internet.

So what is the actual status of American exceptionalism? It’s worth taking a moment to consider this issue, because what made us exceptional in the past is swiftly shifting.

1. The benign empire — America became an imperial power after WW II of a kind never seen before, a country that rebuilt its conquered enemies and claimed no territory or colonies for itself.
2. The protector of freedom — Both world wars were fought on the basis of human values, the right of everyone in the world to live without oppression. In particular, the U.S. stood against totalitarianism, the political monster unleashed in the twentieth century.
3. Economic democracy — As a founding principle, every person is guaranteed the right to pursue the good life, which in practical terms means that the economy isn’t dominated by small enclosed elites.
4. Expanding liberties — The liberties won for Anglo-Saxon white males two hundred years ago have been steadily expanded to include women, minorities, immigrants, and gays.
5. Progressivism — Given a choice between protecting traditions or forging across the next frontier, this country has been enthusiastically progressive.

These five areas are based on a complicated mixture of influences, from the Constitution to national pride, from a set way of behaving to an unspoken agreement to be tolerant rather than intolerant. But ideals can’t remain alive is they aren’t refreshed in every generation. At present, each of these areas is being attacked and eroded.

1. The benign empire — Two futile wars abroad have drastically eroded the image of America as benign. We don’t take territory, but these invasions have destroyed Iraq as a society, stirred up violence in Afghanistan without positive change being evident in the future (the Taliban would instantly take over the moment American soldiers depart), and convinced a billion Muslims that we are their enemy.

2. The protector of freedom — The average American takes enormous pride in believing that America stands for freedom around the world, and it can still be said that we play this role far more than any other country. But in vast regions of the world, such as South America and the Middle East, we have aligned ourselves with reactionary regimes and opposed democratic reform. Also, how are we protecting anyone by being the biggest arms dealer in the world, the first to develop new technologies of mechanized death, and flexing military muscle that is helpless against tiny bands of fanatical terrorists? It’s no wonder that even our allies pay lip service to helping us but remain detached from America’s military adventurism.

3. Economic democracy — as numerous economists have stated, the gap between rich and poor in this country has become a yawning gulf. American workers are the most productive in the world, but for thirty years the benefits of their productivity has been stripped from them. We have a predatory class of financial buccaneers. As middle-class wages flatten out, the very rich who owned $8 trillion of the economy two decades ago now own $40 trillion, with the top 1% making more than the bottom 75%. This has been a pernicious erosion of democracy on all fronts, not just the economy. With some exceptions, Congress is a legislature of millionaires.

4. Expanding liberties — The rise of right-wing fundamentalism, anti-Muslim sentiments, anti-gay pressure, and suspicion of immigrants threatens to reverse the most fundamental value in America, the expansion of liberty. With a reactionary Supreme Court intent on finding against individuals in favor of corporations, against suspects in favor of the police, and against progressivism in general, we may wind up legalizing oppression of people who lack the power to fight back.

5. Progressivism — In recent decades the status of America as a land of innovation, a cherished part of our history, has declined. Our dominance hasn’t been challenged by any single other country, but it soon may be. China and India educate their citizens in science and engineering on a vast scale. American laws make it very difficult to keep foreign talent — once they earn a diploma, the best and brightest among them are practically forced to return home. Science and math skills continue to stagnate among American students, and there are continual pressures from the reactionary right to underfund basic science while grossly overfunding military spending. The sad spectacle of the Bush Administration’s curb on stem cell research on religious grounds was an affront to reason and science both.

Great societies are complex, and America has found a way to grow out of every crisis it has ever faced. For myself, I cheer the rise of the dispossessed in Asia and South America. This country has 6% of the world’s population and consumes a third of the world’s natural resources. It’s only right that the rest of the world gets a place at the table where we have feasted without stint for fifty years. But we owe it to ourselves to renew American exceptionalism. The attacks from within are serious and threatening. If they succeed, the loss to our souls will be more damaging than to our pride and our pocketbooks.

Published by San Francisco Chronicle