American Exceptionalism

Last month several Republicans said "President Obama doesn't believe in American exceptionalism." Unfamiliar with the phrase I did a little research.

Many of us believe America is exceptional because it was founded by people with deeply held moralistic values, has a constitution that lets ordinary people elect their leaders and has been a land where ordinary Americans had unprecedented economic, political and personal opportunity. This is in sharp contrast to countries where leadership and wealth must be inherited. So many of us believe any honest hard working person can earn social respect, have an enjoyable career and own their own home regardless of social status that we refer to this as"The American Dream".

Many of us also believe our way of life is the envy of every rational human around the world, a belief reinforced by the large number of people trying to immigrate to the United States of America.

Republicans are using an off-the-cuff remark President Obama made last spring to fuel their attack. President Obama said…

"I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism. I'm enormously proud of my country and its role and history in the world. If you think about the site of this summit and what it means, I don't think America should be embarrassed to see evidence of the sacrifices of our troops, the enormous amount of resources that were put into Europe postwar, and our leadership in crafting an Alliance that ultimately led to the unification of Europe. We should take great pride in that.

And if you think of our current situation, the United States remains the largest economy in the world. We have unmatched military capability. And I think that we have a core set of values that are enshrined in our Constitution, in our body of law, in our democratic practices, in our belief in free speech and equality that, though imperfect, are exceptional."

Republicans twisted President Obama's belief that our core values provide America an opportunity to lead the world towards the light into a "code phrase" that implies the opposite of what he really said.

A few years ago Jim Collins published Good to Great, a report of why some companies thrive while comparative companies fail. He identified companies that outperformed what appeared to be equal counterparts over long periods of time to find out what made them great. He looked at leadership, how leaders were chosen, how they responded to adversity, their ability to remain focused on their core business, corporate culture and the impact of technology. Business and government exist for very different reasons so I tend to be skeptical of politicians who tout business experience as why they ought to be elected. However, this time there may be lessons to be learned.

Our most recent Republican leader was George W. Bush. It is common knowledge he led us into an expensive war in Iraq on false premises, squandered the healthy treasury he inherited by cutting taxes for the wealthiest Americans and spawned huge deficits that make it impossible for us to take care of our most vulnerable brethren. Worse, in just published memoirs he states it was he who personally authorized torture in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay. He led us in a direction very different from the values traditionally associated with American exceptionalism.

When it comes to "choosing" leaders it appears to me what we have are the best politicians money can buy. Huge campaign contributions from wealthy Americans Robert Kay Johnston referred to as "political donor class families" in Perfectly Legal, and from anonymous corporations looking for ways to shape public policy to benefit their shareholders and top executives, have turned more than half our members of congress into millionaires and corporate shills. There seems little exceptional about most current politicians.

Then there is the way in which our leaders responded to the 911 attack. An exceptional response would have been to punish the perpetrators while preserving a way of life people in the rest of the world envy. Instead many civil rights were suspended and our leaders created an impossible to pay for never-ending "war on terror" that cannot keep us safe. Two years ago a suicide bomb failed to explode in a New York subway, last Christmas an underpants bomb failed to explode in an airplane over Detroit, last May a car bomb failed to explode in Times Square and last month bombs were found on cargo planes headed for America. Eventually a bomb will explode and terrorists will win if our leaders foment and exploit fear as a way to stay in office instead of rallying to our ancestor's belief that America is exceptional because it is "the land of the free and the home of the brave."

It is a sad fact that the "globalism" and "free trade" our politicians insisted would be good for us have in fact been bad for many middle-class Americans. Making it possible to buy high quality goods and services for less money than they can be produced by Americans in America is not of much benefit to people with no money because they do not have a job. Middle class American workers now have to directly compete for jobs with people in developing nations where there is no minimum wage and very few regulations. America has lost its place as the "land of opportunity" and is becoming very like an old world monarchy where a few wealthy people live well at the expense of everyone else.

What has truly been historically exceptional has been the ability of a large numbers of ordinary people to attain the American Dream. Unfortunately America has become a "plutocracy" with 13,000 families at the very top doing quite well while most middle-class Americans find it increasingly difficult to make it unless two family members both work full-time. One thing Jim Collins learned is that great companies recognize and address "The Brutal Truth." In Collapse, a book written by Jared Diamond he describes historical reasons civilizations fail. In general, a society starts to collapse whenever a wealthy elite enacts self-serving policies that make it impossible for its middle-class to thrive.

There are many more examples that justify President Obama's position but there is no added-value in their illustration. Logical discourse was never why Republicans said "President Obama doesn't believe in American exceptionalism."

Racial relations have come a long way and polite Americans no longer tolerate open racism. Unfortunately racism still lives beneath a thin veneer of civility. In the last presidential elections candidates running against Barack Obama used code phrases like "he's out of step with the rest of us" to energize voters who were appalled that a majority of voters might elect an African-American president.

This is just another Republican Party attempt to popularize a "code phrase" that hands racists an acceptable reason to vote their true feelings.