Through the years I have had various bouts discussing my discomfort with American Exceptionalism. But beginning in April with the attempts by the largest soccer clubs in Europe (many owned or managed by Americans) to create a closed-league on American crony-capitalist lines that defied all existing European norms and running through the incredible May debates we’ve had about infrastructure and democracy in America as well as the continued efforts by those who never took COVID seriously to shame those actually concerned about public health, the time has come to revisit this subject.
American Exceptionalism is a myopic concept that is either based either on blissful ignorance or willful ethnocentrism. This concept of exceptionalism has allowed us to whitewash our history, disrespect our competitors in the global marketplace and turn our nation into one where cognitive dissonance rules the day, every day. While fringe elements of the right are most guilty, I see this across the board.
Currently on the right, Americanism is far more a statement of culture and thought, reflecting a knee-jerk nationalism and white identity more than anything truly ethnic or geographic. Various journals, books and articles have been written by conservative thinkers to create an American identity and myth which is almost wholly manufactured or theoretical. Even on the left or center-left I see traces of American Exceptionalism and was stunned that the debate over the European (soccer) Super League I referenced above saw many US-based “liberals” defend the concept of judging worthiness of sports clubs around concepts like “net worth of the owners” and “market size” of the locale the team represents. These are very American crony-capitalist concepts and ones which are almost wholly rejected abroad.
The fight over President Biden’s Infrastructure Plans
The current fight over infrastructure is yet another example of our moral and intellectual decay. At one time, America’s highways, railways, bridges and civil engineering projects did make us exceptional. Decades later we’ve not only fallen behind western Europe, Japan and China on this, but also behind places like the Gulf States, Southeast Asia and even India (imagine that?!)! Our power grids are dated, our internet infrastructure in embarrassingly poor even compared to some developing nations and our public health system is in ruin.
Our nation’s infrastructure is crumbling in a manner similar to what the Germanic tribes did once they inherited their lands inherited from Rome – their failure to maintain it led to a four hundred “dark age” in western Europe. Yet President Biden’s plans to spend a small percentage of our GDP on fixing this have become a partisan, political football.
If we don’t rebuild our crumbling infrastructure along the lines of what the President is proposing we are finished as a major world power, whether today or 30 years from now. Done. End of story as far as I am concerned. If the US does not place a priority on this sort of thing, it is inconceivable the country can remain among the elite developed nations on the planet.
The signs of decay are everywhere. We’ve lost 600,000 Americans, our neighbors, friends, brothers, sisters and parents to deadly virus, yet many Americans appear to have nothing but callous disregard for the seriousness of this situation. The nation’s populace has become largely obsessed with individual rights even when it infringes on the public health of the majority.
January 6th and Cognitive Dissonance
January 6, 2021 was in hindsight a day fueled by a concept of American Exceptionalism – initially I thought it was the opposite, that those who don’t understand our institutions are really anti-American. But in reality the idea that a violent overthrow of a government, the disregard for reason, facts and election results, the view that empirical evidence when contrary to “American identity” is a form of American Exceptionalism. Heck, it is no different than what many CIA-backed American coups did in the Latin America for years.
We have fostered an anti-intellectual culture in this country, one where cognitive dissonance among fringe elements on the right is encouraged by the types of entertainment Americans consume. Health guidelines about wearing masks and social distancing are not avoided in many places, but violations of these suggestions are often flaunted by those on the right. “Individualism,” and “freedom” apparently also involve the right to infect thy neighbor with a potentially fatal respiratory illness. The sort of scrutiny (mixed with conspiracy theories) scientists and health experts have received in the last 15 months shows Americans would rather not respect expertise but just go about their own merry ways.
The obsession of Americans with celebrity stars lives, sexually explicit dramas and reality TV have all served to dumb down the citizenry in a way unbecoming of a great nation. Bread and Circuses it is once again.
The celebrity culture has led directly to a politics based entirely on personality rather than ideology. Donald Trump’s electoral success was simply a culmination of the illness that ails American society, not some one-off diversion.
The GOP of 2021 has no resemblance to a mainstream or big tent political party. A political institution that has promoted isolationism, ethnocentrism and anti-intellectualism, most Republicans do not deserve after COVID-19 any more thought. Some like Charlie Baker and Larry Hogan remind us of a time when statesmen like Nelson Rockefeller, Jacob Javits and Charles McMathias self-identified as members of the GOP.
But those days might as well have been 500 years ago at this point. It’s no coincidence two of the only worthwhile Republicans now, Hogan and Mitt Romney are sons of prominent moderate to liberal Republican leaders of yesteryear. Those without such esteemed lineage behave far more like Ron DeSantis or Donald Trump than they do like Romney.
The GOP no long can be viewed as serious political party. A brief history below of the right-wing drift toward 2021.
A half century of Right-Wing Anti-Intellectualism culminates in the “Big Lie”
The anti-intellectualism of the right’s appeals have long been evident though through the years the messaging has changed. From the out-and-out racial appeals of Strom Thurmond, James Eastland and Ross Barnett in the early 1960’s (all were Democrats, by the way) to the cloaked “law and order” themes George Wallace pushed in 1968 (running as an independent but Wallace returned to the Democratic Party for the rest of his life after 1968, but did openly support Bob Dole in 1996 against Bill Clinton the last election he was alive for), into the era of the 1970’s where school busing was used as code to push racial buttons among the white electorate to the 1980’s where Ronald Reagan and his disciples talked “crime and punishment” and “drugs” with a racial bent, anti-intellectualism with racial code be it covert or overt was the right’s calling card.
However the identity game’s fundamental tenets were not complete until after the attacks of 9/11 crystalized “Americanism,” to the masses. The aftermath of these attacks gave George W. Bush, an illegitimate President who had stolen Florida’s electoral votes an opportunity to permanently remake American politics on flag waving – he and his advisors wasted no time in doing so. By the end of September 2001, if you were not waving an American flag you were viewed with suspection.
By March of 2003, when the US invaded Iraq if you were not waving an American flag and cheering “Shock and Awe,” you were in fact a subversive who could not longer be called an “American,” in the circles Bush’s minions had created. Joe McCarthy would be proud of how successful Bush’s lieutenants were in accomplishing what he had sought through more overt means.
Bush, like his brother who was our Governor in Florida, himself was and is no racist – in fact his views on immigration and the educating of non-legal immigrants in Texas were far to the left of where the GOP was at the time, let alone now. But Bush didn’t control the narrative, the right’s spinmeisters did, and they quickly used patriotism and flag waving as a way to rally middle Americans and those in rural areas around fear of outsiders and others.
The 2004 elections ushered in an extreme polarization which is often forgotten in the Trump madness of today. That campaign with its blatant attacks on the LBGTQ community and claims that John Kerry who served in Vietnam was unpatriotic and anti-American while draft-dodging George W. Bush was the defender of American identity were clear harbingers of where we would go as a society. Never mind that a disproportionate number of those fighting Bush’s wars of choice were minorities hailing from poor backgrounds, patriotism and white identity rose thanks to those wars and the demagoguery toward outsiders they promoted.
After the Republicans nominated two relative moderates whose unwillingness to bait on race particularly running against an African-American Democratic nominee/President made the party look less offensive to people of color, the nomination of Trump in 2016 was a return to form for the right. The Obama years having further inflamed the racists, and Trump’s rhetoric making it safer to be overtly racist than any time since the 1960’s when leading politicians like Eastland and Thurmond regularly used the “n word.”
It also was a symbolic shift for party whose dynastic approach to politics had seen George W. Bush and Mitt Romney nominated for President in the 2000’s. Romney’s father George Romney was a moderate who backed Civil Rights and was a symbol of the GOP’s general ideology in the 1960’s – small government , anti-communism but a tolerance bordering on a leftist bent on social issues. While the younger Romney was more conservative he never seemed entirely comfortable playing to the far right.
Soon after Romney’s defeat, heading into the 2014 midterm elections, the far right began pushing its white identity-based candidates in primaries and by 2016 despite the protestations of Romney and Jeb Bush among others, they had captured the party. Jeb Bush, who had removed the Confederate Flag from the Capitol grounds in Tallahassee during his first term as Governor never had a shot in this climate. The result was the nomination of a flamboyant failed businessman who had never previously served in political office and whose multiple marriages had been tabloid fodder. Symbolism trumped substance, and that is the playing field 2020 will be again fought on.
The Democrats drift toward using racial identity as a trigger to rally voters is, I will still admit distasteful and perhaps a disservice to the two-party, ideas-based interracial democracy I’d like to see – however it is simply upon reflection a reaction to the GOP’s rally of white American identity as its chief campaign tool.
The messaging of the Trump-era Republicans is almost entirely based on race or some notion of (white) American exceptionalism. Be it on government programs, immigration, foreign policy or any number of other issues, the messaging of the Republicans in Trump’s era make no mistake about is entirely predicated on racial appeals.
American imperial overreach, something both the right and center-left (now behind Joe Biden’s Presidential campaign) tend to agree upon has its basis in white identity politics. American exceptionalism and the need to spread America’s “superior” ideas to “inferior” lands (Trump calls them not so subtly “shithole countries”) is itself grounded in racism. Of course that’s the political side of it, the true intention is to allow American companies, the corporate class whose donations sustain the American political system free reign to exploit wherever foreign markets they desire (the US corporation does not care if the people exploited are black, brown or white- the only color they care about is green).
But those economic arguments are too complex for the anti-intellectual voter, so Americanism and cloaked appeals regarding white American identity remain the public justifications for these foreign operations. That Trump himself has been more reluctant to use American military force than his predecessors has been unnoticed by this bloodthirsty electorate. The question for the Democrats is if they nominate Biden, will they in fact run to the right of Trump’s GOP on the use of military force abroad?
Today’s GOP has completed the work of the southern Democrats who created a racially-based political structure throughout the south and then wished to make it national by working hard to exclude any African-American participation in the Democratic Party even in national conventions. While overt racism isn’t as acceptable today as it was in the 1950’s, racial code and use of patriotism/jingoism in the most anti-intellectual way imaginable in effect serves as racial code.
Societies norms have changed, but the fundamental driver of the American electorate – fear and anti-intellectualism continue to dominate the electorate. Trump’s naked racial appeals and his allies work to define who and what is an American effectively disenfranchises all non-whites, LGBTQ citizens and many of those who are white but live and work in urban areas and appreciate foreign culture and place some value on non-western thoughts. Backed by the media empire the (alleged) serial-sexual harasser Roger Ailes created prior to his death, as well as talk radio, Trump’s rhetoric has made America less hospitable for those who are urban dwellers, LGBTQ or non-white. This all led directly to the popularity of the “Big Lie” about a stolen election and the coup attempt of January 6.
What Trump and his allies have done is not create this environment but merely close the loop on something the right has been working toward for a half century. Politics based entirely on race, fear, jingoism and anti-intellectualism instead of policy or ideology. They have finally won that battle, and our politics will be fought on these lines exclusively in perpetuity no matter how desperate some of us might be to make the conversation more nuanced and enlightened, unless this country wakes up NOW!
What is an American?
The concept of an American or Americans as a distinct race of people came from the prose of Thomas Jefferson, a noted Francophile in the Declaration of Independence. Defining Americans as a “separate people” from Britain served to try and transform what was in all facets a civil war contested by British brothers into a conflict between different peoples. The myth somehow that arbitrary boundaries between the thirteen colonies and other British colonies in North America constituted a separate people was done expressly for political reasons.
The settlers and those in power of those colonies were British in all but name, as they remained for sometime even after independence. As someone of Indian extraction, historically I find Jefferson’s notion that Americans were different than the British in 1776 almost as absurd as the claims by Muslim League that Indian Muslims were somehow a distinct people from Indian Hindus, Jains, Sikhs and Christians in 1947, leading to the formation of Pakistan. Both were created narratives for political purposes, justifying the dividing and separation of a people.
Being an “American” is more a state of mind than anything or statement of personal identity than anything else – Few if any reading these pages (unless you are Native American) can claim to be truly an “American,” though the spirit of Americanism is something that has been very much as real as myth making and the concepts around being an American.
In the era of nation-states which began roughly with the formation of the United States, a revolution whose political impact is underplayed to this day by European-based historians, the movements and thoughts that originated from this continent changed global thought. But they weren’t distinctly “American” thoughts at all – they represented the best of English and other western liberal and enlightenment thought but finally put into practice in a new nation-state.
The myth of American Exceptionalism has been created to keep the fiction going about a unique people with a special place in global society. But the reality is America is an idea, a myth, a thought, nothing tangible or real. It is a political entity which has a melting pot of different people’s, whose ideas and innovations have transformed human society for the better. It is a nation whose own history is lamentable and tragic, but for a few short years in the 1940’s saved the human race from likely destruction. From World War II comes whatever identity the American people have, but as that the greatest generation passes from this earth, the nation has no meaning, no sense of joint purpose.
Americanism is a rough thought – it’s an idea more than anything distinct or tangible. The nation-state that occupies a large swath of land on the North American continent has been an indisputable force in moving forward human progress and making an impact both positively and negatively on global history. But does being an American mean anything beyond residing on a portion of the North American continent? Given the current state of political and ethnic polarization within the United States, it’s hard to make a case for unity in purpose, spirit or thought.
And if we don’t achieve that unity and park the talk of exceptionalism or “Americaness,” we’re doomed. We are headed for being a fractured, failed state like so many that we have long looked down upon or felt we could intervene in the internal politics of.