Globalist Analysis

Using American Exceptionalism to Block Change

By constantly invoking American exceptionalism, are U.S. conservatives actually serving to make America less exceptional?

Takeaways


  • It is easier and more fun to plan grand international strategy and messianic campaigns to change and enlighten the world, than it is to deal with Congress.
  • For American exceptionalism to have value in a globalized world, it must be seen in the eyes of the beholder as the economic future — not as the economic past.
  • None of the neocons appear to see that a U.S. foreign policy not supported by the retooling of American economic policy is bound for failure.
  • Used as a mere political rallying cry, without a true understanding of the constant nurturing involved, exceptionalism quickly deteriorates into damaging populist nationalist rhetoric.
  • Exceptionalism is a delicate blessing that is not self-maintaining. It needs to be guarded and nurtured.

A Separate Peace," John Knowles' wonderful coming-of-age novel about two friends, ends with these staccato-like lines: “All of them, constructed at infinite cost to themselves, these Maginot Lines against this enemy they thought they saw across the frontier, this enemy who never attacked that way — if he ever attacked at all; if he was indeed the enemy.”

I don't know if Sarah Palin or the other conservative leaders in the Republican Party have read "A Separate Peace," but I do know this: They are building Maginot lines of exceptionalism around the United States of America — as if such a defense could protect America from reality and return it to what they believe it was.

America, in my view, remains exceptional for its love of law, its constitutional form of government, its guarantees of free thought, its citizenry that represents the melting pot of the world, and its dynamic economy.

But exceptionalism is a delicate blessing that is not self-maintaining. It needs to be guarded and nurtured. Used as a mere political rallying cry, without a true understanding of the constant nurturing involved, exceptionalism quickly deteriorates into damaging populist nationalist rhetoric — or worse.

And that is exactly what is happening now.

Instead of talking about the difficult questions, about how to invest in the U.S. economy to maintain American exceptionalism in a globalized world, instead of talking about the tough trade-offs between investment and deficits, Palin and her cohorts are using exceptionalism as a defense against change.

They refuse to appreciate that it is this ability of the American people to adapt to change that is one of the characteristics that has made America exceptional.

And these seemingly proud, seemingly patriotic conservative Republican voices are also ignoring history. They deliberately choose, for ideological reasons, to forget that what helped make the American economy exceptional was government investment.

Whether it was the Erie Canal, which led to the spectacular growth of New York City; Lincoln's support for the Transcontinental Railroad during the heart of the Civil War; the TVA; the Manhattan Project, which gave rise to our atomic energy industry; NASA; or the Defense Department’s creation of the Internet and the Pentagon’s investment in computer chips during the Reagan Administration, it has been government investment that has often provided the needed spark for the American capitalist system.

At the same time, one can understand the populists' love for the concept of exceptionalism. For if one is frightened or doesn't understand — or does not want to partake in — the changes that globalization is forcing upon society, then the very idea of believing that you are special can, for a time, act as a defense mechanism against these changes. This is understandable, but not acceptable.

What is even more irrational — and more difficult to understand — is the continuing embrace of exceptionalism by the neocon leadership segment of the Republican Party.

I am referring to the foreign policy gurus who, before and during the administration of George W. Bush, forcefully advocated for the projection of American strength based on the idea that America was unique in the world — and that her power was important to humankind.

The projection of America's power has always been based on underlying economic strength. The difference today is that America's political leadership can no longer assume that U.S. economic power will be as dominant as it has been for the past 110 years.

Yet none of the neocons appear to see that a U.S. foreign policy not supported by the retooling of American economic policy is like shadow boxing behind a Maginot line.

If any group in the United States could appreciate the connection of power to exceptionalism, it should be these so-called Republican foreign policy experts.

So why are they not leading the argument on how to re-boot the American economy, strengthen its education system and make it energy independent in the same ferocious manner that they wanted to reshape the Middle East?

Why are they not proposing the new Erie canals? Why are they quietly trying to weaken the presidency in a time of readjustment?

Possibly, it is because of purely self-serving political reasons. Or possibly because they drift off into their foreign policy dreams without asking for payment — thus severely aggravating America's deficit problem.

Or maybe it is out of pure political exhaustion, realizing that they actually oversold themselves on the myth of American exceptionalism.

Whatever the reason, none of the neocon foreign policy advocates appear to be reacting to the simple fact that the United States is more vulnerable now because of its perceived economic decline.

Obviously, it is easier and more fun under the powers reserved for the president to plan grand international strategy and messianic campaigns to change and enlighten the world, than it is to deal with Congress on the nuts and bolts of domestic investments, tax theory, jobs and education.

But for American exceptionalism to have value in a globalized world, it must be seen in the eyes of the beholder as the economic future — not as the economic past.

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About Edward Goldberg

Edward Goldberg is the president of Annisa Group, a firm that advises business on global issues.

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