Monday, November 22, 2010

'The surest sign of looming national decline'

Ohhh, America, you're so strong
Matt Miller, The Washington Post: Does anyone else think there's something a little insecure about a country that requires its politicians to constantly declare how exceptional it is? A populace in need of this much reassurance may be the surest sign of looming national decline...

'Americans believe with all their heart,' said Marco Rubio upon winning his Senate race, 'that the United States of America is simply the single greatest nation in all of human history, a place without equal in the history of all of mankind.'

Rubio described his Senate race as 'a referendum on our identity,' adding that 'this race forces us to answer a very simple question,' he said. 'Do we want our country to continue to be exceptional, or are we prepared for it to become just like everyone else?'

The conservative use of American exceptionalism as a political sword today is perversely revealing. There's something off when the first generation of Americans that is less educated than its parents feels a deep need to be told how unique it is. Or that a generation that's handing off epic debts and a chronically dysfunctional political process (among other woes) demands that its leaders keep toasting its fabulousness. Especially when other nations now offer more upward mobility, and a better blend of growth with equity.

Paul Woodward, War in Context: Leaving aside the fact that many Americans who hold this view have never actually visited another country, expressions of America's exceptional character such as that by Rubio represent a view of the world as much as one of America. Moreover, this is not merely about saying that America is unique but that it is superior to every other nation and that it must vigorously guard this position of supremacy.

If this was about praising a set of virtues, then one might imagine that those who see America in this way would hope that every other nation at some time might share the same set of virtues. Clearly they do not hold this hope, because this is not about virtue or excellence -- it is about power and domination. That America could be dislodged from its position of supremacy -- this is the greatest fear of the supremacists.

In as much as American exceptionalism is rooted in a belief in American supremacy, then the power ascribed to the nation is implicitly shared by every American. That this is make-believe power is evident in the frequency and loudness with which it is declared and the fact that those who profess their conviction in this power nevertheless clearly easily feel threatened -- threatened by the government; by the rest of the world; by immigrants; and by other Americans who don't share their views...

This theme will be picked up by others, as the cause of raw American nationalism easily resonates with a dispirited electorate... The worst mistake of those who find this view of America unpalatable is to fail to take it seriously.