American Exceptionalism: Understanding American Politics
To understand American politics, it is necessary to get beyond the conventional wisdom that our political arena is characterized by an ever-recurring conflict between “the left” and “the right.” While there is such conflict, it is, at best, superficial and so it disappears at a moment’s notice. Recently, for example, the Congress passed a humongous “defense’ budget – it’s a war-making budget, not a defense budget – and “the left v. the right” conflict was nowhere to be seen. This phenomenon recurs regularly in our political drama, indicating that “left v. right” is not the real situation.
The real situation is that our political elites – like most of the people they represent – are united by a commitment to American exceptionalism; that is, that the US is the exceptional nation in the world and should, therefore, control, manipulate, and exploit that world. All fo the sake of justice, peace, prosperity, and the American way. This might be best called a militant triumphalism, which celebrates our nation’s greatness, its political, economic, cultural, and military greatness. Of course, the Democrats accuse the Republicans of undermining this triumphalism with racist and sexist policies, while the Republicans accuse the Democrats of undermining it by way of socialistic policies. But both parties, both “left” and “right” embrace American exceptionalism as something to be celebrated. And neither party rejects the politics of greatness that underlay American politics. While Trump wanted to “make America great again” so too did the Democrats and have argued that they have succeeded by electing Joe Biden to replace Trump as president. Happy days are here again allegedly as American greatness has triumphed once again.
And this is a situation that many people accept as a recurring one in American history. That is, the US, ever since it separated from the mother country, has avoided – seemingly at times at the last moment – political disaster by recovering her greatness via its democratic republic and impressive leadership. The Constitution replaced the fatally flawed Articles of Confederation, thereby replacing “weak government” with “strong government,” the kind of government that allowed the US to manifest its destiny by occupying and conquering territory from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and even beyond. Greatness beckoned and our “Founders” responded proving our exceptionalism. Then Lincoln and the Republicans once again reclaimed America’s greatness by fighting the Civil War, saving the union and abolishing slavery. Then, as the US after the Civil War tended toward a plutocracy, the progressives came along and, eventually, by means of great presidents like TR, Woodrow Wilson, and FDR, made America great again. And, of course, thanks to Woodrow Wilson, the US entered WW I and made the world “safe for democracy,” or so it was claimed. Then as the nation divided violently in the 60’s, LBJ declared and established, briefly, a “Great Society,” Nixon achieved “Peace with Honor” in Vietnam, and Ronald Reagan rode out of the West to, once again, reclaim America’s greatness. After 9/11, said to be an “existential” threat to the homeland, George Bush rode to the rescue by invading Afghanistan and Iraq, triumphantly proclaiming America’s greatness, a triumph followed by the election of bi-racial president. And in 2020, the election of Joe Biden, displacing Donald Trump as president, proved once again that America “was back,” that it had once again become militantly triumphant.
And yet this conventional wisdom doesn’t seem to have penetrated the consciousness of a good many people, who at present indicate little faith in our political institutions or our political elites. Lurking in the shadows of our conventional wisdom is doubt, even significant dissatisfaction despite America’s obvious greatness. But our elites, instead of wondering about the persuasiveness of the triumphant version of America’s history or wondering about the desirability of achieving greatness, have focused on those who are openly challenging the conventional narrative, dissenting and at times even causing civil unrest. These dissenters, who some like to call “blame America firsters,” have done so far to accuse the US of being guilty of war crimes and their leaders being war criminals, using purloined documents as evidence.
In the face of such dissent, once again “the left” and “the right” have disappeared as they have come together to oppose, even criminalize, this dissent. For without a conviction that the US is the exceptional nation, American politics looks a lot like the politics one finds in many third world nations and its actions in the world do indeed look like criminal acts. The current regime depends upon the idea that America is an exceptional nation, even the exceptional nation. And were the “subversives” to succeed in undermining this myth, our elites know that their days would be numbered.