Politics and Whatnot

Just another liberal political blog

Is American exceptionalism finished?

It may surprise some people to find out that despite being a flag-burnin’ liberal (Do I actually burn the flag?  No.  Do I hate the mindless nationalism of flag-wavers enough to do it?  Yes.)  I’m a believer in American exceptionalism.  The US has always been a revolutionary nation that has basically done everything better than everyone else.  The British Empire began to fall when we stopped putting up with their shit and started our own country.  We’re the first nation – and arguably the only nation – with a government crafted by intellectuals.  It was designed from its founding to protect liberty, the right of self-governance, and the limitation of government power.  And the story is great too – the struggles of independence, the sacrifice and struggles, and eventual purging of slavery, defeating dictatorships abroad and protecting the free world, the first nation to set foot on the moon.  American culture is celebrated the world over without rival, and American celebrities are internationally recognized.  What other country has racked up such a list of accomplishments?  England probably comes closest, and they’re a joke by comparison.

But unlike many other believers in exceptionalism, I’m increasingly seeing it as part of the past, a chapter in a history book.   Some people are saying that the rise of nations like India and China will put an end to America’s standing in the world – but no, that’s not it.  We haven’t always been the most powerful country, that only came about around the time of World War II.  We don’t need to be the most powerful country to be exceptional – and being the most powerful isn’t what makes made us exceptional.

Today: "Save gas? To stop a global disaster? I don't think the government needs to be stickin' it's nose into what I choose to drive!"

What made us exceptional was that we believed that we stood for something worth sacrificing for – liberty, justice, and equality.  I believe firmly that more than anything else, those values sustained the soldiers at Valley Forge, gave the drafters of the Constitution their insights, and even motivated the engineers of the Apollo program.  During World War II, cartoons showed Donald Duck eagerly paying his income taxes and telling people to save money to make tax payments – taxes of up to 90% as the top marginal tax rate, with nearly every person paying some taxes. People paid because they wanted to help their country and be part of something bigger than themselves.

Today, the Donald Duck cartoon would – and does – evoke howls of outrage – targeting children with tax propaganda, as one commenter put it.   Today the top tax rate is 35% before deductions, and less than half of the nation pays any taxes at all.  But most Americans today think even that’s too much.  The result of these low taxes?  NASA has effectively had to scrap much of its space program like the USSR, we’ve surrendered like Vichy France in the fight against global warming and oil dependence, and we can’t pay our bills like Greece.  We’ve become the most shameful of our international rivals, losing in social equality to the likes of Canada and Sweden, and losing in scientific progress to the EU’s CERN.   These nations – not China – are the real threats to American exceptionalism.  Think about it: Among the US, China, and Norway, where would you most like to live?  China gets the ax quickly for its atrocious human rights record, but Norway’s low crime rate, strong social safety net, and 3.5% unemployment sounds kinda good about now…

A popular poster for modern tax protesters, who think Ayn Rand's selfishism (less accurately, "objectivism") is what makes America great.

Why has this happened?  Because we’ve forgotten who we are.  Increasingly common is the view that the founding fathers stood not for liberty – the right to act freely when it doesn’t harm others, but for “libertarianism” – the right to do anything to make money, even when it does harm others.  Privatized prisons have replaced “justice for all” with “kids for cash.”  The mere mention of “equality” evokes comparisons to communists, forgetting entirely that it was totalitarianism, not equality, that the enemy in the Soviet Union.  So sacrifice has become a dirty word in America.  If the government were to ask an American corporation to sacrifice today, the first thing they’d do is head to China, with the encouragement of its shareholders.  In short, what we value today is not liberty, not justice, and certainly not equality – what we value is money, money, and more fucking money.

So that brings my epic-length post back to the original question – is there hope for America to be exceptional in the future again?  Well, we have had some recent accomplishments – we chose the first racial minority elected leader, though we now kinda hate him (I suppose I have to post about that too soon), of course we got Bin Laden, and we’re helping the Libyans overthrow some asshole who killed a bunch of Americans decades ago.   Meanwhile Canada has created a national health care system, they helped out with that Libya thing too – but they didn’t get Bin Laden, or whomever Canada’s Bin Laden is (Tooth Decay?), and their prime minister’s still some white bread schmuck.  So I guess we’re still ahead by a point or two. But at the same time, our government needs money to accomplish things, and that money is quickly drying up as more an more people insist on lowering taxes even further.  The next Obama won’t get the federal education funding that the current president received, the next Libyan rebels won’t be able to count on our support, and the next Bin Laden Unit will lose its funding shortly after the initial attacks, because there simply won’t be enough money for all that.  So enjoy the last scraps of exceptionalism while you can, because it’s not going to be around for long.

Shit, it’s time for bed, so I’ll leave it at that.  Remember – when you ride alone, you ride with Harper.

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