GOP radicals and the end of American exceptionalism

August 9, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

Last November, Karen Tumulty wrote an interesting article titled American exceptionalism: an old idea and a new political battle:

[T]he idea that the United States is inherently superior to the world’s other nations has become the battle cry from a new front in the ongoing culture wars. Lately, it seems to be on the lips of just about every Republican who is giving any thought to running for president in 2012.

The proposition of American exceptionalism, which goes at least as far back as the writing of French aristocrat and historian Alexis de Tocqueville in the 1830s, asserts that this country has a unique character. It is also rooted in religious belief. A recent survey by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institution found that 58 percent of Americans agreed with the statement: “God has granted America a special role in human history.

A few months after Tumulty’s piece was published, Fareed Zakaria poked a giant hole in the notion of American exceptionalism:

The following rankings come from various lists, but they all tell the same story. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), our 15-year-olds rank 17th in the world in science and 25th in math. We rank 12th among developed countries in college graduation (down from No. 1 for decades). We come in 79th in elementary-school enrollment. Our infrastructure is ranked 23rd in the world, well behind that of every other major advanced economy.

American health numbers are stunning for a rich country: based on studies by the OECD and the World Health Organization, we’re 27th in life expectancy, 18th in diabetes and first in obesity. Only a few decades ago, the U.S. stood tall in such rankings. No more. There are some areas in which we are still clearly No. 1, but they’re not ones we usually brag about. We have the most guns. We have the most crime among rich countries. And, of course, we have by far the largest amount of debt in the world.

Those aren’t the only examples of American unexceptionalism. Energy secretary Steven Chu recently warned that we’re facing a “Sputnik moment” in the global clean energy race and that we risk falling far behind advances by China and other countries. We’re also severe laggards in high speed rail, we have the highest incarceration rates in history, we’ve rolled back decades of human rights advances by embracing torture and indefinite detention, and we have wealth disparities to rival a banana republic.

The unprecedented downgrade of U.S. debt is just another painful – and shameful – crack in the exceptionalism edifice.

The problems we face can’t be blamed solely on one party or ideology, but one thing is for certain: the American right is doing its level best to set us back even further.

Governed by a simplistic and contorted worldview promulgated by a billionaire-funded misinformation machine, the GOP and Tea Party are waging all-out war on women’s rights, gay rights, religious tolerance, science, the environment, scholarship, the arts, public broadcasting, academia, unions, and health care, among other pillars of an enlightened society.

To assess the destructiveness of this rightwing radicalism, simply consider climate denial, the unsupported rejection of a potentially mortal threat to humanity. How anyone can ignore a danger of this magnitude, even if it’s only a remote possibility, is beyond comprehension.

Of course, Democrats are far from blameless. Under Democratic leadership, civil liberties are being dismantled, wealth disparities are exploding, privacy is disappearing, and wars are being waged with no end.

If America hopes to lay any claim to exceptionalism, it is only when this regressive, ill-informed rightward lurch is corrected. Too bad our current crop of “leaders” don’t have it in them to instigate that course correction.

I’ll end with Bob Herbert’s farewell column for the New York Times, a devastating look at America’s skewed priorities. It was written in March but is even more germane today:

The U.S. has not just misplaced its priorities. When the most powerful country ever to inhabit the earth finds it so easy to plunge into the horror of warfare but almost impossible to find adequate work for its people or to properly educate its young, it has lost its way entirely. Nearly 14 million Americans are jobless and the outlook for many of them is grim. Since there is just one job available for every five individuals looking for work, four of the five are out of luck. Instead of a land of opportunity, the U.S. is increasingly becoming a place of limited expectations.

The current maldistribution of wealth is also scandalous. In 2009, the richest 5 percent claimed 63.5 percent of the nation’s wealth. The overwhelming majority, the bottom 80 percent, collectively held just 12.8 percent. This inequality, in which an enormous segment of the population struggles while the fortunate few ride the gravy train, is a world-class recipe for social unrest. Downward mobility is an ever-shortening fuse leading to profound consequences.

…Overwhelming imbalances in wealth and income inevitably result in enormous imbalances of political power. So the corporations and the very wealthy continue to do well. The employment crisis never gets addressed. The wars never end. And nation-building never gets a foothold here at home.

So much for our “special role in human history.”

UPDATE: Latest numbers on infrastructure:

America’s infrastructure ranking has dropped from 6th to 23rd in the world. Our transportation system is failing because we have failed to invest in it. And we can’t, like a house that we can no longer afford to maintain, offload it and move into a condo.

UPDATE II: Three more examples of our diminished status:

  • Our postal service is on the verge of collapse.
  • U.S. students rank 32nd in math, 17th in reading.
  • U.S. drops to 5th in global competitiveness

UPDATE III: Yet another data point:

SAT reading scores for graduating high school seniors this year reached the lowest point in nearly four decades, reflecting a steady decline in performance in that subject on the college admissions test, the College Board reported Wednesday.

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