Taking exception to exceptionalism

Anyone who has been exposed to the soap-opera-cum-cage-match that is American politics will know that there is little upon which both Democrats and Republicans can agree. “American exceptionalism” is, well, an exception to this rule. Put simply (and usually hyperbolically) this is the idea that the US is the “greatest nation in the history of the Earth”; the exact words used by Mitt Romney in a speech to the Republican Jewish Coalition last December. In the same speech, Romney says that he “recognized that the greatest advantage my parents had given me was being born in America.”

Romney’s chief rival for the Republican Presidential nomination, Newt Gingrich, is equally ardent in his conviction that the US is the greatest country the world has ever seen, going so far as to author a book entitled A Nation Like No Other: Why American Exceptionalism Matters.

When it comes to Obama and the Democrats, exceptionalism takes on a slightly more nuanced flavour. The role of the US as “the leader of the free world”, tends to be emphasised, casting the US as the Spiderman of global politics - they happen to be blessed with great power, and with great power comes great responsibility.

If understood merely as a description of power and influence, it must be conceded that the US is exceptional, but this is certainly not what extreme exceptionalists like Romney and Gingrich have in mind. For them, America’s power is a result of its special status, not the other way round. On this view, the US was founded on a particular set of principles focused upon guaranteeing individual liberty, and because it has adhered to these principles, it has prospered as a result.

All of this begs the question: if greatness is to be understood as meaning something besides a nation’s power or influence on the world stage, how exactly should we measure it?

We might measure it in terms of which country has the highest GDP per capita in the world (in which case the US is either the tenth or the fifteenth greatest nation on Earth, depending on your measure) or in terms of life expectancy at birth (fiftieth).

Gingrich claims in his book that what really sets the US apart are the principles it was founded on; principles intended to ensure that every citizen is guaranteed a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. If this is really what sets the US apart from other countries, then what we need to measure is the extent to which the US has managed to uphold these principles. So how should we do that?

Since these principles are supposed to apply to all citizens equally, we ought to direct our attention to the least-advantaged people in American society and ask ourselves how well their rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are being upheld.

We must ask how well the right to life is being upheld for those too poor to afford health insurance in a country where African-Americans have infant mortality rates almost two-and-a-half times that of Caucasians. We must ask how well the US government respects and upholds the liberty of those citizens it detains without trial, and how well it respects the right to pursue happiness of gay couples who are faced with laws which prohibit their marriages from being recognised at the federal level.

The verdict is clear: when it comes to promoting the principles upon which it was founded, the US is doing a decidedly average job, in comparison with most developed countries.

None of this is to say that other countries don’t have their own problems too - no country is perfect and a great many countries probably fall far short of the US when it comes to securing the rights of their citizens. But there are problems which come with the idea that one is exceptional that other countries are not likely to face, at least not to the same extent. After all, why emulate the healthcare model of another country if your country is the greatest nation in the history of the Earth? Why accept criticism from abroad about supposed human rights abuses if your country practically invented the concept of liberty? Ron Paul was booed at a recent Republican debate when he had the temerity to suggest that US foreign policy be to “treat others as we would be treated ourselves”.

The essence of being exceptional is that you are not held to the same standards as others, and so long as this kind of exceptionalism finds favour with those in power and those seeking power in America, the prospects are bleak for international relations based upon real mutual respect between America and its allies.

Image top: Madding Crowd.