By Dave Oberting
We at Economic Growth DC tend to focus only on issues and public policy related to the District of Columbia, so we rarely write about issues that are strictly national in scope. However, when something gets said or written about a national issue that is so wrong and so far off base, we feel compelled to respond. The notion of the death of American exceptionalism is just such a topic. America’s place and role in the world impacts every DC resident so we’re going to to explain some things to some pundits.
The proximate cause of our compulsion to respond was a column on the Think Progress blog by Ruy Teixeira of the Center for American Progress on February 28th. The title of his column was “Cheering the End of American Exceptionalism.” It turns out Teixeria’s piece is actually just a less sophisticated rehash of the arguments Peter Beinert made in National Journal on February 2nd in a column entitled “The End of American Exceptionalism.” Since Teixeria uses Beinert’s arguments, consider this a response to both.
Their primary claim is that American exceptionalism is dead or dying fast and they use three arguments to make it: a decline in religiosity; a decline in the belief that America should act overseas to promote freedom and democracy; and a decline in social mobility. All of these arguments are wrong, but their primary flaw is a misunderstanding of what American exceptionalism really is and how it came about:
Americans are not special because of who they are, but because of where they live. Highly driven, motivated, and innovative citizens are a fixture of the American character, but it is our geography that makes us exceptional. Thus, American exceptionalism is more a quirk of fate than conscious design.
We are a country separated from the world by two massive oceans, rendering us virtually un-invadeable, so we’ve never had to invest massive resources in securing the homeland. We also possess the largest piece of contiguous, highly-productive farm land in the world, so we’ve never really had to worry about feeding ourselves. We also have more navigable, interconnected rivers and waterways than the rest of the world combined, making it easy and cheap to move goods for internal consumption and trade. Truthfully, whomever ended up controlling the Mississippi River basin was destined to be a dominant world power. It just happened to be us. Stratfor calls it the inevitable empire.
The origins of American exceptionalism were shaped by geography not men, and America will always be exceptional because that geography gives us inherent advantages that are not going away. We can certainly fail to make use of them, but they’ll always be there. The term “American exceptionalism” is really short-hand for, and maybe an obnoxious way of illustrating America’s unique role in the world, but it is a geopolitical reality. We really have no choice but to lead.
And since we emerged unscathed from World War II and created a post-war international framework suited to American preferences, the rest of the world has benefited enormously from that system every day. From access to the largest consumer market in the world to the American military’s security umbrella, over two billion people have been lifted out of poverty as a result of the system we created and our pursuit of freedom and democracy.
Many countries act as if they’re appalled by American hegemony, but if you sat their leaders down and privately asked them about their greatest fear, it would be a world without strong American leadership.
The authors quote statistics about declining church membership and then attack their own argument by observing that a large group of the people who’ve dropped out of organized churches still have a personal relationship with God. The country is only marginally less spiritual than it was 200 years ago, but that matters not because religiosity has never been central to American exceptionalism.
America’s interventions in the world and interactions with outside powers have always been driven by perceptions of geo-strategic necessity, not religion. Has America tried to spread democracy and freedom? Sure, but never once has it attempted to impose a religion at the point of a gun..
Teixera wrote that “Once, Americans saw their country as freedom’s apostle, burdened with a duty to set the world on the path to righteousness.” Putting aside the mocking and gratuitous allusion to religious imagery, this is a misunderstanding of America’s intentions, and a misrepresentation of its actions.
There is no doubt the American people are war weary. Thirteen years in Afghanistan will do that to you. Plus, the American people have always had an isolationist streak. As the winds of war blew through Europe in the 1930’s, a majority of Americans thought it was someone else’s problem.
It was only the attack on Pearl Harbor that left us no choice. But when America has been truly threatened, the American people have supported a muscular response. The current American mood is but a temporary phenomenon. It lasts only until the next crisis.
Finally, we come to the 3rd argument, issues of upward mobility and income inequality. Include poverty in the mix and you’ve isolated pretty much all that ills America. We agree these are major problems, but we’ve been looking at them the wrong way. Poverty and income inequality are not problems unto themselves. They are a function of unemployment and underemployment.
Of the people who live in poverty in the U.S. in 2014, the vast majority of them are either unemployed or underemployed (defined as working involuntarily part-time for low wages). The United States does not have an upward mobility crisis, it has a full-time, living wage jobs crisis. At the same time, it has a lack of a properly educated and trained workforce crisis.
With all that said, it seems the real problem for the authors isn’t so much American exceptionalism itself, as it is the misguided politicians and pundits who publicly pontificate about it constantly. We agree with them on this. Allies and adversaries alike know full-well that America is exceptional.
They just have to look at the chart below. They know we are the only nation in the world capable of projecting power at-will anywhere in the world. They know we spend more on defense than most of the rest of the world combined. There’s no need to constantly remind them. Like Lou Holtz once told his football team, “When you score a touchdown, just hand the ball back to the ref and act like you’ve been there before.” We can score at will, there’s no need for an end zone dance.
Dave Oberting is the Executive Director of Economic Growth DC, a political and economic policy research/advocacy organization focused on the District of Columbia. Follow them on Twitter @Growth DC.