America's crisis of confidence proves nothing is exceptional
4 September 2012
With two months to go before the presidential election, the United States is in a seriously bad way. A nation whose hallmark has been a sense of irrepressible optimism and purpose is bitterly divided and uncertain.
According to a Gallup survey, 81 percent of the American people are dissatisfied with the nation as it is governed and only 24 percent feel the US is on the right track. That is a historic low.
This widespread despair goes beyond Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, liberal Democrats and Tea Party Republicans. It stems from expectations about America's right to economic prosperity and strategic pre-eminence that no president may be able to meet - expectations that have deep roots in America's past.
The American understanding of their history has been that since the first English settlers landed in the 17th century, and especially since the Revolution in 1776, the US has been defined by the Enlightenment dream of moral and material progress.
For generations, Americans had come to see themselves as a ''chosen people'' destined to create ''a city upon a hill'' (John Winthrop) and the ''last best hope of the Earth'' (Abraham Lincoln) that would make the world ''safe for democracy'' (Woodrow Wilson).
This idea of American exceptionalism - the belief that the US is a nation born of an idea, dedicated to a proposition, claiming a manifest destiny - also shaped the ''American Century'', the term coined to define US global predominance after World War II. The collapse of Soviet Communism and the long boom of the 1990s reinforced the perception that history was on America's side.
In recent times, however, the US has entered a period of upheaval: high unemployment, a debt larger than gross national product, alarming budget and trade deficits, falling home prices, diminished net wealth, downgraded credit rating, crumbling infrastructure, a rising China, and a polarised and dysfunctional political system beholden to special interests.
To add insult to injury is a series of what Rudyard Kipling called ''the savage wars of peace'' that have cost the US dearly in blood and treasure as well as prestige and credibility.
Many Americans are in a foul mood and they want someone to blame. They suffer from a lack of confidence, yet many still want to ''believe in America'' (the motto of Romney's campaign). They want their political leaders to tell them there is something ''special'' about their nation and that God has chosen them to fulfil a providential destiny.
According to a 2010 survey by the Brookings Institution and Public Religion Research Institute, 58 per cent of Americans agreed that ''God has granted America a special role in human history''. Although this notion of exceptionalism may offend the sensibilities of foreigners, it is by no means confined to Americans. Last year Julia Gillard declared to the US Congress ''you can do anything'' while Tony Abbott recently told a prominent Washington think tank ''America needs to believe in itself the way others still believe in it''.
The heroes at last week's Republican convention made reclaiming exceptionalism the theme of their speeches. Marco Rubio, the 41-year-old Cuban-American rising star from Florida, reminded delegates ''what made us special'' on at least 10 occasions.
Yet history has left exceptionalism behind. Americans are losing faith in their institutions and the ideals that sustain them.
As the leading conservative commentator David Brooks has argued: ''Americans have lost faith in the credibility of their political system … This loss of faith has contributed to a complex but dark national mood. The country is anxious, pessimistic, ashamed, helpless and defensive.''
To be sure, the US has shown impressive capacity for change and renewal after past setbacks (Civil War, Great Depression, Pearl Harbour, Vietnam, Watergate). But one can appreciate the resilience of American society and still concede something is terribly wrong with the US today. Indeed, that famous ability to rebound from adversity will be put to a severe test in the coming decade.
The danger of American exceptionalism is that it discourages compromise and encourages omnipotence. And yet clearly the US will never again enjoy the kind of absolute global supremacy that it held in the post-World War II period.
If the next president fails to lower expectations, frustration and outrage will continue to roil the political climate. As creatures of their culture, however, Americans will find it hard to contemplate decline. After all, it would mean a rejection of their national identity.
This is the background against which this presidential campaign is being fought; and the anger and anxieties of the nation explain why the result in November is so hard to predict. Neither Obama nor Romney is connecting with Middle America.
Perhaps Henry Kissinger's joke about the 1980s Iran-Iraq war - ''It is a pity they can't both lose'' - reflects the American people's attitudes about politics today.
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