Opinion: GOP offers flawed interpretation of ‘American exceptionalism’
By Bob Berwyn
Republicans are recycling the theme of American exceptionalism as part of their campaign to win the White House and take control of the U.S. Senate. I applaud the recycling as possibly the only part of the GOP platform that’s environmentally friendly, but take issue with their efforts to co-opt Americanism as political campaign weapon.
There’s a subtle but persistent message trying to convince voters that Republicans are somehow “more American” than Democrats. It’s an election tactic that may play well with part of the electorate, but it’s fundamentally divisive and destroys the consensus needed to govern, regardless of which party controls the White House and Congress.
It starts with the low-level background buzz questioning the authenticity of President Obama’s birth certificate and peaks with a nationalistic war cry that seems to put us on a path toward yet another bloody Middle East confrontation with Iran, based on an antiquated and unrealistic interpretation of foreign relations, with the U.S. as a militaristic world policeman. The Republican vision of American exceptionalism is based on the myth of the lone gunman — that’s why Clint Eastwood was a speaker at the GOP convention.
The Republican definition of American exceptionalism is flawed to the core and lacks a philosophical or moral basis. It’s not enough to just wave the flag, point back to the founding principles of 200 years ago and say you’re special. Those principles need to be adapted to a changing world. Yes, they are universal values that hold their unique characteristics over time, but they have to be applied differently, depending on context. To claim exceptionalism requires living up to those ideals every day, and in that regard, most Republicans (as well as some Democrats) are sorely lacking.
Start by looking at current Republican attempts to block low-income and minority populations from voting — a tactic that’s the very antithesis of the one-man, one vote ideal we like to hold up as a signpost for our version of democracy. You can dance around this issue any way you like, or parse the language of various court decisions, but the fact remains that it’s a crude attempt to manipulate the vote in favor of GOP candidates.
It’s understandable why the Republicans would pursue this tactic. In a straight-up vote with full participation, Romney stands almost no chance of defeating Obama. GOP hopes of winning the White House rest on trying to edge out the Democrats for electoral votes in key states by suppressing turnout. It worked for them in Florida in 2004, and if voter ID laws are upheld in several big states, it could easily swing the election in favor of the Republicans.
It’s not a very American idea, and it’s certainly not exceptional. In fact, it’s reminiscent of tactics used by in totalitarian and semi-totalitarian nations, where the outcome of elections is rigged from the outset by limiting the choice of candidates or parties.
To be fair, Democrats have also pursued vote-rigging tactics over the years, so if we as a country want to claim exceptionalism in the political arena, we need to make a bipartisan effort to encourage universal voting. Until then, I would argue that there are several countries that have more exceptional records than the U.S. when it comes to getting a high percentage of well-educated and well-informed voters to the polls for national elections.
The concept of American exceptionalism is perhaps most defined by how we act on the international stage. After all, simply looking in the mirror and saying “we’re special” is nothing more than narcissism. It’s not about how you see yourself, it’s about how others see you.
Some of the attacks on Obama during the Republican National Convention focused on the president’s foreign policy. In the early days of the administration, Obama spent political capital trying to undo some of the vast damage done by the Bush administration — when the U.S. lost more credibility internationally than at any other time in recent memory. Starting with Iraq and Guantanamo Bay, American exceptionalism, and thereby our credibility and our ability to lead and inspire, took a huge hit in the Bush era.
Political leaders and media around the world questioned very vocally if the shine was off the American apple, and whether the U.S. still had a claim to lead the free world on the basis of its exceptionalism.
Yet the 2012 GOP platform calls for a return to the foreign policy of that era, not recognizing that it’s never been enough to be the toughest guy on the block. Along with military and economic strength, past American exceptionalism was based on morality and ethics, with most of the world seeing our country as being on the “right” side of history.
Being a bully and getting your way is one thing; maintaining moral high ground is something else altogether. The 21st century requires a new type of leadership in full recognition of the how quickly the world is changing — The Republican interpretation of American exceptionalism seems to involve carrying an exceptionally big stick.
The Bush-era — and remember, this is where Romney apparently wants to go back to — also brought one of the darkest chapters of American exceptionalism, when the terror attack on the U.S. was used to justify some of the most un-American policies in the history of our country, starting with the invasion of Iraq, based on unfounded claims regarding non-existent weapons of mass destruction.
It continued with the morally reprehensible treatment of prisoners and a constant chipping away of civil liberties through warrantless surveillance and the indefinite detainment of prisoners who haven’t been charged with any crime. Sadly, Democrats share almost equally in this erosion of American ideals, perhaps the single biggest threat to the idea of American exceptionalism.
I don’t know about you, but I’m not willing to give up my civil liberties in the name of fighting enemies whose most recent tactics include trying to hide bombs in their underpants. And I’m afraid of what a Republican administration would do in the name of American exceptionalism.
To some degree, both parties share in the responsibility of undermining American ideals, and by extension, the exceptionalism that Republicans have made an issue in this campaign.
But on the whole, Barack Obama’s vision of what it means to be American in the 21st century is more realistic and much more likely to result in policies that benefit America and the rest of world, with nuanced leadership grounded on a clear moral vision.
And judging by numerous conversations during a recent trip abroad, as well as scanning headlines and editorials in European newspapers, there’s widespread support for Obama — and not because they want to see a diminished America, but because they understand that strong American leadership, based on a fair and just world view, is to their benefit as well as ours.