From the dawn of the colonial era, long before they even had a national identity, Americans have always felt they had a special role in the world, though the exact nature of American exceptionalism has always been a matter of some dispute.
Many have taken it to be a special religious destiny, but Alexis de Tocqueville, the first to consider it systematically, affirmed the exact opposite: “a thousand special causes … have singularly concurred to fix the mind of the American upon purely practical objects.” Ironically enough, the exact term “American exceptionalism” was first used by Joseph Stalin, in order to reject it.
And yet, for 70 years American exceptionalism has been most prominently and consistently associated with imperialism (“benevolent”, of course!), via the phrase “the American Century”. It was coined by Time-Life publisher Henry Luce in February, 1941, 10 months before Japan’s Pearl Harbour attack drew the US into World War II. The history of Luce’s coinage provides a depth of resonance for a recent twist: a not uncommon, but particularly telling juxtaposition of four Time magazine covers from around the world this week.
In three editions – Europe, Asia and South Pacific - Time magazine’s visually hot, tumultuous cover featured a gasmask-protected Egyptian protester, upraised fist overhead with a chaotic street background behind. The headline: “Revolution Redux”. Not so in the exceptional American edition. There, the visually cool, wanna-be New Yorker-ish cover was a text-dominated cartoon against a light gray background: “Why Anxiety is Good For You.”
Clearly, Time is whistling past the graveyard. As mostly Democratic mayors clamp down hard on Occupy Wall Street outposts across the land, it’s obvious that the US’ political class is having none of it. They do not believe that anxiety is good for them and they are doing their darnedest to keep a lid on things. Agitated citizens out in the streets are bad enough. Pictures of agitated citizens are simply too much.
Once upon a time, those pictures coming from a Third World dictatorship in a (hopefully) democratic transition would have been comfortably distant, even reassuring – exotic, other, subsumed in history, striving to become more like us, the transcendent ones at the “end of history”.
That, after all, was part of the message of Luce’s “American Century”. But nowadays, everyone knows that the differences between Zuccotti Park and Tahrir Square are increasingly less significant than their similarities. They are matters of degree more than kind. There is no such place as “outside of history” anymore. Those making history know it, and those fighting history know it just as well.
Democratic mayors to the 99 per cent
In the US, the message from the mayors is simple: You’ve made your point. Now go to your room and shut up. We’ve got a lawn to keep up, and you’ve spoiled it. America’s “grown-ups” as the political class likes to think of itself, have never had much patience when it comes to the “children”, as its mere citizens are known. And yet, America’s democratic revolutionary origins are at the very centre of a radically different vision of what American exceptionalism is all about.
The situation in Los Angeles is particularly exemplary. Although city officials welcomed Occupy LA at first, for weeks on end Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and others have been saying it’s time to leave. Villaraigosa – like Obama – is a former progressive organiser turned neo-liberal politician. He was a teacher’s union organiser when I first met him in the 1980s, as part of a progressive precinct network aimed at getting disaffected progressive voters to the pols.
Also within the coalition’s core was the LA National Lawyers Guild‘s executive director. When Villaraigosa first took office in 2006, his first big battle was against the teacher’s union he used to work for. He took them on with the backing of billionaire real estate developer and education “reformer” Eli Broad. Five years later, as he faces off against Occupy LA, the current NLG executive director, James Lafferty, is one of his major opponents.
With no sense of irony, Villaraigosa thought Thanksgiving weekend was the perfect time for an eviction. “It’s clear that this mayor cares more about dead grass than a dead economy,” Lafferty responded at an Occupy LA press conference. “The 99 per cent that have been thrown out of their homes, jobless, without proper healthcare and all the rest seem to be less important to him than that lawn.”
America’s exceptional democracy
As indicated above, the idea of American exceptionalism was always a contested one. But it’s hard to deny that the New World in general was seen as a land of opportunity, and the American colonies were the place where the most opportunity was seen for people to actually settle in significant numbers. Yet, the way most people managed to get to this new land of opportunity and freedom was through indentured servitude, and when that failed to provide enough labour, the African slave trade was “Plan B”.
The land itself came courtesy of the earliest stages of America’s centuries-long series of genocidal wars. And when the American Revolution came, it was lead in large part by slaveholder advocates of freedom – men like Washington, Jefferson and Patrick Henry, whose influence only expanded as the new nation was established.
Although their primary arguments were grounded in universalist appeals, the actual rights-holding subjects of their political system were a relatively tiny minority of well-to-do white males. The promise of rights-based liberal democracy was intoxicating to all, but forbidden to most. Equality was for gentlemen only. And yet, those excluded would not be denied. Scattered state and local battles coalesced into a national abolitionist movement by the 1830s, which in turn spawned a women’s rights movement in the 1840s.
In Europe, the US example spawned the French and Polish revolutions, followed by more than a century of struggles in which the example of the US’ existence powerfully transformed the Old World in combination with Europe’s own internal modernising forces.
And even though the United States itself embarked on an imperialist course sparked by the Spanish-American War in 1898, its example as the first anti-colonial revolutionary regime inspired colonial revolutionaries as well. It was no accident that Ho Chi Minh approached Woodrow Wilson for his support at Versailles after World War I, before turning to communism as his second choice in seeking to rid his country of French colonialism.
From exceptionalism to deceptionalism
But the US had a hard time keeping up with itself, or with the world that it helped create. The European welfare state was a direct response to popular demands for a better, more just, less arbitrary life, demands that were sparked in part by the very existence of the US as an alternative.
As the US itself became more like Europe - more industrialised, more urbanised, less composed of small farmers and more composed of urban workers - the resistance to learning from European advances became increasingly irrational, and at odds with American pragmatism. Our political system lagged behind as well, lacking the fluidity and inventiveness that made parliamentary systems the dominant form of democracy elsewhere around the world.
This perverse refusal to learn from others who have been inspired by us in the political realm is strikingly at odds with Americans’ grassroots improvisatory traditions. From food to music to everything in between, Americans have always adopted diverse influences, mixed them together and made them their own, based on the sole criteria of what works.
Yet, with far too few exceptions, we Americans have spectacularly failed to do this in the realms of economics and politics, where powerful elites have emerged to repeatedly stifle the US’ spirit of ingenuity. Not only that, they have successfully blinded us as well. Under the growing influence of the 1 per cent, American exceptionalism has become American deceptionalism: a perverse refusal to see what others have done – often inspired by our own earlier examples – and use that knowledge to continue advancing ourselves.
The US’ patch-work welfare state is the prime example of this dysfunction. But our lack of industrial policy is even more bizarre, given that we used to believe in it so. Indeed, the same could be said about the welfare state as well. Universal public education was an American idea – outside the South, of course – before catching on elsewhere around the globe. What’s more, most of the US was homesteaded through a subsidised process of free or cheap land, supported by public infrastructure – or, in the case of railroads, publicly-subsidised infrastructure.
But when it came to an industrial welfare state, suddenly, everything changed. It’s not so hard to understand why: the original industrial workforce was largely immigrant and culturally “other” – Irish at first, then central and southern European, predominantly Catholic or Jewish. It was not until the Great Depression pushed the US economy to the wall that we began to even partially catch up with Germany, which had created its welfare state half a century earlier.
Even then, it took another 30 years for us to add universal health care, but only for senior citizens. The results of creating Medicare were dramatic: Within a decade, American seniors went from being the age-group with the highest poverty rate to the lowest. But that was nearly 50 years ago, 130 years after Germany established its universal healthcare system. Since then, conservative resistance to America’s welfare state has stiffened dramatically. Cultural differences between whites of European descent are nothing compared differences with people of colour – which moved dramatic to the fore as legal segregation was finally being dismantled.
Welfare in the US
A 2001 paper from the Brookings Institute, “Why Doesn’t the United States Have a European-Style Welfare State?” found a direct correlation between welfare state spending and the size of minority populations – the more minorities, the lower the levels of spending. This held true both internationally (comparing more than 60 different countries) and nationally (comparing all 50 states). The paper did not argue that racial animosity was the sole reason for the US’ fragmented and under-sized welfare state. It also cited the US’ backwards political institutions – such as our lack of proportional representation – which in turn have roots in our history and geography.
The report stated, “Racial animosity in the US makes redistribution to the poor, who are disproportionately black, unappealing to many voters. American political institutions limited the growth of a socialist party, and more generally limited the political power of the poor.”
Among other things, the report offered comparisons across time, which showed the US lagging decades behind Europe throughout the 20th century. The size of subsidies and transfers in the US in 1970 was roughly the same as that in the European Union in 1937. US figures in 1998 roughly matched the EU in 1960.
While American conservatives have long been hysterical about the welfare state in the US, two major points need to be stressed. First: German conservatives established the first comprehensive welfare state, under Chancellor Bismarck in the 1880s. Second, the American welfare state is the smallest and least comprehensive in the Western world. While American conservatives denounce the welfare state for supposedly strangling capitalism, Germany’s welfare state has been crucial to its long-term prosperity, even as the US’ incomplete welfare state has harmed us considerably. For example, without a national system, healthcare costs built into American cars were a crucial factor leading up to the bankruptcy crisis of 2009.
Nearly a half-century after Medicare, the US was finally ready to take a modest half-step forward toward expanding healthcare coverage. But President Obama’s approach was so compromised, and so poorly argued that it’s now opened the doorway for a massive reversal that could actually eliminate Medicare – a major decimation of the US’ welfare state that would plunge millions of seniors into abject poverty, deprive them of healthcare and subject them to premature death.
Obama is obsessed with trying to strike a series of “grand bargains” with conservatives, even though they keep rejecting him. As a consequence, he repeatedly begins his negotiations with positions that conservatives have supported in the past, hoping they will support those positions again. At the same time, he refrains from making energetic arguments for the liberal position.
As a result, his stimulus programme was roughly 40 per cent tax cuts (even though they’re less effective in creating jobs than direct spending is) in a vain attempt to get Republican support. And when it came to health care, his approach was based on Republican proposals from the 1990s, developed by the conservative Heritage Foundation. It was the same foundation used by Mitt Romney when he was governor of Massachusetts.
Obama never used the popularity, efficiency and overall success of Medicare to argue for a government-centered approach, either an immediate full-fledged socialisation, aka “Medicare for all”, or a gradualist approach – a public option for those currently without private insurance. Indeed, Obama collaborated with conservative Democrats in the Senate – most notably Max Baucus – to silence those who advocated for these approaches.
Medicare-for-all advocates were reduced to shouting from the audience and getting arrested, despite representing a substantial body of public opinion. Support for the more gradual public-option approach hovered around 60 per cent or more throughout the year-long legislative process. And yet, these proposals – tried and true in the rest of the industrialised world – could not even get a serious hearing.
Such is the power of American deceptionalism: No one else’s experience in the world matters to the American political system.
Less than two years after Obama’s Republican healthcare plan passed, its very modesty is being used against it. Although it did involve considerable long-term cost reductions, it was nothing remotely close to reducing costs to full-fledged welfare state levels. For example, calculations by the Centre for Economic and Policy Research show that, for example, if we Americans could get our per-capita health-care costs down to the level of most central European nations, we would have a budget surplus of around 10 per cent in 2080, rather than the current projected deficit of over 40 per cent.
By ignoring the example of other countries, the American political class has spun itself off into an alternate reality in which nothing short of catastrophically bad choices remain. (The situation of global warming denialism is an instructive parallel, in which facts have become entirely irrelevant.) And so, fuelled by an obsession with long-term deficits decades in the future, and ignoring the sky-high level of the unemployed, the US congress may well be about to drift toward abolishing Medicare as its so-called “solution”.
Of course, Republicans like Congressman Paul Ryan, who originated the plan, won’t come right out and say that. And neither will Democrats, now rumoured to be thinking of joining them in search of yet another “grand bargain”. Ryan and company say they want to “save” Medicare by replacing it with a voucher system. As one wag put it, it’s like killing my dog named Spot, and giving me a cat named Spot instead, then telling me you haven’t killed Spot. But a variety of studies have stripped all the pretense away.
Most significantly, the vouchers (“premium support” in Orwellian Newspeak) would come nowhere near to paying the cost of health insurance for seniors, and the shortfall would only grow more severe over time. So instead of the government going broke, the people would. That’s the anti-government Republican plan! But at least the plan would keep the private insurance companies making money hand over fist as they deny you coverage.
And since they’re private companies, that counts as a win, according to the rules of American deceptionalism. Even if there is no real competition involved, and Adam Smith would have a heart attack if he saw what was being done in his name.
I’ve concentrated here on healthcare as a key welfare state component. But the same pattern of delusionary grand bargaining can be seen wherever you care to look. Consider “education reform”. “America’s schools are failing!” we’re told. We have to privatise, voucherise, give parents more choice – that alone can save us.
But none of this is supported by evidence, certainly not the evidence of other countries, whose systems are more centralised and less privatised than those of the United States. The US accounts of nearly half of military spending worldwide. The only folks whose overspending ever came close to us was the Soviet Union, and we sure didn’t learn anything from them. On the drug war? Don’t even think of thinking about it!
The list could be extended indefinitely. There is not a single area in which Republicans won’t condemn anything foreign just for being foreign (unless, for some reason they like it, the way Michele Bachmann likes Chinese slave labour). And there’s not a single area where Democrats won’t be defensive about thinking outside the box that Republicans have put them in.
If all this leaves you feeling anxious, relax. After all, as Time will tell you, “Anxiety is good for you!”
Paul Rosenberg is the Senior Editor of Random Lengths News, a bi-weekly alternative community newspaper.
You can follow Paul on Twitter @PaulHRosenberg.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.
- Villaraigosa: Children living at Occupy L.A. sparked eviction order (latimesblogs.latimes.com)
- A Proud Mayor Villaraigosa Talks Occupy LA (laist.com)
- Nearly 300 arrested in Occupy LA sweep (sfgate.com)
- City’s Occupy L.A. costs could exceed $1 million, mayor says (latimesblogs.latimes.com)
- Thousands defy ban on Occupy LA (rt.com)
- Occupt LA must leave City Hall – Villaraigosa (iol.co.za)
- Get Off the Lawn: Mayor Announces Occupy LA Must Clear Out By Monday [UPDATED] (laist.com)
- Mayor: Occupy LA Must Leave City Hall Camp – NPR (npr.org)
- America the “Amazing” (grandrants.wordpress.com)
- Occupy LA to Be Evicted from City Hall Park on Monday (bilerico.com)