What if we said that on paper and on principle, America is exceptional, but in practice, we have a little more work to do?
The sparring that has been going on since Russian president Vladimir Putin questioned the concept of “American exceptionalism” has caused this writer some deep thought. Certainly, it is good to be an American, and to live in America, but that doesn’t mean that one cannot and will not look at the areas where our ideals and our praxis contradict each other.
The contradiction between ideal and praxis was created even as our founding documents were created. The phrase “all men are created equal” was certainly an idea which, if meant, would have created an exceptional nation because nations in general were more apt to create and thrive on societies in which all people were not, in fact, equal. The very idea that we would want to be a nation where that reality would not be our model …made us exceptional.
But from the beginning there was a problem. All men were NOT created equal, the Founding Fathers decided. Equality was relegated to white, male landowners. Everyone else was …well, not so equal after all.
As time went on, in spite of our being a democracy, meaning to this writer at least, that the words of the Founding Fathers should at least be our guiding principle, it was clear that we were not a democracy in the way those words suggested. In fact, there began to be a real struggle between “virtual democracy” and “virulent demagoguery,” according to Chip Berlet and the late Margaret Quigley. The diversity that democracy would presumably have supported began to be feared and despised, even as more and more different ethnic groups populated our country. Pat Buchanan, not all that long ago, wrote, “The burning issue here has almost nothing to do with economics and almost everything to do with race and ethnicity. If British subjects, fleeing a depression, were pouring into this country through Canada, there would be few alarms. The central objection to the present flood of illegals is they are not English-speaking white people from Western Europe; they are Spanish-speaking brown and black people from Mexico, Latin America and the Caribbean. (“The Theocratic Right” in Eyes Right , edited by Chip Berlet, p. 38) Buchanan is also to have said, “The world hails democracy in principle; in practice, most men believe there are things higher in the order of value – among them, tribe and nation, family and faith.” (p. 38) Berlet notes in his essay that “with white racial nationalism, democracy was seriously challenged. With its anti-elitist, egalitarian assumptions, democracy did not appeal to the reactionary rightists of the 1920s, who insisted that the U.S. was not a democracy but a representative republic.” Many Americans on the Right, asserts Berlet, “exhibit a deep disdain for democracy.”
If Berlet’s assertions are true, how, then, can a nation which espouses to be a democracy but within which there is a sizeable group of people with a disdain for the very things democracy is supposed to be about, be…exceptional?
Perhaps it is this disdain for democracy that is guiding the Congress to do things like cutting $40 billion from the food stamp program, apparently not caring that the numbers of hungry people in this nation are growing daily? How are we an exceptional when we have the highest rate of incarceration in the world? We, the United States, lock up more people per capita than anybody in the world, including the two most totalitarian states in the world, Russia and China, according to Bill Kleiber, of Restorative Justice Ministries of America. We have five percent of the population in the world, according to Rebecca Robertson, ACLU, Texas, “but we have 25 percent of the incarcerated population of the world.”
We have heard of the growing chasm between the rich and poor here. That sort of chasm is not supposed to be extant in a democracy, is it? If “all men are created equal,” then somewhere, something is wrong, right?
Many Americans feel that with growing diversity here, they are being marginalized. Sara Diamond writes in “The Christian Right Seeks Dominion,” that “evangelical Christians …feel they are being persecuted by secular society.” Well, when one feels persecuted, one fights back, and that truth begs one to wonder if what we see going on in Congress is part of that fighting back, a fierce determination to stop all this dribble about this nation being a democracy and to pull it back to its roots of being …just like other nations which make no bones about not being “democratic.”
Frederick Clarkson writes in his essay “Christian Reconstructionalism” that there are a fair number of people who are involved in strategically trying to make America less “democratic” and more “theocratic,” a nation which will live by “Biblical principles” where the inequality of people is a staple. He quotes a Rev. Joseph Morecraft, who believes in Reconstructionism, as saying democracy “is mob rule,” and that the purpose of civil government is to “terrorize evil-doers…The purpose of government,” according to Morecraft, is to “protect the church of Jesus Christ.” (p. 76, Eyes Right)
It seems that we agree on one thing: that government should protect – but the issue, the divide, seems to be agreement on who or what should be protected. It seems to this writer that government should protect its people, its citizens. Government should find ways to help empower people, not keep them under the government’s thumb. That feels like government “of the people, by the people and for the people,” as our beloved President Abraham Lincoln said in his Gettysburg address. But the issue is that for some, that is democratic dribble. For some, the purpose of government is to protect the church of Jesus Christ – which to them is a church which supports and defends inequality – in the name of religion.
Americans, it seems, are a little ambiguous when it comes to their agreeing whether or not America is exceptional. A Pew Research survey taken in 2011 had 48 percent of Americans questioned saying that America was exceptional and 42 percent saying…um, not so much. The poll also indicated a significant difference in the way younger and older Americans responded. According to an article on CNN.com, “The poll indicated a wide generational divide, with 65% of those 65 and older saying the U.S was the world’s greatest country. But that number dropped to 50% for those 35-64 and to 34% for people 18-34. There was also a partisan divide, with 63% of Republicans saying the U.S. was the greatest country in the world. That number dropped to 46% among Democrats and 41% among independent.” (http://politicalticker.blogs.cnn.com/2013/09/12/polls-is-america-exceptional/?iref=allsearch)
At the end of the day, we will all define “exceptionalism” by our own set of standards, values and beliefs. This writer struggles with the notion of America being exceptional when there are so many people living in poverty, hungry, without health care…and us having a Congress which apparently does not realize that or care about it. The values this writer ascribes to just don’t seem to gel with values where the quest for profit trumps the needs of human beings. This writer is deeply disturbed about the rate of incarceration, the fact that many children are hungry and can only get fair to good nutrition at school. This writer is saddened that public education is in many places under attack, and that prisons for profit are being in record numbers, with empty beds waiting for tenants, while it is getting more and more expensive for students to go to college, or for some students, in college, to stay there, because of cuts made in funding for Parent Student Loans and the reduction of Pell grant awards.
The ideal of democracy is good on paper. If we practiced it, we would indeed be exceptional. Unfortunately, for this writer, the fact that for too many of us, “democracy” means more the ability to partake in capitalism than it does to care for people who are suffering.
Democracy should be “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” It doesn’t feel like that’s the kind of nation we live in.
A candid observation …