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The end of the American experiment?

"There's battle lines being drawn. Nobody's right if everybody's wrong."

— Buffalo Springfield

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One serious presidential candidate still claims Barack Obama was born overseas and wants a government registry of Muslim citizens, as if that is in any way constitutional or ethical. Another proudly calls himself a socialist, as if the 90 million dead and the ruined economies from 20th century socialism offer models for 21st century America.

Our current president gushes about relations with an Iranian regime that denies the Holocaust and murders gays and lesbians. This same president cannot quite bear rapprochement with Congress members from his own nation's hinterlands where he believes people "cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them."

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This kind of cognitively rigid partisanship has been building for years. During the George W. Bush presidency, Democratic voters were incapable of admitting that, pre-2007, the economy grew at a healthy pace, according to survey data analyzed by political scientists Jeffrey Cohen and Costas Panagopolous. Emotionally, respondents couldn't accept that anything could go right with a Christian Republican Texan in the White House. Now the shoe is on the other foot, with hardcore Republicans unable to accept the solid job growth in the final years of the Obama regime. Both Democrats and Republicans believe their own partisan spin rather than their own eyes.

Our leaders should be better, but they aren't. The Bush administration failed to plan the Iraq occupation, and then failed for years to acknowledge that failure. The Obama administration failed to even trial test the healthcare.gov website, much less admit that running a fifth of the economy might require more planning than a political fundraiser.

The one thing Americans agree on is that the nation is on the wrong path because those bad people on the other side have too much power. As the old song says, "what is happening here?"

For a sober answer, read Stanley Rothman's posthumously published "The End of the Experiment," meaning the end of the American experiment. (Full disclosure: I helped edit the book after Stanley died.) Rothman, who spent a half century at Smith College, was a political scientist known for his research on elite ideals. With collaborator Bob Lichter, he coined the term "media elite" after showing empirically that reporters lean left, and that their views influence the stories they cover. Himself a man of the center left, Rothman was a self-made son of immigrants, a veteran and a patriot.

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Rothman argues that the nation's founders saw the American republic as uniquely fragile since it is based on values rather than tribal loyalties. Our government's legitimacy depends on elite and mass acceptance of Calvinist values, including success through work, love of God rather than self, universalism rather than narrow tribalism, integrity in public and private interactions, and restraining individual passions. These values were promoted by the institutions the founders created, chief among them a limited, constitutional government.

Through the 20th century, support for the founding values fell away, first among intellectuals, then among journalists and educators taking their cues from intellectuals, and eventually across society. Rather than embracing our nation's exceptionalism, Americans now hold narrower loyalties based on race, gender and religion. Today's Americans see America as great only when run by people just like them. This fits the narcissistic intolerance Rothman found in his 1970s research on New Left student leaders, who grew up to impose political correctness on many college campuses. One sees the same sort of intolerance in many politicians of the right.

As Rothman shows, our American experiment is unraveling; thus the key question to ask presidential candidates is how they propose to undo their nation's undoing.

Robert Maranto (rmaranto@uark.edu) is a Baltimore native and the 21st Century Chair in Leadership in the Department of Education at the University of Arkansas.

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