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The myth of American exceptionalism | COMMENTARY

Amid unprecedented attacks on our democracy, with polarization at historic highs and trust in government at historic lows, a constant remains: Conservatives still insist in the exceptionalism of the American democratic experiment.

But while there is much to appreciate about a government that has survived civil wars and world wars alike, and has inched forward, albeit slowly, to provide expanded rights for many of its citizens, including immigrants, it is time to end the myth of American exceptionalism. Not only is the concept not true, but perhaps more importantly, there is much that we can, and should, learn from democracies throughout the rest of the world.

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For example, Western European proportional electoral systems have encouraged more power sharing, and have shown much lower levels of partisan antagonism. This has been vital to counter the threat of far-right parties attempting to gain power in countries such as Germany and France. We may look to these countries as motivation to push for a multiparty system.

And in the face of hostile threats from China and COVID alike, Taiwan has actually strengthened its democracy, largely through increased transparency of the financing of political parties and affirming the judiciary’s complete independence. Granted, Taiwan democratic experiment is nascent in relation to America’s, but we can still learn from Taiwan’s example as we examine the role of money in our politics.

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Canada has begun to implement the recommendations of a national truth and reconciliation commission, in the vein of South Africa’s famed approach, to reconcile its historically oppressive treatment of Indigenous peoples. We could learn from this approach as we go through our own period of racial reckoning.

The exceptionalism of America, first coined by Alexis de Tocqueville in “Democracy in America” in 1840, originally was meant to convey the new country’s unique combination of freedom and pluralism. Now, however, some use the phrase and ideology as a way to insinuate that we should not question the governmental structures in place. By this same logic, any examination of our country’s oppressive racial history or imperialistic foreign policy pursuits is declared as counterproductive.

For example, Republicans took umbrage with President Obama declaring early in his presidency in a speech in France, in an attempt to repair wounds opened during the Bush Administration’s Iraq War offensive, that, “there have been times where America has shown arrogance and been dismissive, even derisive.” Mr. Obama’s self-reflective approach was described as an “apology tour” and taken by many as evidence that he did not love the United States.

Similarly, leading a national civics education organization for more than a decade, I often heard criticism that Action Civics, which teaches young people civics through empowering them to take action on issues they cared about, is fundamentally antithetical to American exceptionalism. This took hold in the Trump administration’s recent 1776 report, which argued that an educational approach that questions America’s exceptionalism “shatters the civic bonds that unite all Americans. It silences the discourse essential to a free society by breeding division, distrust, and hatred among citizens.”

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But it is difficult to claim that our democracy is exceptional when our democracy itself is at risk. This is truer than ever in the wake of the Jan. 6 insurrectionist attack. The peaceful transfer of power was one of the bulwarks of any exceptionalist stance, and the lack of accountability in the act of terror’s aftermath is just as concerning.

Instead, the reality of our democracy is bleak. Only an estimated 20% of the public trusts the federal government to do the right thing. Less than 30% of young people even think democracy is the best form of governance. Polarization is only increasing. In the early days of the Biden Administration, there is an 87-percentage-point gap between Democratic and Republican views of Joe Biden’s job performance: 98% of Democrats approve, but only 11% of Republicans do. All of this leads to a government, especially at the federal level, that is gridlocked, and unable to accomplish anything substantive. The Economist’s Democracy Index ranks the U.S. as the world’s 25th most democratic nation out of 167 countries analyzed, a “flawed democracy.” This is definitely not exceptional.

Democracy is not just at risk in the United States. Across the world, far-right parties are gaining power, autocrats are consolidating control, and civil society is being stifled. The Economist’s index registered the worst global score for democracy since it was first launched in 2006, with only 8.4% of the world’s population living in a full democracy, and 35.6% residing in authoritarian regimes.

The abdication of the myth of American exceptionalism should not be seen as defeat, however. Rather, in the face of unparalleled challenges, it should be seen as progress. Learning from democratic reforms across the world may be the best path we have to democratic renewal domestically.

Scott Warren (swarren@jhu.edu) is a visiting fellow at the SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins and the founder of a national civics education organization called Generation Citizen.

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