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Patriot Games: American Exceptionalism and the Endangered Middle Class

This land is my land — and don’t you forget it.

We want a good life with a nose for things — Wilco, “Ashes of American Flags”

Bracing for an Election Day that was all but guaranteed to reveal the U.S. voting public as collectively fickle and ideologically incoherent, as easily lulled by demagoguery into demanding incompatible policies and counterproductive gestures of national pique, Michael Kinsley wrote a column for Politico about the emptiness of the patriotic claims for American exceptionalism:

Because of our long history of democracy and freedom, or because we have a special mission to spread these values (or at least to remain a shining example of them), or because of our wealth, or because of our military strength, our nuclear arsenal, our wide-open spaces, our pragmatism, our idealism, or just because, the rules don’t apply to us.

Kinsley argues that such a view is “self-immolating. If people believe it’s true, they won’t do what’s necessary to make it true.” And since a Yahoo poll found that 75 percent of Americans believe the U.S. is “the greatest country in the world,” he expects that means most of us. America may be the richest country, and it did jump to fourth place this year on the UN’s Human Development Index (pdf), but by many objective measures — levels of education, longevity, child mortality, social mobility, corruption, productivity — it is not the “greatest.”  One can understand why an American might say so in a poll; if asked what the greatest baseball team is, I would say the Philadelphia Phillies out of sheer civic pride, their 10,000 losses notwithstanding.

Similarly, exceptionalism serves as a mental fog that obscures America’s flaws for the country’s fans: greatness is a given, the reasons and the rationalizations for it devised retroactively. So to compensate for the ways in which equal opportunity is actually eroding, exceptionalism offers the fantasy of a quasi-divinely ordained land in which continually expand social mobility and individual freedom. While we all sit back and wait for our national destiny to reconcile our debt-driven consumerism with the economic stagnation of the nonplutocratic classes, which haven’t seen a real wage increase since Grand Funk Railroad was big, the U.S. slowly becomes more like Japan in its lost decade or perhaps even more ominously, like de-imperialized Britain in its post-World War II fade.

American politics seems entirely unexceptional in its narcissism of petty differences, its factionalism, and its overarching subservience to lobbying interests.

One might reasonably wonder what can put an end to political apathy if not some attitude of faith in our nation’s democratic potential. Doesn’t a belief in greatness necessarily precede actual greatness. Doesn’t politics really operate like The Secret? Kinsley’s view runs directly counter to the advice philosopher Richard Rorty gave in a series of lectures in 1997 (published as Achieving Our Country), in which he excoriated not the voting public or the fans of Team America but the “cultural left” for its theory-abetted irrelevance and its refusal to construct “inspiring images of the country.” We need a “civic religion” that leverages nationalism in order to substitute “social justice for individual freedom as our country’s principal goal.” He urged progressives to set aside any “semi-conscious anti-Americanism” and embrace a Whitmanesque attitude of national pride.

Great Romantic poems, such as “Song of Myself” or the United States of America, are supposed to break through previous frames of reference, not be intelligible within them. To say that the United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem is to say that America will create the taste by which it will be judged. It is to envisage our nation-state as both self-creating poet and self-created poem.

Only with unwavering faith in America’s special mythopoeic destiny as “cooperative commonwealth” can we beat back the forces of sadistic reaction and deliver on the utopian promise of democracy, and thus advance on the march toward collective human freedom. But the assertion that the U.S. “will create the taste by which it will be judged” is rather reminiscent of the Bush administration official who in 2004 lectured The New York Times in about the limitations of the reality-based community.

The aide said that guys like me were ”in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who ”believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ”That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. ”We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

This suggests that when exceptionalism becomes pragmatic as Rorty intends, it takes the form of demonstrable hegemonic power, the ability to “create reality” and impose it unilaterally. This stems not from democratic deliberation but from an empire’s might, which proves itself by dictating the terms by which others shape their sense of the possible. Exceptionalism can begin to look totalitarian, complicating any faith in America as a poem of social justice. Patriotism again resembles a form of willful blindness to the ways in which the U.S.’s national interest differs little from other regimes.

Though faith in America’s destiny can motivate us to participate in politics, it doesn’t necessarily encourage us to transform it from a zero-sum game of competing interests into an expression of national togetherness and universal brotherhood. American politics seems entirely unexceptional in its narcissism of petty differences, its factionalism, and its overarching subservience to lobbying interests.

Manifest density: tea baggers’ devotion to American exceptionalism.

What role, then, is there for national pride? Julian Sanchez suggests that the widespread belief in exceptionalism stems from its being a cheap way for Americans to boost their self-esteem without having to accomplish much of anything:

You don’t have to graduate from an Ivy or make a lot of money to feel proud or special about being an American; you don’t have to do a damn thing but be born here. Cultural valorization of “American-ness” relative to other status markers, then, is a kind of redistribution of psychological capital to those who lack other sources of it.

Patriotism is thus not only the last refuge for a scoundrel but also the last resort for those with nothing else to be proud of. When politicians — people who have ostensibly accomplished something — push patriotism, Sanchez argues, it’s an act of “status redistribution as noblesse oblige”: they build brand America for the nobodies who have nothing better to invest their egos in.

That’s hardly laudable or even noble. After all, the same argument could be made for pro-sports-team fandom, or truly dangerous organizations, divisive race-pride movements and goon squads motivated by collective hate. As blogger South Bend Seven points out, Eric Hoffer warned of this in The True Believer, arguing that “the less justified a man is in claiming excellence for his own self, the more ready he is to claim all excellence for his nation, his religion, his race or his holy cause.”

An unswerving belief in national greatness and one’s alleged part in it won’t enhance one’s social capital much, but it may take the edge off social impotence.

What makes a person “less justified in claiming excellence” with regard to his own deeds is not some purely personal myopia, of course, but the realistic recognition that he can’t compete for status in any of the socially approved arenas: he can’t improve his breeding; he can’t land an exciting  job; he can’t jump to the income levels of the elite; he can’t keep up with ever-accelerating fashion cycles; he can’t even carve out a private realm where he will be left alone. Status is a proxy for autonomy, for the ability to dominate the social field the way the U.S. appears to dominate the globe. An unswerving belief in national greatness and one’s alleged part in it won’t enhance one’s social capital much, but it may take the edge off social impotence.

If nationalism actually worked to redistribute social status on an egalitarian basis, it might work as a cure for the ressentiment that Sanchez suggests has mobilized voters on the Right. But instead, it reinforces the Manicheanism that fuels the touchy sensitivities of the middle class in terminal decline, seeming to confirm the existence of shadowy enemies within and without who are inexplicably yet implacably against “freedom” and will stop at nothing to destroy the U.S. and the ideals it purports to represent. Unlike with early twentieth century populism, these enemies are not framed by their economic malfeasance. In today’s reactionary patriotic dispensation, the real but hidden class enemies immiserating the middle class are misperceived as enemies of the state, ruining America and thereby ruining ordinary lives.

Despite general contempt for bankers and bailouts, the villains troubling today’s right-wing populists are not those in the top tenth of a percentile in the income distribution, whose take of the national product has continued to grow at an unprecedented rate while nearly everybody else has tried to make do with less (and with more debt). The nativists in the Tea Party instead fixate on those they have been encouraged to see as the enemies of American culture: precisely the same nefarious naysayers on the cultural left that Rorty chastises — the smug, politically correct socialists who want to police our thoughts, stuff our heads with nihilism, snuff our ambitions at self-improvement, pass judgment on our tastes and behaviors, and redistribute what little wealth we have left. Exceptionalism tends to be a way station on the path to full-blown paranoia, as the poem of the United States of America gets rewritten as The Road to Serfdom. There must be a better way than this to imagine a utopia.

Rob would love to hear from you. Drop him a line at horninggenbub [at] gmail [dot] com.

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