Double vision over US status: right and left talk it up and down


AMERICA:THE US has two visions of itself: a rose-tinted belief in American exceptionalism, vaunted by Republican presidential hopefuls, and a more gloomy assessment shared by academics, Democrats and the Occupy movement.

The former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney expressed the exceptionalist view in his book No Apology: The Case for American Greatness.

In Republican debates, Mr Romney accuses President Barack Obama of “apologising” for America. It is a roundabout way of saying the first African American president is different, not one of us.

Decline is a favourite theme in learned journals. The title Is America Over?is emblazoned on the cover of the current issue of Foreign Affairs. The article by George Packer, a writer for the New Yorkermagazine, makes a convincing case that the root of America’s ills is social inequality.

In a recent article in Foreign Policy, entitled The Myth of American Exceptionalism, the Harvard professor Stephen Walt concludes that “a decade of ill- advised tax cuts, two costly and unsuccessful wars, and a financial meltdown driven mostly by greed and corruption have managed to squander the privileged position that the US enjoyed at the end of the 20th century”.

Republican presidential hopefuls can yield to reality. In the Americans-have-gone-soft line of reasoning, representative Ron Paul of Texas proposed turning off the air conditioning in Iraq and Afghanistan to end those wars.

In several debates, the former senator Rick Santorum has noted that social mobility is now greater in Europe, regarded by many Republicans as a socialist hellhole, than in the US.

The “Gini coefficient” used to measure inequality shows that Europe and Canada have more equal societies than the US, which now ranks with Mexico and developing countries.

One wonders if President Obama could still say, as he did at the 2004 Democratic convention, “In no other country on earth is my story even possible.”

Opinion polls indicate that Americans are losing faith in exceptionalism. In a Pew Research Center report issued on November 17th, 49 per cent of respondents said US culture was superior to others.

That 49 per cent of the population believe the country is superior might be interpreted as arrogance, but it was the first time a majority responded negatively, and a marked decline from the first such survey in 2002. Then 60 per cent said America was superior.

Likewise, in a recent NBC/ Wall Street Journalpoll, a majority agreed that America was “at the start of a longer-term decline where the US is no longer the leading country in the world.”

Republican politicians seize on the slightest criticism as proof of treachery. On November 12th, Obama told a television interviewer: “We’ve been a little bit lazy, I think, over the last couple of decades.”

He said that the US hadn’t made enough effort to attract foreign direct investment. Statistics support this: the US share of the world’s FDI dropped from 41.4 per cent in 1999 to 17.6 per cent in 2009.

Obama had identified a serious problem, but Republican candidates accused him of maligning America. “Can you believe that?” Rick Perry asked in a television advertisement. “That’s what our president thinks is wrong with America? That Americans are lazy? That’s pathetic. It’s time to clean house in Washington.”

Republicans compare Obama to Jimmy Carter. This week, their senatorial committee released a video entitled Malazy, a hybrid of Jimmy Carter’s “malaise” and Obama’s “lazy” quotes.

There are doubtless many reasons for America’s decline. The atrocities of 9/11 led the Bush administration to invade two countries at a cost of several trillion dollars and 6,303 American lives.

Distracted by the “war on terror”, the US neglected its infrastructure and ignored the rising power of the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China).

But empires die from within. In his Foreign Affairsarticle, George Packer diagnoses “ideological rigidity bordering on fanaticism, an indifference to facts, an inability to think beyond the short term, the dissolution of national interest into partisan advantage”.

How is it, Packer asks, that a country with such dazzling technology and the combined knowledge of the universe at its fingertips cannot fix its railways, roads and bridges? It is because the post-second World War contract between strong government, enlightened business and active labour unions, which ensured “more shared prosperity than at any time in human history”, broke down.

That social contract disintegrated in the petroleum shock and economic slowdown of the 1970s. The Vietnam War and Watergate destroyed confidence in government. Lobbying mushroomed into a huge industry through which big business virtually took over US government under Republican and Democratic administrations alike.

The Reagan revolution, and the generation-long transfer of America’s wealth into the hands of the rich, had started.

Income inequality “is the ill that underlies all the others,” Packer writes. “Like an odorless [sic] gas, it pervades every corner of the US and saps the strength of the country’s democracy.”