American Exceptionalism

“The average age of the world’s greatest civilizations has been 200 years. These nations have progressed through this sequence: from bondage to spiritual faith; from spiritual faith to great courage; from great courage to liberty; from liberty to abundance; from abundance to selfishness; from selfishness to complacency; from complacency to apathy; from apathy to dependence; from dependence back again into bondage.”

Alex Fraser Tyler, circa 1801


We first began to hear the phrase “American Exceptionalism” from our political class in the past few years. It seems we needed to remind ourselves that we are an exceptional people. Often we begin defining things when we are no longer sure we fit the definition and so feel the need to explain even when no one is doing the asking. That seems to be the case now.

It doesn’t take an in-depth look at the systems which anchor and structure our nation to see that things are awry. America is the most self-governed country in the history of the World. There is government everywhere we look …from Washington, DC to the tiniest hamlet and boro in every State in the union.

We feel the need for all of this government because we believe that it is some form of government that will keep our society moving on the straight and narrow: finance the schools, pick up our garbage, keep us safe. Some of us believe that only government can contain the most greedy, venal parts of us, can help protect us from each other within the overarching capitalist system which now rules the World.

Liberty Bell with us flag behind imageAs liberals we should be comfortable seeing government in this light. The founding reality of the Liberal Party was that good, honest government was the foundational protector of the people against the sheer power of business to take and do what it wants because it has the money – and money talks.

But does that work anymore? Forty years ago, Ronald Reagan and those business people around him who were determined to finally bury what was left of the liberal Roosevelt New Deal, claimed that government was the problem. They were talking about government intrusion in their plans. Today we talk about government collusion within their plans…about a government which has been purchased by Big Business…in every way possible.

Must we remind ourselves of ‘American exceptionalism’ because we are no longer sure it exists?


Every aspect of our lives can be found engrained in a system: government, education, health, political, financial and judicial.

These systems must work well for us to make the very best of the societal areas which encircle our lives. Each man may be an island in poetry. But life in America is not a poem and we need all the help we can get in these critical areas of our life.

As we developed programs in all of these areas, these programs matured into systems and by so doing proposed to maximize the services provided in them.

But as we have repeated endlessly in these pieces, when systems become institutionalized “ … the people working in them care more about themselves than the people they are supposed to be serving…” When that happens, the system fails.

If we look carefully at every one of the systems listed above, all we see is failure. The people working in those systems are more interested in their own concerns then about working for the people they are supposed to be helping — all the rest of us.

If we start with the failure of government to truly govern in the past several decades, we see the most significant failure of any of the other systems. In a way they all combine to act as the foundation of government. Weakness in any of them doesn’t help, but it all began to crumble when election to a public office became a career rather than a public service. That reality, never foreseen by our land-owning Founding Fathers, triggered the corruption and eventual failure of the system which we now recognize as our government.

Photo of Donald Trump pointingIn the first Republican debate Donald Trump stated baldly what would become his campaign mantra. Talking to tens of millions of viewers, he pointed to the 17 opponents on either side of him and said : see these people up here …none of them care about you, give a damn about you…they only care about themselves.

He repeated that claim in debate after debate, added personal insults, and one by one chased his opposition off the stage and out of the race. Not one of them ever challenged that statement. Not once.

Americans throughout the nation believed that what he said was absolutely true. Political party labels seemed meaningless; politicians of one party refused to work with the other; government didn’t seem to be working because people in those jobs cared only about themselves; a lifetime of reelection seemed their only interest.

What else they saw and heard during the campaign didn’t seem to matter and so working class States voted for the man who was not a politician like the others in Washington…and therefore had to be better for them.

Practically speaking there is nothing mysterious about wanting to keep a job. If being elected to public office becomes a career it must be accepted that a man or woman will do anything to hold on to that job. If they hold elective office they will vote as they are told if that job is threatened. Public office is a job which pays well and has wonderful benefits. And that’s a good job to have. It’s just not a good government to have.

If we do not change the rules of the game to stop career politicians, our government will continue to fail us. Failure is built in.

Our healthcare system is no longer about health: it is about the cost of insurance policies, the power of insurance companies over healthcare professionals, their power to buy the votes of those politicians who make decisions that affect the bottom line of profit.

The ability of our healthcare system to work ranks in the low twenties among industrial countries of the World…despite the numbers of Nobel Prizes that go to American physicians and scientists.

All attempts to make healthcare better, more efficient, more successful are subservient to the will and wishes of the insurance and pharmaceutical industries. The success of the Affordable Care Act to help millions who have had no insurance has been downgraded by politicians who hate its derivation. Their failure to design and develop a better national healthcare system speaks for itself. They clearly don’t know how to do that; their only desire is to defeat what exists. Insurance companies deciding that profits are not big enough, are beginning to abandon the system putting it all in jeopardy.

FDR signs emergency banking act image
FDR Signs the Emergency Banking Relief Act in 1933
The financial industry is all about money: who has it, who wants more, who knows how to get it. Freed by Bill Clinton from the constraints of the Glass-Steagell Act approved in the Roosevelt era to minimize the possibility of another Great Depression, the banks, mortgage firms and real estate industry conspired to permit the sale of homes to people who clearly could not afford them. They then sold and resold that debt – the essentially worthless mortgage agreements – from bank to bank in this country and then to banks abroad.

In 2008 this outrageous, unregulated and uncontrolled greed brought the country to the edge of financial disaster. While no one was jailed for what happened, banks were fined hundreds of millions of dollars and Congress made an attempt to institute new levels of control. What legislation exists is now under attack from a pro-business administration who will deregulate at every occasion when profits are involved.

Despite committing billions of dollars to “fix public education” the facts reveal that things are worse than ever. Schools are not educating our children. America continues to drop lower and lower in the educational rankings of industrial nations and some Third World countries as well.

Today we graduate 54% of our college students after six years. Clearly the graduation rate for four years is lower. Today only 29% of our community college students graduate. Today the cost of a college education continues to put millions in debt…a debt that is now one and a third trillion dollars with 44 million people so burdened.

Nothing proposed has made a single dent in that number…nor is anything expected to in the years ahead. The debt is accepted by the nation as well as the debtors. It is a fact of our lives no matter how many lives are stunted because of it.

Dropping a level lower: two-thirds of our high school graduates are not prepared for college or for work; in NYC that number is 75% of high school graduates.

Dropping a level lower: despite billions of dollars and major changes in curricula, more than half of our elementary students continue to fail standardized tests in math and Language Arts

What can be done about this national failure will be discussed in the next piece on this website.

Party politics is a thing of the past. The origin of political parties was based on ideas and principles in the earliest days of this county’s development. They changed a bit but held true as political parties became an avenue for jobs and opportunities for the loyal and active.

All of that is gone. The basic meaning of both major parties have blurred into a mutual conformity…or into nothing at all. Barry Goldwater couldn’t convince the nation of a very conservative Republican Party but Ronald Reagan did. Republicans stood for growth, domination of the marketplace, reduced taxes and the recognition that people had to essentially make it on their own and could not depend on help from government. That is all gone.

Democrats stood for an awareness that government had to help level the playing field of opportunity in an economic system which clearly favored money. They recognized the value of the working class, built them into a middle class, expected to serve the needs of people and be rewarded at the polls.

Lyndon Johnson photo
Lyndon Johnson
Lyndon Johnson was the last liberal Democratic President. Two Southerners – Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton said the right things but moved in much more conservative ways. Carter’s lurching disappointed working Americans who abandoned the Democratic Party for Reagan’s promises – despite his record as Governor of California which proved something else.

Clinton felt the people’s pain but gave the banks and Wall St what it wanted…the end of critical regulations and laws which gave them a brand new income flow — student debt. By the time his Presidency was over Democrats no longer recognized themselves

Today political labels are just that – labels – signifying nothing.

Republicans backed a candidate for President who is not a Republican and whose chief strategist hates Republicans. We see and hear it every day.

Democrats twice nominated a Presidential candidate who clearly was terrible at being a candidate despite a brilliant grasp of policies. They are now led by two career politicians who have never accomplished anything in the way of genuine legislation despite a career in the job. Whether they can bring back voters they need by standing for something again remains debatable.

America jails more of its citizens than a repressive Russia and China combined. White collar criminals are fined. Criminals of color and in poverty are imprisoned. Most of our two million imprisoned are involved in using and selling narcotics. The prison industry offers lifetime jobs to employees.

The Supreme Court, totally politicized by the election of George W. Bush, can no longer be considered a separate arm of government. It is predictable and under the influence.

If these systems cannot be freed from the prison of their institutionalization, America can no longer believe it will be all it promises to be.

The great American poet Walt Whitman said:

Walt whitman image“…the genius of the United States is not best or most in its executives and legislators, not in its ambassadors or authors or colleges or churches or parlors, not even in its newspapers or inventors – but always most in the common people.”

If we do can no longer find room for the people to be heard or seen or succeed as their talents and efforts lead them, how can we even whisper about American exceptionalism?

Examining American exceptionalism without naming it such, the New York Times columnist Brooks Atkinson once wrote:

Atkinson Image“There has been a calculated risk in every stage of American development. The nation was built by those who took risks, pioneers who were not afraid of wilderness, brave men who were not afraid of failure, scientists who were not afraid of truth, thinkers who were not afraid of progress, dreamers who were not afraid of action.”

That sounds like American exceptionalism in its reality. Do you hear those sounds today?

Or do the words of de Jouvenel, the French philosopher seem closer to today’s truths:

DeJouvenel image“There is a continual dying of possible futures. And two mistakes are common: to be unaware of them while they are alive, and to be unaware of their death when they have been killed off by a lack of discovery.”

America remains the most powerful nation in the history of the World; the nation which attracts immigrants as no nation ever has. Our failure to educate our children which is now over 50 years old has clearly weakened us; has clearly put us in the path of the history of nations described in the opening of this essay.

We must recognize this failure if we are to free the systems which are our foundation from the selfish actions of those who run them. This is a fight for a different kind of freedom…an internal war not so different from the Civil War when America decided which kind of nation it would become.

We have to make that decision again. Now.

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