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Est. April 5, 2002
January 12, 2017 - Issue 681

How Exceptional is the U.S.?

"Most developed countries have provided
universal health care of some kind to their
people.  The U.S. has not.  Most have tried
to provide clean air and water.  The U.S.
only has done that in fits and starts, usually
when there is an emergency.  Developed nations
provide education for their young people."

If there is anything that will finally put to rest the myth of American “exceptionalism,” it is the two-party system’s monopoly, which in 2016, resulted in control by the Republicans of the U.S. House of Representatives, the Senate, and the White House.

In their simple and simplistic goal of “making government smaller,” and releasing Corporate America from taxation and the regulations that the GOP says is restricting the growth of the U.S. economy, Republicans, led by President-elect Donald Trump, are set to destroy many of the things that, in past decades, has made America at least good, if not great or exceptional.

Back in the first third of the 19th Century, Alexis de Tocqueville, the French historian who visited the new nation for an extended period, described the U.S. as “exceptional” and the heirs of the founders at the time thought the Frenchman was right. Ever since, those in power have run with it and the concept has continued to build ever since. From Tocqueville to Ronald Reagan and beyond, American politicians have spoken of that “city on the hill” in almost religious terms and the idea of exceptionalism was in so many ways equated with superiority, mostly ignoring the unique and exceptional nature of other nations, some of which had existed for hundreds if not thousands of years.

The U.S. was considered to be the first “new nation,” which meant that there were no nations that existed at the time that started out mostly free of monarchs, dictators, or authoritarians of any kind. The founding documents, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, stressed the freedom of “the people,” and that the nation would exist “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

In recent years, we have seen the attempts by presidents and others to “spread democracy” around the world. It isn’t just a casual effort, but another display of efforts to impose American plutocracy’s will on other countries. Spreading democracy sounds good at a press conference or in a speech, but the reality would come through if there were full and honest reporting by the vaunted American free press. There always is an economic element to the spread of democracy by generals and diplomats. In fact, that may be the prime reason for “spreading democracy,” the money or resources involved. That’s why the U.S. has some 800 bases around the world, many times more than several other “developed” nations, combined.

America has not been designated the policeman of the world by anyone, but it has assumed that role, which gives it entrée to almost any country in which it develops an interest: (Gold, diamonds, and rare minerals, anyone?) Behind every effort of the U.S. foreign service (in all its parts) is the money motive and in recent decades, it has become clear that transnational corporations, many of them originating in the U.S., have gained power in every country where they set foot. And, that doesn’t rule out the U.S., itself.

A definition of “exceptional” is “unusual or above average” and on that basis, the U.S. considers itself so and elected officials for generations have enhanced and embellished Tocqueville’s description of America, to the extent that a large percentage of the subject people (who are considered citizens) cannot recognize the country they live in. In a nation that purports to be “of the people, by the people, and for the people,” they find a smaller and smaller clique of politicians and products of Corporate America controlling greater and greater swaths of their life and the life of the nation.

Although Tocqueville admired the America he saw (the idea of individual freedom and individual expression for the masses, the young social scientist (and politician) was surprised at the detrimental treatment of the indigenous peoples and that the leaders of the new country tolerated slavery in their midst, not to mention that many of them, especially in the southern colonies, owned slaves themselves. One drawback he saw in the freedom of the individual was that a society of individuals might lack the intermediate social structures that are used to “mediate relations with the state” and that the people could be “atomized”.

That atomization seems to have come to pass and the evidence is the disarray of the duopoly that is given to us with two absolutely dominant political parties and the countless organizations and groups that, each in its own way, tries to affect the direction of the country and its policies, without seeming to make a great difference in the overall operation of a nation as rich and powerful as the U.S. There are occasional victories, to be sure, especially when several of the groups work together. Mostly, though, they don’t work together, and the small clique of politicians and corporate types who run things continue to do what they wish, with not a thought to the needs of the people.

The free press (newspapers, magazines, television, radio, movies) is owned by a few giant corporations and a few billionaires, and its reporting is mostly directed at government and corporate press releases, statements, speeches, or research. In other words, the material is handed to the dispensers of news and that’s what is fed to the people who seek to know what is happening in their world. News outlets have been reduced to moneymaking operations and that means paring down the news gathering staff to skeleton crews. Now, there is shrinking local staff, few foreign correspondents, and a dearth of news. So much for a well-informed electorate in the democratic republic about which Tocqueville thought so highly. Without that astute electorate, there’s not much chance that America can live up to its promise.

The U.S. and its leaders got off to a good start with the founding documents. They were all good words and inclined to liberty, egalitarianism, equity, opportunity, and laissez-faire economics. There was the little matter of who got to vote and whether all in the nation were fully human and the stain of chattel slavery that remains very visible today. Comparatively few were entitled to vote, and no matter how much the founders risked in separating from England, the power remained in the same hands, their hands, after the Revolutionary War.

These are a few things that stand in the way of fulfillment of the nation’s promise, but there are many other issues that count, as well, such as how the nation has devolved into a rather rigid class society, containing all of the destructive elements of such a society: poverty, ill health, a vastly degraded environment, poor housing, deteriorating infrastructure, and a criminal justice system that is skewed toward mass incarceration. All of this, and more, add up to the greatest disparity in income and wealth the U.S. has seen since the age of the Robber Barons of a century ago.

America’s “spread of democracy” has come largely through economic and military might, and there has not been a discernible trail of success in doing so. Much of it has had to do with resources of the nation. It has been mostly that the (usually) smaller nation loses and the “spreader of democracy” gains.

Most developed countries have provided universal health care of some kind to their people. The U.S. has not. Most have tried to provide clean air and water. The U.S. only has done that in fits and starts, usually when there is an emergency. Developed nations provide education for their young people. In the U.S., student debt is the largest debt pool in the country and youth are still being told that they need an education to get one of the largely non-existent jobs. Unemployment and underemployment is rampant in the U.S., while other developed nations have jobs programs and use government money to benefit their people in many ways, ways that the Right Wing in the U.S. will not allow.

Corporations do not quite rule the world, yet, but they’re working on it and those corporations either were based originally in the U.S. and went global or they cleared a path for other nations’ corporations to try their hand at ruling. Untold trillions of dollars of U.S. corporations are parked in banks in other countries, to avoid paying their taxes, and they’re getting away with it. With Trump as the new chief executive in the White House, they might repatriate those trillions, if the corporate tax rate is reduced substantially and that’s what Trump has promised them. For the average working stiff? Not so much. That’s what a Right Wing “populist” will do for his country. Working class, beware.

The founders put good words down on paper and envisioned that an exceptional country would materialize, but that country has yet to materialize, except in the minds of those in power that like things just as they are: The oligarchs and plutocrats in charge, with their minions lined up in rows, in Congress and state legislatures, to do their bidding. It’s not very pretty and it’s not exceptional. There’s a long way to go to get to the mythical city on the hill, and it will only be the people who will be able to do that, in solidarity, working together. Columnist, John Funiciello, is a long-time former newspaper reporter and labor organizer, who lives in the Mohawk Valley of New York State. In addition to labor work, he is organizing family farmers as they struggle to stay on the land under enormous pressure from factory food producers and land developers. Contact Mr. Funiciello and BC.




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