becoming adults more slowly

A new paper by Jean Twenge and Heejung Park (2017) is getting a lot of coverage. The main finding is a delay in the onset of certain activities traditionally defined as “adult.” This graph shows the trends in having a driver’s license, drinking alcohol (ever), dating, and working for pay–all down steeply for teenagers.

Twenge and Park find that these trends are parallel for different racial and economic groups. They also find that adolescents simply go outside their homes without their parents much less often than their predecessors did.

These data jibe with my observations teaching college and raising kids (and observing their cohorts) for 25 years. But I would have strongly surmised that my observations had a class bias. I would have explained the delay in adult activities as a result of increasing investments in children by parents who have assets to invest. American parents spend an average of $38,000 per child while their children are between the ages of 18 and 34 (Frstenberg, Rumbaut, Settersten 2005). That mean statistic conceals huge differences by social class. Some young people are rationally delaying their careers and the formation of their families while they accumulate human capital, thanks to their parents. Other people are on their own at age 15.

This graph, from Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg’s paper on extracurricular activities, shows a widening disparity in the sheer cash invested in organized activities.

Another reason to hypothesize a growing gap in the onset of adulthood by social class is Annette Lareau’s finding (ca. 2003) that middle-class American parents use a strategy of “concerted cultivation”–viewing childhood as an opportunity to develop human capital–while working-class parents prefer “the accomplishment of natural growth,” or letting kids be kids. One reason that middle-class and affluent American teenagers don’t spend much time away from their parents is that their parents are now providing “concerted cultivation” in the form of paid after-school activities, supervised homework, intentional conversations about valuable topics, etc. Meanwhile, the working class are trying to let their kids enjoy some freedom before they have to get jobs.

Given these prior assumptions, this is my biggest surprise in the Twenge and Park article: the lack of difference in rates of “adult” activities by social class. Here I graph the data in their Table 2.

Twenge, J. M. and Park, H. (2017), The Decline in Adult Activities Among U.S. Adolescents, 1976–2016. Child Dev. doi:10.1111/cdev.12930.

Furstenberg, F.F,  Rumbaut, R.G. Settersten, R.A. , “On the Frontier of Adulthood,” in Settersten, Furstenberg, and Rumbaut, eds., On the Frontier of Adulthood: Theory, Research, and Public Policy (University of Chicago Press, 2005)

See also: the changing transition to adulthoodcoming of age in your thirtiesGeneration Me?

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religion and politics in the US versus many other countries

Here is a thesis that experts can evaluate better than I: The issue of religion in politics is fundamentally different in the US from many other countries. In the US, it is mainly about majority opinions versus minority rights. In countries from Mexico to Myanmar, it is about the social functions of a single organized body, the clergy. This difference matters for everyday politics.

The US has always had a religious majority that has been divided among many Christian denominations, with other faiths also represented. The Constitution gives individuals the right to exercise their religions freely. It also prevents any religion from being “established.”

The classic questions of religion and politics in the US involve majorities versus minorities. Sometimes, a coalition composed of many denominations supports a policy (e.g., banning abortion) for reasons that include religious ones. Then the questions become: 1) Does the desired policy impinge on constitutional rights? and 2) Are religious reasons for the policy acceptable or desirable in the public sphere? At other times, the majority becomes adverse to a particular religion–Mormonism in the 1800s being a clear example. Then the same two questions arise, but now the majority threatens the minority’s free exercise.

In nations with a single dominant religion that is organized in a hierarchical fashion (Catholic countries, but also, perhaps, some Muslim, Orthodox, Buddhist, Lutheran, and Anglican countries, plus in some respects, Israel), the issue is different. These countries have an organized, institutionalized body: the clergy. Typically, the clergy has a history of delivering some public services to the nation as a whole. For example, there may have been a time when the Catholic Church ran and staffed almost all of the state-funded schools in a given country. Sometimes, there is also a history of violent reaction against the clergy as an institution. Priests were executed in the French and Mexican revolutions, for instance.

In these countries, the question is not directly about whether to enact laws consistent with religious values. The question is whether to entrust an organized group of people, the clergy, with particular social functions. At the anti-clerical end of the spectrum, the clergy or priesthood is seen as a bane on society. At the clerical end, it is seen as a bulwark. These positions are, in principle, separate from one’s opinions of theology and of policy issues. A person could agree with the Church on most topics but distrust the clergy, or vice versa.

Here are some practical consequences of the difference:

  1. In the US, when debates over policy have religious components, they are deeply divisive and feel existential. At least some other countries treat such debates as fairly routine. The divisive issues for them concern the prerogatives of the clergy as an institution. An interesting hybrid case is Ireland, where the ballot victory on same-sex marriage was greeted with joy, at least in Dublin. I think voters were pro-equality, they celebrated because they had defeated the Irish clergy, a (currently unpopular) institution.
  2.  In the US, religious involvement in politics is usually mediated by officially secular political parties. The parties strive to assemble majorities by drawing people from several denominations. They typically recruit believers, not churches, into their ranks. In many other countries, each political party has a relationship with the main denomination, ranging from a formal partnership (e.g., for the Christian Democratic parties) to official hostility. Indifference may also be an option, just as a party can be neutral on other issues, but it will face questions about the clergy.
  3. In the US, it doesn’t really make sense to ask a candidate what she thinks of “the clergy.” You can ask her about abortion, God, her own faith, or the First Amendment, but there is no national clergy to have an opinion about.

See also: a typology of denominationsthe political advantages of organized religionreligion and politics in the Muslim world and the USA; and on religion in public debates and specifically in middle school classrooms.

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Lifeworld and System: a primer

The great social theorist Jürgen Habermas has drawn attention–for more than half a century–to the problem that he calls the “colonization of the Lifeworld by System.” Here is my explanation, based mainly on a rare concrete example from his Theory of Communicative Action, vol. 2. 

The Lifeworld, for Habermas, is the background of ordinary life: mainly private, somewhat naive and biased, but also authentic and essential to our satisfaction as human beings. It is a “reservoir of taken-for-granteds, of unshaken convictions that participants in communication draw upon in cooperative processes of interpretation.” In the Lifeworld, we mostly communicate with people we know and who share our daily experience, so our communications tend to be opaque to outsiders and certainly not persuasive to people unlike us. But Habermas argues that we are incapable of thinking about everything at once. In order to reason and communicate, we must take most points as givens. Only then can “single elements, specific taken-for-granteds” be brought up for conversation and critical analysis.

Meanwhile, the “System” is composed of formal organizations, such as governments, corporations, parties, unions, and courts. People in a System have official roles and must pursue pre-defined goals (albeit sometimes with ethical constraints). For example, defense lawyers are required to defend their clients, corporate CEOs are supposed to maximize profit, and comptrollers are supposed to reduce waste in their own organizations. In the current period, there are fundamentally two Systems: markets (in which instrumental action leads to profit) and governments (in which instrumental action demonstrates power). Although the people who work in markets and governments are complex individuals with other commitments, their official work responsibilities are to maximize money or to administer power.

To illustrate the Lifeworld, Habermas invites us to envision an “older construction worker who sends a younger and newly arrived co-worker to fetch some beer, telling him to hurry up and be back in a few minutes.” The senior worker assumes that a whole set of beliefs and values are shared on the team: German construction workers enjoy and expect to drink beer at breaks during the workday, beer is for sale in the vicinity, the younger and/or most recently hired person is the one who does unpaid chores for the group, and so on. Each of these assumptions could be brought into doubt and subjected to debate. For instance, as Habermas suggests, the younger worker might say, “But I don’t have a car,” or “I’m not thirsty.” Other “elements of the situation” might generally pass unnoticed yet become relevant as circumstances change. If the younger worker is an immigrant without health coverage and he falls off the ladder as he goes to buy the beer, several relevant laws and controversies may suddenly occur to the workers, moving from their background knowledge to topics of explicit discussion. But at any given moment, simply by virtue of being human, the workers must assume most features of the situation as a shared and implicit background, a “vast and incalculable web of presuppositions.” This is their Lifeworld.

In order for the workers (or any other group of people) to be free and self-governing, they must be able to render any aspect of the Lifeworld problematic. It is a definitive feature of modernity that no assumptions are considered immune to critique; and it is a condition of democracy that no critique is blocked by law or other force. When the younger construction worker notes that no beer is available within walking distance and he doesn’t have a car, he is giving a reason for someone else to go. This turns his work group into a small Public Sphere. To the extent it is democratic and deliberative, his reasons will require responses.

Imagine (to go beyond Habermas’ presentation of this example) that the radio is playing as these men work. A news program includes an interview with a feminist activist who criticizes the construction industry for hiring very few women, followed by an immigrant leader who notes that alcohol is forbidden to Muslims (thus the assumption that everyone wants to drink beer is exclusionary), followed by a health expert who attributes disease to excessive daytime beer consumption. These people are making arguments that compel critical attention to specific aspects of the workers’ Lifeworld. They represent the larger Public Sphere of the Federal Republic or the European Union. It doesn’t matter whether the interviewees have self-interested motivations, such as selling copies of their books, or whether the radio station is a for-profit company trying to attract listeners. The format of any reasonably well-run news program will compel the speakers to give reasons that can be checked and assessed by reporters and listeners. This is a case of a democratic Public Sphere challenging citizens to reflect about aspects of their Lifeworld.

But although every particular point should be subject to discussion, the whole Lifeworld must be protected. One reason is that we need the Lifeworld to think at all, for we are capable of testing a specific assumption only while holding our other assumptions for granted. A second reason is that our Lifeworld is ours, a condition of living authentically. Any political program that tries to strip a group of people of their accumulated assumptions all at once would be totalitarian. A radio program that brings separate issues to the workers’ attention expands their thinking; but if a revolutionary government seizes all the radio stations and begins broadcasting propaganda against contemporary German working-class culture as a whole, that is a threat to their Lifeworld.

Meanwhile, the Lifeworld is vulnerable to manipulation by interested parties who act instrumentally. For example, suppose that on the radio, the workers hear men with similar accents to their own praising a particular brand of beer. Maybe women are also heard, enjoying these men’s company and appreciating their good taste. It sounds as if friends have entered the real Lifeworld of the construction site, but these supposed friends are really actors who are are paid to sell beer. Of course, the workers will understand the purpose of an advertisement, yet by skillfully imitating their authentic Lifeworld, the ad can affect their behavior. No reasons need be given; no rebuttal is invited. In this case, Habermas would say that the Lifeworld of the workers has been colonized by the System of markets. The System of government might similarly colonize their Lifeworld if a candidate for public office started talking on the radio as if he were their friend who shared their values and experiences.

In discussions of Systems colonizing Lifeworlds, common examples include commercial advertisements that masquerade as authentic communications. These are cases of “commodification”: firms mining the Lifeworld for economic advantage. Habermas also emphasizes the tendency of welfare state bureaucracies to “juridify” or “judicialize” the Lifeworld. For instance, when well-intentioned states seek to protect pupils and parents against unfairness in testing and discipline, fairness “is gained at the cost of a judicialization and bureaucratization that penetrates deep into the teaching and learning process,” depersonalizing the school, inhibiting innovation, and undermining relationships.

A neo-Marxist line of criticism faults Habermas for equating juridification with commodification and the state with the market. This critique hold that the underlying process is capitalist exploitation, and the welfare-state is only a threat to the Lifeworld because it is a tool of capital. Habermas disagrees. For him the underlying process is growing specialization, a feature of modernity. He insists that in socialist societies, the state colonizes the Lifeworld in a parallel way to the market’s colonization in capitalist societies; and in welfare states, both threats operate at once.

[It turns out that I have posted 58 times before on Habermas, collected here. My broadest posts are probably Habermas and critical theory (a primer)saving Habermas from the deliberative democrats; and Ostrom, Habermas, and Gandhi are all we need.]

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Democrats as technocrats

This web search takes you to a whole stack of good recent writing about the Democratic Party as the technocratic party, with headlines ranging from Twilight of the Technocrats? to The Triumph of the Technocrats. In lieu of a critical review, I’d pose these questions:

  1. What would a technocrat support and do in our context? It’s possible to be a socialist technocrat or a technocrat who works for a huge, for-profit company. I presume that a technocratic Democrat today is someone who believes in optimizing GDP growth, environmental sustainability, and reductions in tangible human distress (e.g., disease, homicide) through efficient governmental policies. These desired outcomes often conflict, and then technocrats are fine with compromise. To qualify as a technocrat, you can’t be too enthusiastic about working with ordinary citizens on public issues, and you can’t base your agenda on controversial, challenging moral ideals.
  2. Do Democrats present themselves as technocrats, in this sense? Some do and some don’t. It seems fair to read the positive agenda of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign as largely technocratic (she promised to govern competently and continue the balanced progress of her predecessor), although her critique of Donald Trump was ethical rather than technical. I also think that Clinton was in a tough spot because she didn’t believe that she could accomplish transformative change with a Republican Congress; thus managerial competence seemed a workable alternative. The 2016 campaign does not demonstrate that she–let alone all Democrats–are fully technocratic. However, consider a different case that is pretty revealing: the Josiah Bartlet Administration. This is an informative example just because it is idealized and fictional, free of any necessary constraints. The Bartlet White House is staffed with hard-working, highly-educated, unrealistically competent, smartest-guy-in-the-room, ethical people who strive to balance the budget while making incremental progress on social issues. Hollywood’s idealized Democrats are technocrats in full.
  3. Do Democrats choose technocratic policies? Again, I’d say “sometimes.” Both the Clinton and Obama Administrations definitely showed some predilection for measurable, testable outcomes; for behavioral economics; and for models that were consistent with academic research about the economy and the climate. They weren’t particularly good at empowering citizens to govern themselves or collaborating with social movements. On the other hand, the Affordable Care Act has a moral core (aiming to cover people without health insurance), even if many of its tools and strategies are best defined as technocratic.
  4. Are Democrats good technocrats? There has been more economic growth under Democratic than Republican presidents. But the sample is small, several Democratic presidents faced conservative congresses, and any correlation with a small “n” can easily be spurious. A deeper point is that Democrats are currently more committed to the mainstream findings of climate science, social policy research, and academic economics than Republicans are. Their accomplishments may be affected by sheer chance, but their strategies tend to be consistent with positivist, empirical research.
  5. Is Democratic technocracy consistent with justice? No. Almost any theory of justice, from libertarian to strongly egalitarian, would demand fundamental shifts from the status quo. Certainly, I would favor deeper changes in our basic social contract. On the other hand, compared to what? Managing our existing social policies in a competent way delivers substantial, if inadequate, justice. It beats incompetence or deliberate assaults on existing social institutions. In a multi-party parliamentary democracy, a center-left technocratic party would play an important role. I would be open to voting for it, depending on the circumstances and the alternatives. In our two-party system, a technocratic and centrist component competes for control of the Democratic Party. It shouldn’t be surprising that this component receives constant criticism from within the Party, because the Democrats represent a broader coalition, and there is plenty of room to the left of someone like Hillary Clinton. Whatever you think of her, I don’t think you can complain that she was criticized from her left.
  6. Is Democratic technocracy good politics? That’s not a question that will be settled to everyone’s satisfaction any time soon. Clinton lost to Trump but also won the popular vote. She was technocratic but not completely so. She faced many contingencies, from Fox News to Bernie to Comey, and handled them in ways that we can debate for the next decade. Again, the answer has to be: Compared to what? A compelling new vision of America’s social contract would beat competent management at the polls. But competent management may beat incompetence or a deeply unpopular vision (from either right or left).
  7. What’s driving the Democratic Party’s drift to technocracy? One could explain it in class terms: the Democratic coalition is now highly educated, including many people who make a living by demonstrating expertise. But I would propose a deeper thesis. Modernity itself is defined by constant increases in specialization and differentiation, plus radical doubts about our ability to know which ends are moral or just. In that context, people prosper who are good at applying technical reasoning to complex problems without worrying too much about whether the ultimate ends are right. Modernity has generated a white-collar governing class that is currently aligned with the Democrats, but more than that, it has generated a very high estimation of expertise combined with a leeriness about moral discourse. Religious conservatives monopolize the opposition to both of these trends. Getting out of this trap requires more than new messages and policies. It is a fundamental cultural problem.

See also: the rise of an expert class and its implications for democracyvarieties of neoliberalismthe big lessons of Obamacarethe new manipulative politics: behavioral economics, microtargeting, and the choice confronting Organizing for Action; and why the white working class must organize.

Posted in 2016 election, populism, revitalizing the left, Uncategorized | 3 Comments

no justice, no peace? (on the relationship between these concepts)

As a political philosopher, I’m trained to think about justice versus injustice. Both terms are controversial. It would be hard to find two people (even two who might share the label be labeled “social justice warriors”) who define “justice” exactly alike. We each put together our own recipes using various combinations and flavors of liberty, equality, happiness, solidarity, sustainability, rights, voice, agency, status, security, and other values that conflict in practice. Injustice is equally complicated, and it may not mean the mere absence or negation of justice. But although the polarity of justice/injustice does not generate consensus, it structures many of our debates.

There’s another polarity that plays an analogous role for people who have been strongly influenced by Gandhi or the Civil Rights Movement: for instance, people who work in Peace and Conflict Studies.  This is the polarity of violence versus peace.

Again, both terms are complicated. Just as it won’t really work to define “justice” as equality (Equality of what? For whom? Equality and nothing else?), so it doesn’t work to define violence as physical assault, or peace as the absence of violence. Like justice, peace can provide the framework for a discussion in which various definitions are proposed and defended.

The following schematic diagram depicts these polarities as two different axes. It implies that it’s conceptually possible to have an unjust situation of peace or a just case of violence. Consider, for example, the imprisonment of a former dictator. He is arrested at gunpoint and forced into a cell (violence) but that’s a manifestation of justice. This case belongs in the bottom-left quadrant. On the other hand, situations of political quiescence involve living in injustice without any conflict: the top-right.

Some would argue that (true) justice is (true) peace; and injustice equals violence. Then the schematic is wrong; there is just one continuum whose ends should be labeled “Peace/Justice” and “Violence/Injustice.”

Or it could be that peace is a component of justice but not the only component. Perhaps you can’t have perfect justice with violence, but you can have a violent situation that’s more just than a peaceful situation would be, if the former scores higher on liberty, equality, or some other value.

My general instinct is to resist smooshing values together, because then we fool ourselves into ignoring tradeoffs. For instance, I don’t like to load lots of values into the definition of “democracy.” I prefer to define it as a system for making binding decisions in a group that affords everyone roughly equal influence. Then we can ask whether democracy requires or implies other values, such as social equality or freedom of speech, or whether it conflicts with these values. The same logic would encourage distinguishing between peace and justice as two different goods.

I have not made up my mind on this question, but here’s a text with which to think about it. Dr. King visited Joan Baez and other anti-war protesters in prison in Santa Rita, CA, on Jan. 14, 1968. Addressing a crowd outside the prison, he said (in my transcription from the audio):

There can be no justice without peace and there can be no peace without justice. People ask me from time to time, ‘Aren’t you getting out of your field? Aren’t you supposed to be working in civil rights?’ They go on to say, ‘The two issues are not to be mixed.’ And my own answer is that I have been working too long and too hard now against segregated public accommodations to end up at this stage of my life segregating my moral concerns. For I believe absolutely that justice is indivisible and injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. And I want to make it very clear that I’m going to continue with all of my might, with all of my energy, and with all of my action to oppose that abominable, evil, unjust war in Vietnam.

The first sentence might mean that peace and justice are always causally connected: one is necessary for the other. But then it becomes clear that King’s struggle for Civil Rights is about “justice,” and his opposition to the war is about “peace,” and he wants to connect these two concerns because they are both “moral.” That implies that justice and peace are two distinct components of a larger category: what is moral or right. Finally, King defines the specific war in Vietnam as unjust, leaving open the possibility that a different war (e.g., the US Civil War?) might be just. In that case, peace in Vietnam is a necessity of justice but not because it will bring about peace; only because the war is an injustice.

At another level, of course, King insists on peace as a strategy for justice. Active nonviolence is an ethical and effective method in a wide range of circumstances, with a better record of success than violent insurrection has. But analytically, we could still distinguish between peaceful and just means and between peaceful and just ends and then ask when any of these four go together.

See also:  the kind of sacrifice required in nonviolencesocial justice should not be a cliché; and we are for social justice, but what is it?

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assessment criteria for participation in a seminar

Thinking that I should be explicit about how I define good participation in a seminar that I’m teaching, I circulated these eight criteria:

  • Being responsive to other students. (Responsiveness needn’t always be immediate, verbal, or occur within the class discussion itself.)
  • Building on others’ contributions, and sometimes making links among different people’s contributions or between what they have said and the text.
  • Demonstrating genuine respect for the others, where respect does not require agreement. (In fact, sometimes respect requires explicit disagreement because you take the other person’s ideas seriously.)
  • Focusing on the topic and the texts, which does not preclude drawing unexpected connections beyond them.
  • Taking risks, trying out ideas that you don’t necessarily endorse, and asking questions that might be perceived as naive or uninformed.
  • Seeking truth or clarity or insight (instead of other objectives).
  • Exercising freedom of speech along with a degree of tact and concern for the other people.
  • Demonstrating responsibility for the other students’ learning in what you say (and occasionally by a decision not to speak).

Students also privately wrote how they will assess themselves. Their assessments will be for their reflection alone–I won’t ever see them.

See also: responsiveness as a virtuewhat makes conversation go well (a network model); and network dynamics in conversation.

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my fall philosophy class on the question: How should I live?

This introductory course will emphasize one of the great philosophical questions: “How should I live?” The readings will specifically consider whether truthfulness, happiness, and justice are important aspects of a good life, and how each should be defined. …

Moral Mapping Exercise: With colleagues, I have been developing a method for moral introspection that involves making and revising a network diagram (or map) of your moral ideas and the connections among them. I will ask you to make a private map early on and to revise it regularly. I will ask you to bring a copy to class that you are comfortable sharing: it should omit any ideas that you prefer to keep private. At the end, I will collect your final map and a 2-page reflection on it. Instructions are here.

Syllabus: Subject to Change

Continue reading

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the Obama Foundation Fellowship

The Obama Foundation is recruiting their first cohort of Fellows. This inaugural class will have a special opportunity to shape the program for the future. The fellowship takes the form of four face-to-face gatherings over two years, plus a lot of opportunities for professional development. The Foundation is looking for a “diverse set of community-minded rising stars – organizers, inventors, artists, entrepreneurs, journalists, and more – who are altering the civic engagement landscape. By engaging their fellow citizens to work together in new and meaningful ways, Obama Foundation Fellows will model how any individual can become an active citizen in their community.” More here.

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anxieties about American exceptionalism

In our century, a major fault line in US politics has been the question of “American exceptionalism,” meaning the unique excellence or mission of the USA–“the notion that America is freer and more democratic than any other nation, and for that reason, a model, vindicator, and at times the chief defender of ordered liberty and self-government in the world” (Stanley Kurtz).

As I observed in 2010, “Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney, and Rick Santorum agree: the president and his allies in Washington deny ‘American exceptionalism’ in a way that is unprecedented (Huckabee), ‘truly alarming’ (Gingrich), or ‘misguided and bankrupt’ (Romney).”

This was ironic, since Barack Obama had come to national attention with a riveting speech at the 2004 Democratic convention in defense of nothing other than … American exceptionalism. “Tonight,” Senator Obama had said, “we gather to affirm the greatness of our nation.” Throughout his presidency, he often spoke on the same theme. In 2014, he said, “I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being.” And yet accusing him of failing to understand–or of actively undermining–America’s unique excellence became a competitive sport on the right.

But there is an important group that doesn’t really believe in American exceptionalism: the American public. Here is a result from this week’s Wall Street Journal/NBC poll:

It looks as if most Americans think the US is above average as a place to live (I agree, by the way), but that just over a quarter think it’s the single best place in the world. Asked to rate the “national character,” the median respondent gives us a score of 5 out of 10, down from 6 out of 10 in 1998. This survey question makes no explicit mention of other countries, and it’s possible that people would rate every other nation’s character lower than ours–but that seems unlikely for the people who rate us 5 or lower.

The claim that America is “is freer and more democratic than any other nation” is empirical. It begs for comparative statistics. Freedom House rates the US 89 on freedom, a good score but 11 points below Sweden’s perfect 100. Maybe they’re wrong, but ranking the US number one in the world certainly requires evidence. It’s not a test of patriotism but a hypothesis about the world.

One might focus instead on prosperity and economic dynamism. But the enormous comparative advantages that we held as result of the Second World War have faded away, and we now represent just 4% of the population of a competitive world in which lots of nations, small and large, inevitably score economic successes.

This gap between a rhetoric of unique superiority and the facts seems to cause profound anxiety. In 2016, Trump positioned himself as the candidate who believed that the US should be better than every other nation but had lost that status due to feckless politicians. He often asserts that we are worse off today than anyone else–for example, that our tax rates are uniquely high, as if we were the socialist exception in a neoliberal world. Clinton took the view that we were “already great.”

Both positions could be seen as responses to anxiety. Valid criticisms of the American past (slavery and segregation, especially) have perhaps fueled this anxiety by suggesting that we were never exceptionally great to start with. That’s a raw point for people who think that our exceptionalism is threatened.

Three issues to think about:

  • To what extent is the US actually “exceptional”–not in the sense of better, but different? We are unusual (but not actually unique) in our degree of racial diversity. We have the oldest constitution in the world. We have no way to call an early election to end a failing administration. We have never had a socialist government, but our left has a robust alternative tradition of pluralist populism. We are the birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement and its philosophy of politics. We fought a civil war over the question of slavery in which 750,000 died. We tend to think of ourselves as a commercial republic instead of, for example, a social democracy, a social market economy, or a consensus model. We may once have had a high degree of economic mobility, but now we do not. We once had a very strong voluntary sector, but it, too, is now probably weaker than those in other nations. We are a Petri dish for new religions, some messianic in nature; and we are more religious than other advanced economies. These are just examples of ways that we are, or once were, unusual.
  • Underlying most claims of exceptionalism are normative positions: assertions that some aspects of our society are not just unusual, but valuable. What values that are plausibly associated with the US are worthy of praise? Should we be proud because we have a tradition of laissez-faire economic policies? Or because of the New Deal and its legacies?
  • What attitude should an American citizen hold toward the US Republic? Favoritism over other countries? An even-handed and detached stance toward the US as just one of many countries? For myself, I would say: a special, focused responsibility for awakening the better angels of our nature.

See also: the new history warsAmerican exceptionalismBritish exceptionalism: how the UK is different from Europeshould we teach patriotism?; and a palindrome (a poem on America).

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St Kevin had the gift of talking with beasts.
It came naturally to him, a hermit,
Living amongst them in his hollow tree
In Glendalough, long vale of icy lakes.

But just because he and they could converse
Doesn’t mean that everything went smoothly.
“Let me milk you,” he said, “so that I can
Subsist on a diet of doe’s milk and sage.”

She sprang latterally up the heathered hill.
“Absolutely not; never. That’s invasive,
Embarrassing, probably painful, strange.
Find something else to drink, or go back to your kind.”

“Modesty forbids,” he said, “that I
Should apply the word to myself, yet ‘saintly,’
Surely, is the term that simple truth demands.
Didn’t you see how, when they’d gnawed bare the bones

And longed for more–my human multitude–
I had only to pray; then juicy meat reclothed
Each rib that they had stripped to white? I am
listened to; you’d be wise to do what I say.”

But she was gone, her dappled flanks just shimmers
In the fluttering lushness, the cool dampness,
The extravagant, multitudinous greenness
Of the breezy glen with its two clear lakes.

A red fox spoke up. “Large mammals are warned,”
Said he, “to be in their dens or burrows
By nightfall and to avoid all noises
That might disturb or fright the smaller kind.

“Also: no kindling fires or leaving picked bones
In piles, no uncovered waste, odd chanting,
Spitting in the loughs, marching right though nests,
Shouting, shooting, or walking on the grass.”

St Kevin understood where this was headed.
It wasn’t just his personal repute
He had to worry about. There was also
His ministry to pagans and sinners.

He gathered the wary beasts in a ring.
“I’ll live humbly in my hollow tree, making
No demands, restricting my human flock
To the upper vale and ringing their buildings

“With stone walls, as much to hem them in
As your kind out. Let’s just keep today amongst
Ourselves, shall we? Let the story be that Kevin,
Renouncing the world, spoke the tongues of beasts

In Glendalough, that broad, still vale, where leaves
Of every green tremble when the soft rain falls.”

(See also: the scholar and his dog ; for Gerard Manley Hopkins; and The Cliff-Top Monastery by A.B. Jackson)

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