American exceptionalism

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). As for the president, he was catapulted to national fame by his 2004 speech in favor of American exceptionalism.* Apparently, everyone must propound some version of this doctrine; to doubt it is dangerous business.

For myself, I am not sure that our particular recipe of social policy is, overall, the best one available today. But I am sure that no group (whether a team, a firm, or a country) succeeds in fierce competition by constantly reaffirming that it already does everything better than everyone else and that no loyal member may doubt its superiority on all fronts. That is the intellectual style of GM ten years ago or of the British Empire before 1900. It is the pride that comes before the fall.

My old boss Bill Galston thinks Republicans have introduced the exceptionalism issue (with remarkably little textual basis) as “a respectable way of raising the question of whether Obama is one of us.” Maybe, but I think there are deeper anxieties at work. I even see an interesting symmetry between the discourse on both sides of the Atlantic. Here, if you criticize aspects of the US system, you are denying American exceptionalism and must wish you lived in France. Over there, if you suggest trimming welfare benefits or liberalizing markets, you have fallen prey to neoliberalism, the “Washington consensus,” and rapacious Anglo-Saxon values.

From a global, trans-historical perspective, the nations of Europe, North America, and the Pacific rim are quite similar. We all have mixed economies, democracies with technocratic institutions, similar parties, similar corporations, open flows of capital, and substantial flows of people. One could illustrate the similarities with a raft of statistics. For example, the income tax rate for an individual who has the mean national income and no child in France: 13.1%. In the USA: 16.5%. Total federal revenue as percent of GDP in Germany: 11.5%. In the USA: 10.9%. Total expenditure on welfare as percent of GDP in Canada: 16.9%. In the USA: 16.2%.

To be sure, there are also large differences on particular measures between particular countries. I have cherry-picked numbers that are similar. But the overall point is valid: we have fundamentally similar systems, compared to the vast diversity found in the world today or in history.

But within each of the wealthy, democratic, OECD countries, we are anxious: anxious that we may be overtaken by China, that our consumption is unsustainable, that we cannot afford the entitlements we have today, that we are losing our edge. The mainstream parties within each OECD country (including the US) do not differ from each other by nearly as much as their rhetoric suggests. They all have the same anxieties and similar proposals. For instance, Democrats and Republicans both believe in a mixed economy with a federal welfare state, and the proportion of GNP that they would dedicate to the federal government (if they didn’t have to negotiate with each other) would differ by just a few percentage points.

But the EU countries lie to the left of the Democrats in the US; and the US lies to the right of the center-right parties in Europe. Thus the rhetoric plays out as follows. If you’re an American liberal, you can score effective debating points by noting failures of our current system. For instance, we spend more on public health care than the other OECD countries, yet we only cover a small slice of our population with Medicare, Medicaid, and VA benefits, whereas the European countries cover everyone for less. A tempting counter for conservatives is to accuse liberals of preferring Europe and not being part of our patriotic team.

Meanwhile, if you’re a European of the center-right, you can score valid points by noting that their social welfare states are unaffordable (because of an aging population) and their labor markets are sclerotic. A tempting counter for European social democrats is to accuse the center-right of preferring America and the Washington Consensus.

I don’t suggest this comparison in order to excuse those American conservatives who view President Obama as unpatriotic. Their position is infuriating, especially given the similarities between his policies and rhetoric and theirs. I think the effort to squelch criticism and to prevent borrowing from overseas is potentially catastrophic for our national competitiveness and progress. Yet I suspect its causes are deep and pervasive.

    *”Tonight, we gather to affirm the greatness of our nation not because of the height of our skyscrapers, or the power of our military, or the size of our economy; our pride is based on a very simple premise, summed up in a declaration made over 200 years ago. ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’ That is the true genius of America.”