Our new American exceptionalism

The murder of innocents in May in Buffalo, N.Y., and Uvalde, Texas, brings the total number of Americans killed in more than 270 mass shootings since 2009 to over 1,500. Sadly, this ongoing domestic slaughter is a measure of the new American exceptionalism.

American exceptionalism traditionally was rooted in the country’s history of remarkable achievements, beginning with establishing the United States of America as the first constitutional republic in which leaders were elected. When George Washington, a revered Revolutionary general and popular first president of the country, stepped down after two terms and was replaced by the winner of a competitive election, it supported the view domestically and among some in Europe that America was setting a standard for self-government under the rule of law others would do well to emulate.

Over the next two centuries, America’s dynamic economy, general prosperity, industrial and agricultural development, scientific and engineering achievements, civil rights progress, and history of generally free elections and peaceful transfers of power provided concrete reasons for Americans and others to view America as an exceptional country.

America’s role in WW I and WW II and its support for rebuilding devastated economies after WW II proved to all American politicians, most Americans, and many foreigners that America was both exceptional and essential for global peace and stability.

2022 is an election year, so most — if not all — American politicians will use campaign rhetoric about American exceptionalism. The rhetoric will call to mind past achievements and virtues, but the sad reality is that what is exceptional about America today is the inability of its political leaders and processes to solve problems that are steadily eroding America’s place in the world — as well as unity, security, and prosperity at home.

The ongoing epidemic of gun violence in America is a good example of a problem America has been unable to solve. Other countries — such as Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Great Britain, and Norway — have experienced mass shootings, but generally only once or twice, because their political leaders took action to prevent easy access to weapons of mass murder. In America, however, despite literally hundreds of mass shootings and public opinion polls that consistently show majority support for restricting access to guns of mass murder, nothing has been done to stop the carnage — in fact, many politicians and lobbying groups have pressed for — and often succeeded in — loosening gun laws.

As a result, America is truly exceptional in its ongoing record of gun violence and mass murder.

American science and engineering have long been synonymous with American exceptionalism. President Kennedy, for example, said America was going to the moon — and America’s scientists and engineers solved the problem required to achieve that result.   

In contrast, almost 40 years ago, American scientists identified a problem that needed to be solved: Anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions were warming the planet and if not stopped would dramatically alter the natural world, potentially becoming an existential threat to human life and civilization. In sharp contrast to the way America marshaled technology to win WW II and outrun the Soviet Union, American policymakers have been fitful in addressing climate change. Some presidents take the issue seriously, and others express hostility or disbelief and refuse to address it. The Congress has been consistently feckless on the issue. Among the major developed countries, America is exceptional for its on-again/off-again approach to a global threat its scientists not only identified but are expressing growing alarm about.

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted America’s traditional and more recent forms of exceptionalism. When the virus that causes Covid-19 first appeared, American scientists developed — and American pharmaceutical companies produced — effective vaccines in record time. Despite this stunning achievement, however, America suffered more COVID deaths per capita than any other developed country, another marker of America’s grim new exceptionalism.      

A final example concerns elections. America was exceptional in demonstrating more than two centuries ago that under the rule of law the peaceful transfer of power was possible following free and fair elections. It has also been exceptional in steadily expanding and protecting the right to vote, including overcoming Southern resistance to Black Americans voting. More recently, however, some Southern and other states have taken steps that make it more difficult and less likely for minorities, poor people, and even students to vote. America also has a former incumbent president, his supporters in Congress, and a mob on Jan. 6, 2021, who claim without providing any factual basis that the 2020 election was “stolen” and who have sought to overturn the election. This behavior makes America exceptional among other developed democracies, but not among Third World countries with limited democratic traditions.

The new American exceptionalism is rooted in growing political tribalism that undermines the working of the country’s political institutions and processes.

American politicians today score points and reap campaign funds by exploiting problems, rather than by solving them.

Voters have increasingly less influence because gerrymandering of state and federal election districts have created safe havens for committed partisans, disadvantaging average citizens who want to address problems.

If allowed to continue, current trends in American politics will not end well for the country.

Americans concerned about the rule of law and the equality enshrined in our Declaration of Independence, the capacity of the planet to support future generations, and the security and prosperity of their grandchildren need to step up their engagement with all levels of government. Most importantly, they must register and vote in every election, primary and general, for candidates — regardless of party — who acknowledge the reality of the problems facing the country and propose ways to address them. 

If America outvotes those who would use issues to divide the country and becomes a problem-solving country again, then America can recover its traditional form of exceptionalism, one based on achieving exceptionally good things for its people and others.

Kenneth C. Brill was a career U.S. Foreign Service Officer who served as an ambassador in the Clinton and Bush administrations and a senior intelligence official in the Bush and Obama administrations.

Tags American exceptionalism anti-science anti-vaccination movement Anti-vaxxers claims of 2020 election fraud Conspiracy theories Extremism George Washington Gerrymandering Gridlock gun violence insurrection Jan. 6 Capitol attack January 6 attack on the Capitol Mass shootings peaceful transfer of power political polarization political tribalism stalemate stolen election Voter suppression

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