Monday, October 22, 2012

Elections and American Exceptionalism

New York Times reporter Scott Shane's excellent op-ed entitled "The Opiate of Exceptionalism" should be required reading for all Americans. Max Fisher, writing yesterday on the Washington Post blog "WorldViews," listed it among "six essential reads on foreign policy" in advance of tonight's foreign policy debate.

The United States spends far more on its military than any other country in the world (almost more than all other countries in the world, in fact), and also leads the world in rate of incarceration and in energy consumption per capita. Of eight major human rights covenants (on genocide, racial discrimination, civil and political rights, economic, social and cultural rights, women's rights, torture, children's rights, and the rights of the disabled), the U.S. has ratified four. (The U.S. stands virtually alone--with Somalia--in having failed thus far to ratify the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child.) And yet, as Shane points out, no candidate for the presidency can discuss these things openly. To do so is to question America's greatness and to risk the fate of Jimmy Carter, who spoke candidly of a "crisis of confidence" in the United States and then lost his bid for reelection to a candidate who proclaimed "morning in America."

We admire individuals who can honestly and openly face their own shortcomings. And when a talented team fails to make the playoffs or crumbles under playoff pressure, we want to hear coaches and players accept responsibility for their own failings and praise the efforts of the team that prevailed; continuing to proclaim one's superiority in defiance of the result posted on the scoreboard is one of the worst things an athlete--or a coach or a fan--can do. And yet that is exactly what politicians do because that is exactly what we the people demand. It's highly dysfunctional because, as Shane points out, it keeps political campaigns from addressing issues that desperately need to be addressed.

Shane recommends American studies professor Mark Rice's blog, "Ranking America," for a clear-eyed, objective look at the nation's standing in the world across a wide range of indicators (e.g., central government debt, child poverty, bullying). I recommend it, too.