Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Language of American Exceptionalism

Conservatives have an immense ideological investment in the idea of “American Exceptionalism” (“AE”). They write about it, endlessly, in highbrow conservative magazines (see, e.g., here). And the last election demonstrated how adept they’ve become at wielding AE as an instrument of partisan combat (see, e.g., here). The rhetorical subtext is nearly always the same; when you associate your policy agenda with AE you’re insinuating that there’s something unpatriotic about the people who disagree with you.

If you wanted to be unkind, you could say that the point of AE talk is to subordinate objectivity to xenophobia by ruling out any unfavorable comparisons between this and other countries in advance. But there’s no denying its rhetorical effectiveness.  If it wasn't effective you wouldn't find Democratic politicians with a professional interest in keeping a finger in the prevailing political winds paying so much lip service to it. When liberal Democratic politicians try to play the conservative Republicans' game, however, the results are usually pretty lame.

  Take Obama’s pitch last April that Paul Ryan’s budget is downright un-American.  To hear Obama tell it, turning Medicare into a premium support program is a matter of Republicans forgetting “who we are” by violating the terms of the “American social contract.” That sounded good until you remembered that Medicare as we know it was no part of the national experience before 1965 and we plainly can't afford it in its present form.  So, however bad an idea Ryan's Medicare reforms may be, the idea that they're somehow a repudiation of the American dream is a little far-fetched.

Here’s another case study in how inhospitable the language of AE is to liberalism. Yesterday, the Senate’s only avowed socialist, Bernie Sanders, had the audacity to suggest on the Senate floor that we should address the budget deficit by raising a dollar of additional revenue for every dollar of spending cuts. It’s misleading to say that his proposal is dead on arrival inasmuch as that suggests that there was a time when it drew political breath. The utter political futility of Sanders’s speech has Jonathan Chait throwing up his hands in despair contemplating “how right wing the economic debate [in this country] has moved”:
“So the socialist plan for one of the lowest-taxed advanced economies on Earth -- a country that could balance its budget entirely through tax hikes and still have a tax burden that ranks in the lowest third among the OECD -- is to cut the deficit with a plan consisting of half spending cuts. And that plan is immediately dismissed as so wildly unrealistic it stands no chance of passage. Cut hundreds of billions of dollars of spending and also raise taxes to cut the deficit, during a massive economic crisis? Go back to Russia, you crazy socialist!”
Chait has a point: it’s hard to credit the Republican talking point that we’re an over-taxed society in light of sensible-sounding cross-national comparisons. But that's not a point that can be made in an an idiom that rules all such comparisons out of bounds in advance.  In the language of AE, only favorable comparisons of this and other countries count (e.g., “you don't want to end up like Greece do you?”)  That doesn’t leave liberals with a whole lot to say.

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