The midterm elections are over, and advocates of limited government appear to be on the march. Their opponents have lost all hope of permanent power, and – understandably enough – are reacting with anger and frustration. Much of it is aimed at their countrymen.
Peter Beinart, parsing the acceptance speech of newly elected senator Marco Rubio, is appalled to discover in it the “lunatic notion of American exceptionalism.” Rubio called America “the single greatest nation in all human history” because “almost every other place in the world. . . what you were going to be when you grow up was determined for you.”
In such love of country, most of us will hear a familiar note: that of the grateful son of immigrants who sacrificed their present for his future. This is a common American story.
Beinart, for his part, angrily derides the belief that America is an exceptional land when it comes to opportunity:
Almost every other place in the world? From China to India to Brazil, hundreds of millions of people are rising economically in ways their parents could scarcely have imagined, in part because their governments are investing in infrastructure in the way the United States did in the late nineteenth century. The American dream of upward mobility is alive and well, just not in America.
We are not particularly exceptional, Beinart is saying – and we are becoming less so every day, because of the electoral triumphs of a crazed “anti-government ideology.”
Putting aside the element of sour grapes, I think it’s fair to ask whether Beinart’s or Rubio’s description of America comes closer to reality. Is ours an exceptional nation, or are made of the same mold with, say, China or Brazil?
When President Obama was asked the question, he responded evasively: “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” In other words, a sort of “Nope” – except as an indulgence of national vanity or in the trivial sense that we are each special in our own way.
There is, of course, no purely objective answer. There’s no way to measure the moral distance between America and other nations by a number, as I would the temperature of my body or the speed of my car. It’s a matter of faith, of belief. The faith to which March Rubio testified with the miracle of his life was in our country’s extraordinary freedom from determination.
Most human lives – I recently noted in this blog – have been been determined in a way that is difficult for Americans to understand. Across history, a grinding poverty has been the lot of the vast majority of people, whose existence, body and soul, was stunted by the desperate pursuit of survival. Marx named this condition the kingdom of necessity. One declared one’s independence from it at the cost of starvation and death.
But there were also cultural and political reasons for determination, summed up in what Karl Popper called the closed society: the belief that the status quo had been ordained by God, and that any attempt to change one’s lot in life was not only subversive but morally monstrous. So peasants forever remained peasants, and lords remained lords.
Only in the last three centuries has this changed in any degree. It has taken the combined energies of the Enlightenment, modern science, and the industrial and technological revolutions to open up an undetermined space in the lives of ordinary people – and this only across a patchwork of places and times.
The American Revolution, and the constitutional order it bequeathed, contributed mightily to the birth of liberal democracy: to the open society. Rubio gave the Founders much credit for his “privileged” life. His father was a bartender, his mother a maid, yet he has achieved high office. Under the American dispensation, Rubio proclaims, peasants can become lords. His own rise gives evidence to the country’s uniqueness.
I have traveled to many places in the world, and on balance I tend to agree with Rubio. Nowhere else is the individual not only allowed but expected to re-make himself – from the category of “foreigner,” for example, into “one of us.” Northern Virginia in my youth was a pretty homogeneous region, but my best friend had a German grandfather and a Welsh mother, and my second-best friend had a Cockney mom who sounded like a member of the “My Fair Lady” cast.
Today, my daughter’s friends are Iranian, Lebanese, Bolivian, Chinese, a veritable United Nations of immigrant citizenry. These kids from the four corners of the globe aren’t accepted or tolerated by us: they are us.
In America, you are what you become. Rubio’s trajectory testifies to this mold-shattering freedom, though not so vividly as Barack Obama’s, a man who rose from obscure, Gatsby-like origins to the highest office in the land.
What is exceptional about America is the depth and breadth of our personal freedom. This has radiated to other countries, which is all to the good. But the source is here: and as our fortunes rise or fall, so does the spread of freedom.
As for the countries praised by Beinart – China, India, Brazil – I can only presume they were trotted out as rhetorical devices rather than examples of personal opportunity. China is run by a corrupt Communist mafia, which controls who can attain wealth and who will stagnate in poverty. If Beinart really believes Indians can transcend their personal origins, he should look up a single word: outcaste.
Brazil I have visited a number of times. It’s the most unequal country in the world – I once saw people living in what looked like doghouses, not far from the skyscrapers of Sao Paulo. Color differences seem to determine one’s economic fate: blacks are beach peddlers and construction workers, variegated skin tones prevail in middling jobs, and whites run everything. In Brazil there’s racial tolerance but little freedom.
Americans, in their social and political freedom, are not in the same mold with the Chinese, Indians, and Brazilians. Some day, maybe: it’s an evolution devoutly to be wished. But not today, and not soon.
A people which constantly re-makes itself isn’t likely to have much patience with those who use politics to regulate behavior. Most Americans are Jeffersonians, and have limited government inscribed on their DNA. In a world of Leviathan states, this too is exceptional – and it accounts for the results of last Tuesday’s elections, cause of Beinart’s complaint against his fellow citizens.