The Road to Hell is Paved ...
Eleanor Roosevelt once said that wishful thinking was America’s “besetting sin.” As the wife of a man whose most famous utterance was the preposterous contention that the United States had “nothing to fear but fear itself”, she was certainly in a position to know. Last week’s Conservative Political Action Committee meeting, with its mantra of America being able “to choose its own destiny,” as Glenn Beck put it, or Michele Bachmann’s insistence, after making the virtually identical claim—“the joy of being an American,” she said, “is that we get to choose. We get to choose our destiny, whether it is decline or greatness” (and this is a woman who calls herself a Christian!)—went further, not only reasserting American exceptionalism, but denying the legitimacy of any other nation making a similar claim. “If everyone is exceptional, then no one is exceptional,” she said to wild applause.
Of course, to almost any non-American (otherwise known as 94 percent of the world’s population), the doctrine of American exceptionalism doesn’t seem so much wrong as it does deranged. And it is hardly restricted to the hard Right. To the contrary, it is an assumption that binds liberal and conservative Washington together. The formulations of a Bachmann or a Beck may be case studies in chauvinistic self-regard, but they certainly are no cruder than the claims of many so-called Progressives. The liberal policy pundit Michael A. Cohen, for example, claimed in 2007 that America was “inherently good.” This, to the extent his simulacrum of a rationale was intelligible, was because the U.S. had a good constitution and Bill of Rights that somehow reflected the underlying commitment to freedom and opportunity that "underpin" the nation and ensure American democracy’s self-correcting nature. If only Cohen’s views were rare in think-tank Washington; instead, qualified a bit, and usually put somewhat less baldly, they are commonplace.
That no nation is inherently good and that no nation gets to choose its own destiny should be self-evident to any adult not absolutely crippled by narcissism. But that, unfortunately, is rather the point: The United States as a polity is suffering from a bad case of collective narcissism, and its expression in both domestic and international affairs bears an uncanny resemblance to what American psychologist Sandy Hotchkiss identified as the essential characteristics of a narcissistic personality. These were shamelessness, magical thinking, arrogance, envy (often coped with by resorting to contempt to minimize others), entitlement, exploitation (in the sense of using others with no regard to their interests and the related assumptions that others should be subservient), and an impaired ability to recognize and accept boundaries.
What about this could be said not to apply to the United States at the present moment? In reality, the diagnosis is an all but perfect fit, most notably the pathological grandiosity that, as the textbooks have it, is in no way commensurate with actual accomplishment. Thus, most polls suggest that Americans still believe the so-called American Dream is as true today as it ever was. But the truth is that this is no longer the case. For example, there is now less social mobility in the United States than in much of Western Europe, not more. Intergenerational income mobility is not only considerably higher in the Scandinavian countries, but also in France and Germany (not to mention Canada). And all rich countries, not just the United States, are becoming immigrant countries now. The migrants may indeed be “yearning to breathe free” as in Emma Lazarus’s celebrated phrase, but whatever Americans may choose to believe, migrants think they will find political freedom and economic opportunity in Spain, Germany, or Sweden, as well as in the United States. Interestingly, given the Obama administration’s failure so far at least to secure even modest health care reform, a July 2009 Pew poll showed that only 15 percent of Americans agreed with the statement that American health care was the best in the world, with 59 percent rating it average or below average—something that suggests that, however deeply engrained, magical thinking doesn’t really survive patient confrontations with insurance company treatments refusals, ruinous deductibles and co-pays, and, increasingly, the limitations the HMOs impose on the time a physician can spend with a patient. However narcissistic we’ve become, we’re not bipolar, or not yet, anyway.
And yet Barack Obama is being reproached—principally from the Right, but from many liberal foreign policy commentators as well—for not believing sufficiently in American exceptionalism (this mostly from the Right), not being willing to make human rights rhetoric a central priority of U.S. foreign policy (this from the Right and the so-called Progressives), and for assuming that one of his principal challenges is to manage the country’s relative decline. I am no great admirer of the president’s, a well-intended, intelligent, but utterly conventional centrist technocrat whose strange reluctance to defend himself reminds me of no one so much as Michael Dukakis. But at least he will not pander to the exceptionalist fantasy. And, given the feral imbecility of the continuing consensus in its favor in Washington—and the fact that there is much political risk and no political gain to telling the truth publicly—it is brave of him.
Feb 22, 2010 4:23:00 PM EST