Tuesday, May 31, 2016

American exceptionalism seems to be fading - Note for a discussion, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United."


-- author: Leon Hadar (on facebook); posted here with his kind ok.

Image (not from article) from, with caption: America Guided by Wisdom.  Benjamin Tanner after John James Barralet, Philadelphia, 1815-1820."

The process under which the Republicans and the Democrats have become more ideological while failing to reach a compromise on major policy issues has reached a new height

By Leon Hadar

MAY 31, 2016

DURING the first stages of the presidential election season last year, before Americans actually had the opportunity to cast their votes in the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire Primary, veteran stand-up comedians Anthony Atamanuik and James Adomian had an idea.

image from; not from article
To the surprise of the politicians and the pundits, brash real estate magnate and former television reality show host Donald Trump - who kept insulting women, Mexicans and the rest of humanity - was doing better than expected in the Republican presidential race. He was still regarded then by the mainstream media as a sideshow, if not a "joke". But there was no doubt that the entertaining celebrity aka the Donald knew how to draw public attention.
And then there was that ageing senator from the tiny state of Vermont, the self-declared socialist Bernie Sanders, who was challenging the most powerful Democratic politician in America, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton for the title of the party's presidential nominee. Yeah! Right! Give me a break. But still with his deep New York accent and mannerism and the many young kids who seemed to be drawn to his campaign, Bernie was an intriguing political phenomenon.
So while no one was seriously contemplating the possibility that either the Donald or Bernie would even come close to winning their respective party's presidential nomination, Atamanuik and Adomian thought that Mr Trump and Mr Sanders, separately and together, could be great material for a comedy routine.
The two decided to launch their Trump vs Bernie 2016 Debate Tour last year, which was quite funny and ended up becoming a big hit. Other stand-up comedians followed them, doing their own versions of Trump vs Bernie debate.
But if you were watching Adomian playing Mr Sanders debating Atamanuik as Mr Trump, you would caution yourself that the first rule of enjoying any fictional comedy or drama was suspension of disbelief. The routine was so hilarious because no one in his right mind would have thought that in the real world there was any chance that the two would be nominated as the presidential candidates of America's two major political parties or that they would be debating each other on television. LOL!
So in what could be described as realpolitik imitating stand-up comedy, the campaigns of Mr Trump, now the presumptive Republican presidential candidate, and of Mr Sanders (who has given Mrs Clinton a run for her money, winning close to half of the Democratic vote in this year's primaries) said earlier last week that they would be happy to face each other in a cross-partisan presidential debate just before the June 7 California primaries.
The real estate mogul, who actually clinched the Republican nomination on Thursday after winning all the 1,237 delegates he needed in order to be crowned in the GOP convention in Cleveland in July, said in a press conference that he would debate Mr Sanders only if US$10 million to US$15 million went to charity, while Mr Sanders - who had failed to get Mrs Clinton to debate him in California - told a rally in the Golden State that he would "look forward" to challenging Mr Trump's positions.
But in the end, it looks as though the debate between the two so-called "political outsiders" would not take place after all, after the Donald explained that "it would be inappropriate that I would debate the second-place finisher". Bummer!
But that the notion of a "Trump versus Bernie" debate doesn't sound crazy anymore says a lot about what has been taking place in American politics this year. As former president Bill Clinton suggested recently: "It's been an unusual election year." And that is the "most polite way to describe it", he added.
Yes, it's true that discussing one's penis size [JB - see: as a example of bad honor ... sorry, I meant humor] during a presidential debate or having a man in his 70s run for the presidency is a bit "unusual" if not "crazy". But it would probably be more accurate to describe the 2016 presidential campaign as a "turning point", if not "historic".
Indeed, the idea that one day the two major American political parties would be represented by a nationalist demagogue baiting immigrants and minorities and by a socialist agitator calling for the nationalisation of the financial system would have been very much out of line with the traditional narrative of US political history.
One of the main reasons Americans employ the term "American exceptionalism" has to do with the way the country's political culture has acquired distinctive characteristics as it evolved out of its European roots. In a way, the Founding Fathers and those who followed them wanted to create a political system that embraced a set of values that were antithetical to those that had driven much of the kind of domestic upheaval and international conflicts in Europe and that had devastated its societies: religious wars; class conflict; ethnic and nationalistic fervour.
That is not to say that American political history was a masterpiece of political and social tranquillity. Slavery, racial discrimination, anti-immigration sentiments, and social-economic inequality were very much part of the American story and led occasionally to violence, including a long and bloody Civil War.
But overall, a combination of a constitution that provided for the protection of the rights of the individual coupled with a system that produced a productive capitalist economy that helped develop a mostly stable political environment and growing prosperity that attracted immigrants from all around the world and integrated them into an American republic that included members of all ethnicities, religions and races and where social and economic inequality was seen as temporary. After all, anyone irrespective of class, religious beliefs or race can succeed and make it to the top.
This narrative may sound like a fairy tale, but it explains why the United States has never experienced the kind of class struggle that existed in Europe and resulted eventually in violent political turmoil and revolutions; and in that context, why America never had a powerful socialist movement or political parties.
So it's not surprising most young Americans have very little understanding of the historical roots of "socialism" as a movement to advance the interests of the working class.
Similarly, Americans have never embraced the kind of ethno-nationalism that was very much at the centre of European political life.
A political scientist friend who has been teaching a course on nationalism in an American university told me that most of his students have difficulties comprehending the term and cannot define what exactly is American Nationalism. They regard it less as a collective or organic identity and more as a place or a country where individuals can engage in the "pursuit of happiness". They celebrate patriotism - as a love of country and not as a worshipping of a nation.
Nationalism and socialism were supposed to be the kind of things they do in Old Europe and not in America where change takes place gradually and political and class differences are mediated in a pragmatic way and the two major political parties - the centrist-left Democrats and the centrist-right Republicans - make deals and take turns in controlling the White House and Congress.
But this kind of American exceptionalism seems to be fading and America is becoming more "European". The process under which the two political parties have become more ideological while failing to reach a compromise on major policy issues has reached a new height.
Hence, Mr Trump's GOP is looking and sounding more and more like the right-wing nationalist parties that - against the backdrop of anti-globalisation sentiments, in particular on the issues of immigration - have been gaining power in France, Germany, Austria, Poland and Hungary.
Trumpism with its preoccupation with ethnic and racial identity, the fear of the "other", and opposition to internationalist principles, echoes the ultra-nationalism and nativism projected by France's National Front, and not the pro-immigration and pro-free trade vision that Republican president Ronald Reagan had preached.
And while Mr Sanders isn't going to be nominated as the Democrats' presidential nominee, the Democratic Party (even under Mrs Clinton's leadership) is being transformed. It will embrace a more radical left-leaning agenda like the one promoted by Europe's socialist political parties, including more scepticism about the traditional free market that has been so central to America's political and economic development.
Or to paraphrase what philosopher George Santayana once said about history: Those who laughed during the comedy routine are condemned to live it.

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