Note on American Exceptionalism in Crisis

For a second time in the last month or so, we run across a political intellectual – this time it’s Martin Amis at the New Republic, previously it was Frank Rich at New York Magazine – noting that coinage of the phrase “American exceptionalism” is attributable to Josef Stalin. The gesture is doubly if not exponentially ironic, or perhaps merely fatuous: Rich, to a lesser extent Amis, and most of those remarking upon them want to embarrass the ideologues who insistently deploy the term, by association with the archest of all Commies, but Uncle Joe was merely attaching an “-ism” to a familiar, traditional position – in short, that there is something importantly different going on in the New World – in order to deny its validity. On this point at least, he was with Rich, to a lesser extent Amis, and assorted twitter-snarks. On the other hand, the suspicion remains inescapable that the mere existence of a presidential campaign and a political movement fiercely dedicated to the proposition that all countries are not created equal, and to the further proposition that everyone who thinks otherwise is a problem, points to and is conditioned by authentic difficulties on the level of the American concept and within the polity for which it stands. We may need to consider that what Daniel Larison calls “hegemonism” is embedded within the American project itself, its revolutionary liberalism, its Enlightenment universalism, its Jeffersonian “federative” imperialism. A divorce from such pretensions, or even a declaration of their fulfillment and therefore their obsolescence, does not merely require but is likely already the substance of a long-developing political and economic crisis corresponding to this easier to isolate conceptual or ideological crisis. Even a re-conception of liberal-universalism, a notion of some truer realization of its essence, puts the fate of American nationalism, and at some (if likely distant) point inevitably of the American nation, in question. The essential alteration of self-understanding from “exceptional” to “just like the others” might be experienced as a greatest loss, spiritual as well as and whether or not material, by many and in some sense all Americans, including those now happy to promote it.


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  1. A dissapointing snippet by Martis Amis, who I had learned to loath in the 80s, and regained some respect with ‘Koba’ and the ‘Second Plane’, it’s because of the former that I found this meme particularly dissapointing, to credit that agitated muzhik over
    the perspicacious Frenchman,

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TV pundits and op-ed writers of every major newspaper epitomize how the Democratic establishment has already reached a consensus: the 2020 nominee must be a centrist, a Joe Biden, Cory Booker or Kamala Harris–type, preferably. They say that Joe Biden should "run because [his] populist image fits the Democrats’ most successful political strategy of the past generation" (David Leonhardt, New York Times), and though Biden "would be far from an ideal president," he "looks most like the person who could beat Trump" (David Ignatius, Washington Post). Likewise, the same elite pundit class is working overtime to torpedo left-Democratic candidates like Sanders.

For someone who was not acquainted with Piketty's paper, the argument for a centrist Democrat might sound compelling. If the country has tilted to the right, should we elect a candidate closer to the middle than the fringe? If the electorate resembles a left-to-right line, and each voter has a bracketed range of acceptability in which they vote, this would make perfect sense. The only problem is that it doesn't work like that, as Piketty shows.

The reason is that nominating centrist Democrats who don't speak to class issues will result in a great swathe of voters simply not voting. Conversely, right-wing candidates who speak to class issues, but who do so by harnessing a false consciousness — i.e. blaming immigrants and minorities for capitalism's ills, rather than capitalists — will win those same voters who would have voted for a more class-conscious left candidate. Piketty calls this a "bifurcated" voting situation, meaning many voters will connect either with far-right xenophobic nationalists or left-egalitarian internationalists, but perhaps nothing in-between.

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Understanding Trump’s charisma offers important clues to understanding the problems that the Democrats need to address. Most important, the Democratic candidate must convey a sense that he or she will fulfil the promise of 2008: not piecemeal reform but a genuine, full-scale change in America’s way of thinking. It’s also crucial to recognise that, like Britain, America is at a turning point and must go in one direction or another. Finally, the candidate must speak to Americans’ sense of self-respect linked to social justice and inclusion. While Weber’s analysis of charisma arose from the German situation, it has special relevance to the United States of America, the first mass democracy, whose Constitution invented the institution of the presidency as a recognition of the indispensable role that unique individuals play in history.

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[E]ven Fox didn’t tout Bartiromo’s big scoops on Trump’s legislative agenda, because 10 months into the Trump presidency, nobody is so foolish as to believe that him saying, “We’re doing a big infrastructure bill,” means that the Trump administration is, in fact, doing a big infrastructure bill. The president just mouths off at turns ignorantly and dishonestly, and nobody pays much attention to it unless he says something unusually inflammatory.On some level, it’s a little bit funny. On another level, Puerto Rico is still languishing in the dark without power (and in many cases without safe drinking water) with no end in sight. Trump is less popular at this point in his administration than any previous president despite a generally benign economic climate, and shows no sign of changing course. Perhaps it will all work out for the best, and someday we’ll look back and chuckle about the time when we had a president who didn’t know anything about anything that was happening and could never be counted on to make coherent, factual statements on any subject. But traditionally, we haven’t elected presidents like that — for what have always seemed like pretty good reasons — and the risks of compounding disaster are still very much out there.

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