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May 22, 2013


Politicians in this country have learned the hard way that you do not challenge the myth of American exceptionalism (as in the “Don’t mess with Texas” mantra on another level of Tenth Amendment worship gone awry). There are some things you may think but dare not say if you want to preserve your political hide for another outing with the political opposition down the road. Inadvertent truth telling (open mics, etc.) has ended more than one promising political career. Truth in public is dangerous.

Many of us remember how Jimmy Carter was vilified when (in a fit of frustration) he suggested that America had become ungovernable. He was attacked unmercifully for this comment, which was transposed by Republicans as an assault on America and its people rather than an observation of a political process where compromise was regarded as a form of treason subject to severe (political) punishment. The President should have been more careful with his language – it was not America that was ungovernable – it was America’s representatives who, sent to govern by the people, refused to do so unless they wrote the rules of the game, taking no prisoners (politically speaking) in such a bullying process. (Parenthetically, corporate bullying has joined schoolyard and political bullying recently.)

As a result of the Carter error in defining his terms to suit the unspoken rules of American exceptionalism (perhaps having in addition the perverse effect of the election of a clueless Reagan), latter day politicians now put down representatives of the people, but never the people per se. It has come to a point where a freedom of speech right is effectively squelched since what we really think we cannot say. It is in that spirit and with the foregoing as background commentary that I offer the following international commentary on the American political scene where the commentators have nothing to lose with being honest, or as the young of today might say, “have no skin in the game.”

Rupert Cornwell in The Independent (U.K.) writes that “Americans can rarely have held their politicians in greater contempt – and rightly so.” Commenting on the last-second agreement between Congress and the White House, he writes further: “The agreement between Congress and the White House that pulled the country back from the so-called fiscal cliff is no more than a feeble, last-ditch palliative. It staves off calamity for a mere two months, at which point the once-great country hits it debt ceiling and the bickering begins again. American lawmakers cannot perform the most basic task of government: setting a budget. Some observers have glibly asserted that the Founding Fathers intended for Congress to check the power of the president when they divided government into separate branches. But surely Washington, Jefferson and the rest could never have imagined so colossal a collective abdication by the people’s elected representatives. By now it is obvious to the whole world that the greatest enemy of American growth is the dysfunctional American political system.”

If you reread the rather long foregoing quote, you will note that most of the attacks by the British writer are on the representatives and “the system,” which is permissible under the rule of American exceptionality.  What is not forgivable under our unwritten but well know rule is his reference to “once -great country.” That is a no-no. You may insult politicians and systems, but never America – or its people – and since he has insulted America, we must ignore the rest of what he has written. Case closed.

David Haufler in the Frankfurter Rundschau (Germany): ”The American system used to work just fine,” he writes, “but now that one party has become completely pigheaded, nothing can get done.” He writes further that “Ever since they lost communism as an ideological punching bag, the Republicans have launched themselves against an imaginary enemy in Washington. They don’t simply want lower taxes; they want to starve the government of sufficient revenue – in effect, to dismantle the country’s safety net. In this ongoing power struggle, the U.S. is likely to default – panicking world markets and dragging the rest of us into another global downturn.”

A rereading of the foregoing quote does not yield an insult to American exceptionalism; it is rather a well-considered view for the larger result of what can happen to the world if Republican “pigheaded” political conduct continues. He has (rightly, in my personal view) insulted such representatives but he has not insulted either America or its people, so we may safely consider what he has written.

The following two quotes are from Europeans who take the opportunity to criticize American policy (or lack of it) as a sounding board for criticism of policies of the European Union. Their insights and critiques range from brutal truth to historical understanding of the contemporary American political process but insult neither America nor its people, so they pass the “exceptionalism” test.

Olaf Gersemann in Die Welt (Germany) writes that “It is easy to curse these damn Yankees. They can’t come up with a compromise, even when their entire economy is at stake, because their political system encourages ideological polarization among the voters. . . . We Germans, who are watching the EU morph into a kind of overlord that wants to take our taxpayers’ money and give it to other countries, understand how wise it was (that the Founding Fathers knew that divided government is the only way to tame the executive and the legislature and avoid tyranny). Let’s not forget that America’s system made it the world’s richest nation, and nothing will change that soon – not even a steady diet of political acrimony and budgetary crises.”

Leo McKinstry in, writes that “The Americans may be ruled by idiots, but who isn’t? America is hardly unique in the mix of cowardice and self-satisfaction that characterizes its political class. The EU is no better. It too is stuck in a cycle of repeated crises and bogus resolutions. Every few months we hold some grand summit whose mission is to save the euro and sort out our currency troubles. Each time we wind up with another short-term bailout that postpones a larger reckoning. The problem is the same on both side of the Atlantic. Most politicians are concerned with keeping power, not governing. Their narrow self-serving outlook is a tragedy for us all.”

Perhaps we are better off to have our “exceptionalism” trashed in the pursuit of truth. Perhaps President Carter was right; perhaps we (and the rest of the world) are in fact and truth ungovernable. That is not an insult; it may rather be political truth shorn of myth. It is convenient to have “systems” and “politicians” bear the brunt of our fury, but who sent those uncompromising and pigheaded people to state legislatures and the federal congress? That fault cannot lie with either system or politician. We the people sent them there; they didn’t send themselves. Let’s look in the mirror.

Are we living in a Band-Aid democracy, devoid of statesmen, unable and unwilling to bend our efforts to serve the common good in a worship of myth (a myth that perpetuates greed)? I hope not. GERALD  E

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