Exceptionalism, Nationalism, Individualism, yet no Socialism


In Barak Obama’s State of the Union Address, the President stated many social policies in line with his action as the head of the Executive. Obama said that “in this new economy” workers and start-ups should have the “rules…work for them” and not the wealthy elite. He also talked of how the middle class is being “squeezed” by an elite that has exploited a “broken campaign finance system.” His claims were not unsubstantiated; in late December, the New York Times published an article that explained the implications of the Citizens United decision taken by our conservative-leaning Supreme Court.[1] Mr. Obama explained that the elite system of politics must be reformed because “democracy breaks down when the average person feels their voice doesn’t matter; that the system is rigged in favor of the rich or the powerful or some special interest.”

However, despite this seemingly progressive stance, Obama uttered a few statements that almost exclusively catered towards conservatives. He attempted to quell the fear that those on the far right of the political spectrum (most pronounced, perhaps, are Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio) utilize when campaigning, regarding the risk of foreign attacks, assuring the audience that “the United States of America is the most powerful nation on Earth, period. Period.” He also made a direct threat to terrorists, announcing that “if you doubt America’s commitment—or mine—to see that justice is done, just ask Osama bin Laden.” These populist and perhaps propaganda-like statements seem out of place in a speech by a president who has been accused of being a socialist. But, when dissected, one can perceive that they understandably were said in an attempt to allay fears that seem to be supporting all too much racism, and militarism in the 2016 campaign season. However, one may ask why are these statements even necessary in 21st century politics?

The answer comes down to that Americans believe in a system of Exceptionalism. A recent poll found that “about half of Americans (49%)… “agree with the statement, “Our people are not perfect, but our culture is superior to others.”[2] This belief is representative of the audience Obama attempted to reach, individuals who require the reassurance that America is on top, that America is powerful or that America has never lost a war. But these beliefs of Exceptionalism spill over into our economic viewpoint, something that should be much more practical than assessing the level of “power” that a nation state holds. Many Americans hold fast to a belief that our economy consistently favors hard work; when “asked if they agree that “success in life is pretty much determined by forces outside our control,”…only 36%” of Americans agreed. Comparatively, 72% of Germans agree with that statement. This would make perfect sense if the German economy lacked the growth and robustness that America’s has. But Germany in fact ranks higher in the Human Development Index, which is a composite value of life expectancy, education, and income per capita; German workers are also more productive than their American counterparts.

If Germans believe that outside forces determine their fates, why do they live in a nation with a more even distribution of wealth, and a higher human development score? The reality is that Germans, and Europeans on the whole, believe more so in realism, than individualism, and I think that Americans could widely benefitting from adopting this approach. Americans are fed the notion of hard work as equaling future success from the onset of their primary schooling. Granted, students should not be taught to respect a bleak and deeply skewed, if not oligarchical, socioeconomic system. But students, especially by high school, must be more educated on the principal that America is not the greatest country on Earth, and that we do not need to be.

By most accounts, the United States of America is not the greatest nation on Earth. We do not have the highest GDP per capita, we do not have the highest Human Development Index Score, and we score lowly on international science and mathematics exams. We do, however, have widening gaps between the rich and the poor, thousands of innocent people killed yearly by gun violence, billions of dollars lost spent fighting a war in Iraq (only to develop a power vacuum for IS to emerge from and threaten us more than the Hussein Regime originally did). However, despite this seemingly depressing reality, collectively, as a nation we seem desperate to continually prove to ourselves our “strength” as way to offset any doubt that we are the best nation on Earth. It is therefore comforting to be reassured that we are “powerful” and “strong.” Overall, this nationalism seems to be born out of a desperate belief that internal problems can be solved through external war mongering, and that if we convince ourselves that America is the best country on Earth—and condemn those who may point out its flaws so we can preserve this belief—than one day it may actually be great.

However, by not accepting criticism, in hopes that problems will fix themselves, Americans are opening themselves up to elitist manipulation. Socialism—a word that is commonplace in European politics—is now practically political suicide because we in the US are brainwashed to believe that it is epitome of absolute evil, despite the fact that we’re generally uneducated on the differences between communism (the authoritarian socialism adopted by the USSR) and practical, modern, European-style socialism (in effect, merely highly regulated Capitalism within a functioning democracy).

In this way, Mr. Obama was smart to make his point. But my concern is that by focusing on this arbitrary and very fictional reality, we Americans seem to be (as per polls) distracted from more pressing issues like deplorable gun violence, rampant poverty, and a lack of equal representation for the poorer members of our society. I believe Obama’s strategy was a short-term aim: to reassure nationalists, to get more liberal politicians elected. This, in the future, could end the environment of nationalism, and blindness to domestic problems that has built up, However, it is my worry that if politicians continue to engage in Exceptionalist rhetoric, then real progress will be further out of our grasp as more Americans buy into a deceptive and skewed view of reality.

[1] Scheiber, Noam, and Patricia Cohen. “For the Wealthiest, a Private Tax System That Saves Them Billions.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 29 Dec. 2015. Web. 13 Jan. 2016.

[2] Pew Global. “The American-Western European Values Gap.” Pew Research Centers Global Attitudes Project RSS. Pew Global, 17 Nov. 2011. Web. 13 Jan. 2016.