By Solveig Torvik
Just the other day, in the midst of the already-forgotten Syrian crisis, our very good friend President Vladimir Putin of Russia sent us Americans warm greetings, plus advice on how to improve our national character.
He’s disturbed, it seems, that we keep harping on how exceptional we are as a nation. “It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motive,” Putin said in a letter published by the New York Times in which he chided President Obama for trumpeting American exceptionalism.
Well, even a former KGB thug can hit the mark now and then.
Yet what country doesn’t see itself as exceptional? The blessed French are very clear about their exceptionalism. And back in the day, the Germans were certain that they were super- exceptional. But of course we don’t hear much about that kind of thing from the Germans these days.
I confess to having a somewhat blinkered, rosy view of this American exceptionality business. My bias stems from this: Were it not for Americans, I might well still be living under the boot of Germany’s exceptional Third Reich. Liberated from Nazis, I remain more than exceptionally grateful.
But that was then. Let’s not kid ourselves, people. America’s got lots going for it that’s well worth emulating. But our exceptionalism these days is not limited to things that cover our nation with glory, as some of our elected representatives recently were at such pains to demonstrate.
Our exceptionalism comes in many guises.
For one example, the United States imprisons far more of its population than any other country. On any given day, one in every 100 of us are behind bars. Other nations settle for imprisoning their people at one-sixth of our rate. We have less than 5 percent of the world’s population but nearly one-fourth of its prisoners. What does this say about us? If it were happening elsewhere, we’d self-righteously denounce it as evidence of a failed civil society, a failed state.
We live in a culture that celebrates violence and shrugs off routine mass murders. We have a high tolerance for poverty and its attendant, deadly dangerous ignorance – it’s been 100 years since this country has had such a great divide between the rich and poor. We accept dysfunctional, discriminatory public education and health care systems as norms. These also are among high-profile markers of American exceptionalism.
We do have one unassailable claim to exceptionalism: our faith-based system of government. All westernized democracies give political power to the people, with certain safeguards against mob rule – but in the United States, not so much. Our Founding Founders did blink, though, when it comes to electing presidents; they refused to let us do that by popular vote.
Still, none put so much faith in the people to govern themselves wisely as did our founders when they gambled on this risky government “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” We, the people, are sovereign, not the government. Power flows up from us to our government, not visa-versa. This is a remarkable turn of tables in human history.
It’s also remarkably dangerous, given that human wisdom perpetually is so thin on the ground. Given how little effort we make to educate citizens to comprehend, and attend to, their tedious and confounding responsibilities of self-governance, this scarcity of wisdom, coupled with our popular aversion to fact-based critical thinking, promises a perfect storm of misrule.
To wit: A handful of self-centered blowhards, anarchists posing as lawmakers, cost the nation’s economy an estimated $24 billion during the recent government shutdown. These people are the very ones I’m betting kept the founders awake at night. Does anyone really think government by crackpots for crackpots was what the founders had in mind? Hello?
Blame Republican Speaker of the House John A. Boehner for astonishing dereliction of duty. He let the Crackpot Caucus shut down the government. By refusing to allow an unencumbered vote on a continuing budget resolution that likely would have avoided the shutdown, Boehner made clear that he values his own job security more than the security and well being of the nation.
Boehner is scared of tea party Republicans and their funders. Relatively few in number, tea party politicos have generous friends in wealthy places. They pretend to care about the little guy, but it’s the big guy who will prosper from their duplicitous agendas.
And blame Boehner’s enablers, that pitifully shrinking pool of reality-anchored Republicans who cower mutely in the shadows while their scorched-earth compatriots run amuck. For three decades, these “establishment” Republicans ineffectually have been wringing their hands while the wing nuts hijacked their party. They have no one but themselves to blame for being out-shouted and out-maneuvered.
One telling measure of what this woebegone “mainstream” Republican capitulation has led to is that Democratic candidates for the House of Representatives got 1.5 million more votes than Republican candidates in the last election, yet Democrats are in the minority. The only way Republicans can control the House is if state lawmakers gerrymander Congressional districts to create safe seats so Republicans don’t have to compete in a multi-valued political marketplace. Not a winning long-term strategy, guys.
The takeaway from the shutdown crisis? Today’s Republicans showed the world they’re incapable of governing. No one in a democracy should take comfort from that.
But why are these anarchists acting out? Because change hurts and they’re desperate to stop it. Change threatens loss of power and money, undermines traditional beliefs, upsets the established order. Blacks can be president, whites are becoming a minority, gays can be married, everyone can have health insurance, ever more voters live in godless cities and ever fewer in religious rural areas.
It’s an old story: society is changing faster than they can adapt. Nothing exceptional about that. What is truly exceptional is the breathtaking incompetence displayed by lawmakers of the United States of America.
Solveig Torvik lives in Winthrop.