The Tea Party GOP is fond of citing the concept of American Exceptionalism as justification for everything from prioritizing war over diplomacy to cutting taxes for the wealthy. Arguably, the twentieth century was, indeed, the century of American Exceptionalism.
In that century, we fought and won the War to End All Wars, and followed it up with the development and deployment of weapons of mass destruction to end the next war.
In the twentieth century, America exploited the fruits of the Industrial Revolution, developing a manufacturing economy that paid decent wages thanks to regulation and strong unions. We eradicated the scourges of yellow fever and polio and put a man on the moon. Not only did we win the space race, but we also won the Cold War, thanks in part to the Soviet Union’s draining their resources on an ill-advised war in Afghanistan. We developed an educational system with institutions from pre-school to post-graduate that attracted people from all over the world. We invented the transistor and the Internet and made Silicon Valley an engine of growth, opportunity, and prosperity.
The common thread that ties this success story together is government. Government grants for education boosted innovation. Government regulation on fuel economy, the environment, and workplace safety were catalysts for economic growth. Government research and development grants to spur innovation helped a few large corporations and spawned thousands of small ones. Millions of Americans were able to realize the dream of home ownership.
Unfortunately, the momentum has changed in the twenty first century. The engine that drives the economy has stalled. American corporations are shipping green jobs to China and America lags behind Europe and Asia in investments in rail transportation. Tea Partiers cheer when someone like Governor Chris Christie abandons an important rail transportation job in mid-stream, throwing away billions of taxpayer dollars. In this century’s basic infrastructure race, broadband, America is in the middle of the pack, just behind Luxembourg.
Of course, the decline in American Exceptionalism did not occur overnight, nor is it finished yet. The decline took root when Ronald Reagan hoodwinked the American people by postulating that “Government is not a solution to our problem, government is the problem.” But what really threw American Exceptionalism under the bus was the administration of George W Bush and its demonstrably failed policy of trickle-down economics. Bush’s legacy will be the demise of the middle class and the rise to power of the corporate oligarchs. This trajectory toward banana republic status was guaranteed by the Tea Party’s disdain for government services (which they all use) and the taxes that pay for them.
Is there a way to revector this trajectory? Probably not in the short term. Democrats have amply demonstrated their impotence in slowing down the Republican-led demise of our economy, let alone reversing it. Right-wing corporations control much of the mainstream media and Progressives have to work twice as hard to get their truthful message out. Cuts in education will make it easier for Republicans to “dumb-down” elections and win on simplistic talking points about complex issues. With the recent election of Tea Party governors in many states, voter suppression initiatives that hurt the poor and unemployed are on the rise.
Eventually the Republicans will win the White House. If not in 2012, then in 2016. To stay in power, as they exploit workers and the poor and as they shift more jobs overseas, they will need something to rally around, be it another war or terrorist attack.
American Exceptionalism helped us survive the Great Depression and World War II. Is there enough left to help us survive the Tea Party onslaught?