In her recent article, "We Need To Demand Our Country Be Given Back to We the People," SJ Reidhead had the temerity to suggest that the United States of America and the Roman Republic were the only two entities in the history of humankind that stood out head and shoulders above the rest. “Both were synonymous,” she writes, “with power, order, and the promotion of civilization.”
The author drew severe criticism, and the article became a kind of free-for-all, a ready-made platform for expressing all manner of views on any subject whatever. As one commenter put it:
X used it as an opportunity to talk about political philosophy. Y is using it as a springboard for dry, cynical humor. Z . . . reacted with his usual fervor against any criticism of the administration. If all you have is a hammer, the saying goes, every problem looks like a nail (see comment #42).
At the base of these arguments is the notion of “American exceptionalism," an idea which may have been justified in the past, but is no longer supportable. To understand the conditions which render it obsolete is the first step toward understanding our present situation and the direction in which we’re heading.
I take it as axiomatic that “We the People,” the subject matter of Ms Reidhead’s article, has been a myth from its very inception. Direct democracies have long fallen into disuse since the fall of the Athenian Empire – a loosely-held federation of city-states. Representative democracy – arguably an English invention having its roots in Magna Carta – was meant to extend the limits of direct democracy and citizen participation by means of representation. But it also meant a kind of dilution. And there was another rub. Who were the citizens, and how comprehensive was the concept? Can we honestly say that the representation was thorough enough so as to include “We the People?” Indeed, for all the extension of full voting rights to previously disenfranchised groups – women, freemen, and slaves – can we seriously maintain that our representation in Washington is a meaningful one if exercised only every two years or so during the congressional or general elections?
Which raises a natural question: What took us so long to wake up to this sobering reality, which now hits us like a ton of bricks? Why haven’t we seen it sooner? The answer, I suggest, lies in the economic freedoms once enjoyed but now lost. It provided us with a blind spot — a requisite kind of illusion not to see our political freedom for the myth that it was.
Never underestimate the power of prosperity to overshadow all other aspects of the individual’s life. With economic freedom and financial independence, there come a wide variety of freedoms: the freedom to move, to change jobs, to send your kids to better schools, to live in communities you deem desirable and to associate with whom you want to associate. You can, besides, become a respected member of your community, belong to the right kind of clubs and voluntary associations, exercise your push and pull with the local officials, procure favors and quid pro quos in return for generous donations to right organizations and causes. And in light of all this, political freedom pales in comparison. Indeed, even the middle or the working class have enjoyed a measure of those freedoms which come with prosperity. Admittedly, the sphere wasn’t quite as extensive – in the worst case scenario, amounting perhaps to nothing more than offering a diversion (sugarcoated, besides, by the illusion of “the consumer’s choice”). Even so, it was sufficient for everyone concerned to take their eye off the ball. Until now!
Which makes a point about American exceptionalism. It never made sense by virtue of political institutions alone without the attendant notion of American prosperity – which is to say, without taking into account the period of unparalleled prosperity which, until recently, has been an integral part of the American experience. You can’t measure greatness if you exclude the economy. It was so for the Athenian Empire, the Roman Republic, and the British Empire. And it's no different with America.
It was only a century ago that Rudyard Kipling published his famous poem, "The White Man's Burden." Despite strong ironic undertones, it was generally accepted both in England and abroad as an exhortation of sorts, justifying imperialism and colonial conquest as a “noble enterprise.”
The British Empire was at its heights at the time, I might add – politically, economically and culturally. Today, it’s just as passé as America is about to become.
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