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How Rick Santorum and America can be 'exceptional': Avoid empire

Rick Santorum suggests national health care sank the British Empire and sees America as the rightful heir to British global domination. But empires are largely based on racism and exploitation. To be 'exceptional' America must resist the idea it knows what’s best for everyone else.

By Jonathan Zimmerman / January 17, 2012

Republican presidential candidate, former Sen. Rick Santorum, speaks as he campaigns at the Faith and Freedom Coalition Prayer Breakfast in Myrtle Beach, S.C., Sunday, Jan. 15. Mr. Santorum has suggested the British Empire fell because it instituted social welfare programs like national health care.

AP Photo/Charles Dharapak

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I just returned from a quick trip to Great Britain, which once ruled a fifth of the world’s inhabitants and a quarter of its land mass. But then the British instituted a system of social welfare, including national health care, which diminished their strength and confidence – and paved the way for the dissolution of their empire. 

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So said presidential hopeful Rick Santorum earlier this month in Iowa, where he ran a close second to Mitt Romney in the Republican caucuses. Critics quickly seized on Mr. Santorum’s confused chronology, noting that the British left India – the jewel of their empire – in 1947, and their National Health Service wasn’t established until 1948.

Yet when I recounted Santorum’s remark to a colleague in England, he had a very different response: “Why does the guy like empire so much?”

The answer isn’t hard to find. Like most of the other GOP candidates, Santorum seems to see America as the rightful heir to British global domination. All we need is a firm belief in our own superiority, which the British allegedly forsook after World War II.

“One hundred years ago, the sun didn’t set on the British Empire,” Santorum told his Iowa audience. “If you look at that empire today – why? Because they lost heart and faith in their heart in themselves and in their mission…. Not just for the betterment of the world, but safety and security and the benefit of their country.” Today, Santorum added, the United States has “taken up that cause.”

But the rest of the world will look askance at Santorum’s analogy – and with good reason. Like other modern empires, Great Britain’s was based largely on racism, exploitation, and violence. Before we Americans assume the British imperial mantle, then, we might pause a moment to look at its actual history.

And it begins, yes, with race. After losing the United States – which revolted, remember, against Mother England – the British Empire governed mostly people of color. It also developed elaborate racial codes and rationales, insisting that “the British race” – i.e., white people – had a natural right to rule others. “The white man in Africa is not prepared and never will be prepared to accept the African as an equal, socially or politically,” declared a British official in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in 1934 – in a typical statement.

Nor did empire bring economic security and prosperity to its subjects, as apologists often claimed. In India, life expectancy actually decreased 20 percent under British rule. Indian per capita output rose just 10 percent between 1850 and 1950; after India won its independence, by contrast, per capita output soared 50 percent in just 25 years.

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