America: exceptional no more?

Rough treatment of detainees, a shocking wealth gap, political dynasties – here?

American exceptionalism – the view that America is unique among nations – is a treasured creed. That's why it is so troubling to observe radical changes in American public life that threaten to make the United States look like many other countries, including those in the so-called third world.

Consider four important dimensions: a comfort level with growing wealth and income disparities, the embracing of previously eschewed means in combating national security threats, a loss of confidence in the integrity of the election process and in the judicial system that is its ultimate arbiter, and a trend toward political dynasty.

Americans have always embraced capitalism and accepted the legitimacy of the highly variable standards of living it produces. But even as recently as 15 years ago, they would have been justified in pointing at others overseas – Brazilian society was often cited as the archetype – for extreme inequality of wealth distribution. Today, they increasingly take for granted the stagnation, at best, of the vast American middle class. Many American workers, under enormous pressure from global competition, aren't getting ahead.

Yet some investment professionals earn more than a billion dollars in a single year. Indeed, income data confirm that the gap between those in the top few percentiles and other Americans has increased dramatically since 1990. And consider the vast amount of political energy devoted in recent years to the cause of helping very wealthy Americans avoid estate taxes. Even the supply-sider Reagan administration two decades ago considered full repeal of the estate tax too far-fetched to aggressively pursue.

Legal niceties aside, what is undeniable about the ongoing "torture" debate is that in the past several years, the US has been subjecting some detainees to treatment that Americans previously associated with other countries – countries they considered, to put it bluntly, less civilized. Those other countries justified their harsh practices by the harshness of the realities they confronted in trying to provide their citizens with a reasonable degree of order and security. Americans tended to dismiss this as rationalization for self-serving brutality at the expense of a system of laws. But today the US government unapologetically justifies its own actions by a similar logic.

For Americans, until this decade, deficits in electoral integrity evoked images of former President Jimmy Carter going overseas to monitor other countries' elections. Back home, they took for granted that – at least at the presidential level – US elections (if not the candidates' campaigns) were credible, and their outcomes had integrity. This changed in 2000 with Bush v. Gore. The case confirmed that, at least in very close elections, outcomes could be influenced after the polling booths had closed. And the performance of the courts failed to inspire confidence that the system could rely on a neutral and apolitical arbiter to resolve such disputes.

Finally, it has been observed that if Hillary Clinton is elected president in November 2008, Americans will have had at least six terms – 24 years – of Bushes and Clintons in the White House. In a country of 300 million people, it seems improbable that so many consecutive presidencies would have emerged from just two families.

Having a spouse or child extend a political dynasty has been a common practice in other countries, even where real elections have to be contested. America's peculiar fascination with celebrity now contributes to its own tendency toward dynasty. Is there any doubt that, looking 20 years or so down the road, George P. Bush (President Bush's nephew) and Chelsea Clinton will have a far better shot at being elected president – if they decide to join the family business – than almost every single one of today's 30-something elected officials, no matter how talented?

As a nation, the US is in danger of becoming the "other"; in key respects, American "exceptionalism" is fast eroding, but it is worth striving to preserve. An important challenge for political leaders and thought leaders is to speak frankly and forcefully about what is at stake for all Americans before it is too late to change course.

Andy Zelleke is a lecturer in public policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government and codirector of its Center for Public Leadership.

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