Why can't politicians give Americans the facts? Why can't the presidential candidates tell it like it is? These are the questions New York Times reporter Scott Shane asks in his recent opinion piece, "The Opiate of Exceptionalism."
Shane joined The Daily Circuit Monday to talk about American exceptionalism.
From his piece:
How far would this truth-telling candidate get? Nowhere fast. Such a candidate is, in fact, all but unimaginable in our political culture. Of their serious presidential candidates, and even of their presidents, Americans demand constant reassurance that their country, their achievements and their values are extraordinary...
This national characteristic, often labeled American exceptionalism, may inspire some people and politicians to perform heroically, rising to the level of our self-image. But during a presidential campaign, it can be deeply dysfunctional, ensuring that many major issues are barely discussed.
"Politicians who are running for president and presidents themselves to a considerable degree, are reluctant, it seems to me, to be very candid about big chronic, difficult problems," he said. "It's fine to say, 'Unemployment is too high and I will create millions of jobs and put people back to work' because that's a problem instantly followed by a solution."
But bigger issues like poverty are largely ignored by politicians because there isn't an easy solution or talking point, Shane said.
He cited a ranking of the 35 most economically advanced countries in the world where the United States is 34th for child poverty. The only country behind America is Romania, he said.
"I would like to think there are a lot of extraordinary things about our country, but I think this insistence on thinking of America as No. 1 in every respect gets in the way of one of the strengths of the country, which historically has been a sort of willingness to face facts, be realists," Shane said. "That can be lost when we're just sort of focused on insisting everything is fine, that we're doing very well."
Clifford D. May, president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism and political Islam, also joined the discussion. He said Shane's discussion is misdirected.
"I think this is a matter of misunderstanding the concept of exceptionalism," he said. "American exceptionalism is not, as Scott is arguing, an assertion of American greatness. It doesn't mean we're any better in any particular category or that we're better at all. It's something simpler and it's something humbler. It's recognition that America is different from other nations, that it is not ordinary in ways that are significant and consequential."
May said our country was founded on ideas, rather than blood and soil, and we have a duty to lead the world on those ideas.
On the live chat, Poebel backed up May's argument that exceptionalism and American arrogance are different discussions.
"The 'norm' definition of exceptionalism is wrong, as can be historically demonstrated ad nauseum," Poebel wrote. "I would challenge anyone on the other side to point us to the philosophical underpinnings of the view that 'exceptionalists' are talking about health care policy, poverty or any of these other issues."
JustAnotherSkippy said America is exceptional based on the democracy it was built on.
"America is exceptional because it remains a land of opportunity and personal responsibility and because even though we have the power to build an empire we as a people reject it," JustAnotherSkippy wrote. "We are also the first modern democracy to enshrine those values that nearly everyone holds dear in our Billl of Rights. Even today in Europe's de facto free speech environment their laws permit far more restriction of dissenting speech than here in the US."
Kris agrees, but said American exceptionalism is now hurting the country's ability to solve problems.
"It is true in some ways that America, at its best, is exceptional," Kris wrote. "However, our collective sense of exceptionalism has blinded us as a culture to many of our most pressing problems, and hindered our ability to look logically and with open eyes to find solutions. We are becoming less exceptional because we are less able to recognize the exceptional ideas of others."
MPR News' Alex DiPalma contributed to this report.
Kerri was by Clifford D. May. President of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism and political Islam and Scott Shane of the New York Times.
The conversation was inspired by a recent op-ed Scott Shane wrote that American exceptionalism is opiate that keeps politicians from telling the truth and voters from hearing the truth.
Do you think that we demand that our politicians deliver a portrait of exceptionalism that we can't live up to? And how much “truth” are we willing to swallow?
Or is America - indeed - special above all others?
@KerriMPR Are there countries that aren't exceptional? Which country is like all the others?
@KerriMPR I don't even think is a demand. America is truly exceptional! Is a great example of hard work and determination for others.
@KerriMPR it’s a vicious cycle: we expect it because we hear it. But it seems this nation is at our best when we aren’t busy saying so.
@KerriMPR Alongside criticism of apology tour points to belief not only in exceptionalism, but American perfection. Dangerous for leadership
@KerriMPR Neither. Most Americans are deluded and believe we are. Politicians re-enforce it or risk alienating those who will not see fact.
Here's an excerpt from Shane's article:
"Candidates and presidents generally oblige them, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney included. It is permissible, in the political major leagues, for candidates to talk about big national problems — but only if they promise solutions in the next sentence: Unemployment is too high, so I will create millions of jobs. It is impermissible to dwell on chronic, painful problems, or on statistics that challenge the notion that the United States leads the world — a point made memorably in a tirade by the dyspeptic anchorman played by Jeff Daniels in the HBO drama “The Newsroom.”"
@KerriMPR America has problems? I thought we were perfect... #exceptionalism
"It's the sense or the claim that the United States stands out in a positive way." - Scott Shane's definition of American exceptionalism.
Ignorant Americans do not realize, or deny, that America is often the bad guy. Americans must hear the truth, as told by Noam Chomsky and others.
Pretty sure it's a phrase that's only used by politicians to imply that their opponents don't love America enough. If Mitt Romney really believed in American Exceptionalism, he would have so much of his money in offshore accounts to avoid paying taxes.
Every country I've visited is exceptional in some way. Americans are exceptional in their belief that their exceptionalism is exceptional.
Scott Shane covers national security for the New York Times.
I think there are some great things about our country. I am also concerned that if in coversation you bring up concerns or things that need to improve, you often get a response like...if you don't like it here then leave. There is little tolerance with many Americans to hear that we are not, across the board... "THE BEST."
The concept of exceptionalism breeds hubris and empire think. We all get along better when we all get along with our neighbors, big and small.
At one time 'American exceptionalism' may have referred to the good qualities of equality and opportunity but ever since my formative years during the Vietnam War I have taken it to mean "arrogance, conceit and Christian self-righteousness." Who are we to be better than all others?
My family immigrated to Mpls. in 1956. My father started with $34.00 and a good trade. By 1960 we had a new house in the suburb, and a start to a cabin on Crosslake. All on one income. Using an inflation calculator he would now be making over $ 50.00 per hour. People in this trade now make less than $20.00 per hour.
I'm having a hard time believing you - at MINNESOTA Pubic Radio is talking about this.
It's the EXACT same thing media people do everyday when they talk about this state.
There is nothing inherently exceptional either about this state or the U.S. Yes, we''re fortunate to have had some brilliant men design out government in the 1770's and 1780's. And we have had some true public servants (not the same as politicians" who have moved it forward. But we are NO BETTER than anyone else. Your quoted child poverty statistic is enough to dispel that notion. I'd be so grateful for a candidate for public office to tell the truth and work to solve REAL problems such as poverty and homelessness and domestic violence, etc. rather than to work to get re-elected.
Yankee Practicality" - sounds like the North to me
Cliff May joins us now.
When you have to tell everyone how great your are....you should realize that you are going downhill, and not doing anything to correct the problem.
Americans are exceptionally lucky, but also exceptionally arrogant.
Cliff May says he thinks exceptionalism is not "we're number one" but that we have a unique destiny and role.
I always bristle when politicians end their speeches with "God Bless America." How about "God Bless our World!" As a person of faith in God, I have found the song by Lloyd Stone and Georgia Harkness sung to the tune of Finlandia very appropriate when we think we as a county are exceptional. The first verse "This is my song, O God of all the nations, a song of peace for lands afar and mine. This is my home, the country where my heart is; here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine; but other hearts in other lands are beating with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine."
I'm disappointed at yet another "managed decline" piece from the NYT.
America is exceptional because it remains a land of opportunity and personal responsibility and because even though we have the power to build an empire we as a people reject it. We are also the first modern democracy to enshrine those values that nearly everyone holds dear in our Billl of Rights. Even today in Europe's de facto free speech environment their laws permit far more restriction of dissenting speech than here in the US.
We also need to stop propagating the myths of health care costs of the US vs. other industrialized nations.
To me, college in this country is about coffee shops, bookstores, and athletics. Often I don't see a focus on colleges' and universities' primary role and that's to provide exceptional and accessible EDUCATION. Programs keep getting cut and bookstores and private enterprise just keeps slipping their foot further in the door. And the costs just keep going up.
Cliff May says that Great Britain passed the torch of global leadership after World War Two to American.
In the US, so much of our criteria seems to be about profit. We are exceptional at making money. But things that do not directly help the rich get richer tend to get less attention.
Freedom from religious persecution? If someone was running for president and he was an athiest, would he be elected? If Obama announced tomorrow that he was converting to hinduism, would he be re-elected? No. What kind of religious freedom is that?
@KerriMPR No nation is "hope of the world." Christians teach that Christ is. Odd that so many conserv. Christians buy into exceptionalism.
@KerriMPR Obama seemed to mean we are better when he said we are the one indispensable nation.
@KerriMPR Love country. Fly flag. Love Constitution. We're pretty darn awesome. Nonetheless, "exceptionalism" talk is nauseating.
Clifford just said that we weren't founded on blood and soil... Huh? Ever heard of the Native Americans?
Do we value liberty? Aren't there multiple constitutional amendments across the country that are seeking to deny gay folks the right to marry?
I left a very exceptional Russia twenty years ago for America believing that this is indeed a very special and exceptional country. In the last several years, however, I see it becoming less and less so. I see more and more of exactly what I ran from: bigger government, irresponsible politicians, welfare state, persecution of religion, decline of moral values. I am still very proud of this country as the one where my voice and my choice matters - this is exceptional indeed.
@B Joe AGREED.
When Cliff was able to change the definition to fit his argument, he moved the conversation away for the primary topic. So, are we speaking about the term as a political term or socio-economic term
In a discussion which should span topics of economics and social mobility, why are the only two guests a journalist and a conservative foreign policy wonk? Where's the balance MPR?
Cliff May is delusional. He is a perfect example of why America is going swiftly downhill ueber-Hubris will be (wait - already has been - ) our demise. We must work humbly with other countries. Not bully them around.
@KerriMPR death of compromise? Is 'my way or the highway' politics unpatriotic & an affront to the founding principles of our country?
It is true in some ways that America, at its best, is exceptional. However, our collective sense of exceptionalism has blinded us as a culture to many of our most pressing problems, and hindered our ability to look logically and with open eyes to find solutions. We are becoming less exceptional because we are less able to recognize the exceptional ideas of others.
Disgree with the current caller about guns. THAT does not make us exceptional. That makes us weak and unable to protect ourselves in other ways. Europeans think that the rights to carry guns is COMPLETELY meaningless and the cause of mass shootings in the US.
I'm a Scandinavian transplant in Minnesota.
Living here feels very insular, news from the outside don't make it here so it's easy to convince American voters that their country is exceptional in domestic issues. I would not live right now would it not be for excellent healthcare here, for example, but my now pre-existing condition may make it necessary for me to move abroad to more consistent healthcare to survive in the long run. The American Dream is alive but the poverty I see around me is striking as well. The one area where I find the US exceptional to other countries I have lived in is in the P.C. language, actually, which interestingly reflects a sensitivity to other cultures (even if those cultures are not understood very well).
My wife was a Vietnamese refugee.
On our wall right now is a page long statement she wrote about how great America is, and why her family left a comfortable life in a model european social democracy after they were rescued from Asia.
She too is afraid that America is in decline as government does more and more, crushing the American spirit. She always notes that it is immigrants who see and appreciate how different and great America is.
Kerri epitomizes the opposite view, sadly.
There was a claim that the US had no empire or imperialist history. This is dead wrong. The Philippines, Guam, Hawaii, Alaska, and Puerto Rico were all US colonies.
Somebody wanna get Noam Chompsky or the ghost of Howard Zinn on @DailyCircuit this a.m.?
@DailyCircuit The United States has not been exceptional for almost 30 years. We have the power to improve, but we're currently way behind.
Kerri Miller listening to a caller.
People like Cliff May are dangerous when their voices are allowed to guide the conversation and political policy making. I also want to inject the concept that if America is indeed exceptional, then we should start treating the 47% as exceptional. Right now the 1% is getting exceptional treatment at the expense of everyone else. By the way, I'm not dissing democracy...I just wish it worked better for, of and by the people.
By forming a comparison between a journalistic and a political definition of exceptionalism, you have misaligned the discussion. You have people talking past each other. My question to Mr May: "Why do you believe that the British electorate made a conscious decision to vote Churchill out, to reject Britain's role as an "exceptional" country, and to become what you have identified as a "welfare state?"
Scott Shane says that May's version of exceptionalism is an ideal. But Shane says that can be mis-translated into America being number one in the globe on many issues and that we can pat ourselves on the back too much.
And what about balancing American exceptionalism on the backs of slaves and Native Americans?
I think that this idea of exceptionalism still holds true insofar as the diversity of our people that makes us special in the world. However, I feel that this aspect of our exceptionalism is drowned out by the more conservative and reactionary definition...the same people that promote English only laws and would hope to deport the Dreamers.
Not what exceptionalism means in the mind of most people?
In the Washington bubble in which Mr. May lives, maybe.
But we see the concept consistently used as a rhetorical weapon in politics. Heaven forbid that a politician suggest we learn something about healthcare from the French or educating our children from the Finns.
While it is true that the average American is not a proponent of empire our government creates and executes policy. Very often they behave in THEIR best 'interests' which may be contrary to the average Americans. America does NOT have a right to lead (read: dictate) to any other country.
America is unique, just like every other country.
I'm afraid you have invited a Trojan horse into this discussion by spotlighting Mr May.
Leadership of the world" - what does that mean? What are we leading everyone toward? Rejecting terrorism? Doesn't every country do that - many more effectively than we do? Are we leading everyone toward liberty/freedom? This is too vague to debate
American Exceptionalism is WIDELY accepted as US is Number One, the US should never apologize for anything, and the history of the US is not to be criticized. If anyone doubts this, just visit YouTube and see the abundance of popular feeling expressed there.
Cliff May believes in torture. What would he know about "American Exceptionalism"?
America IS exceptional! Why do I think so? I lived in the Middle East (UAE) and had to stand in a women's only line at the bank. I gave birth to my daughter in England - an awful experience & made the birth of my son at United Hospital seem like a day at The Ritz. I've backpacked to 30 countries and there is so much natural beauty in our 50 states... Exceptional doesn't have to mean arrogance. If you want to change something, improve something, create something, you have the freedom to pursue those opportunities - even within the constraints of our flawed systems. Look at the flag and dare to dream!
@KerriMPR leadership is a fine abstract wordin the real world it means blood &treasure we are out of money & how much blood is ur ego worth
As far as I could hear, May's visit was used as an opportunity to promote Romney and Ryan.
@DailyCircuit Look at the statistics, we're exceptional in military expenditures, and in numbers of incarcerated citizens. We fail all else.
Somebody wanna get Noam Chompsky or the ghost of Howard Zinn on @DailyCircuit this a.m.?
@Catherine - I agree with you, but Mr May was not making a point about exceptionalism. He was a plant from the Romney-Ryan camp. Poor journalistic practice, I'm afraid.
Leadership in the world - what does that mean? It means keeping open sea lanes so trade can occur. It means serving as the arsenal of the free world. It means stepping in when Europe was too feckless to stop a new genocide in the Balkans. And so on.
@Ann from Andover - thank you, Ann, for listening with a critical ear.
When I think of exceptional people, they do great things, not talk about how exceptional they are. An exceptional country invests in its citizens, from safety net programs and schools, and provides OPPORTUNITY for its citizens to grow and prosper, locally and globally. Instead we've seen our educational system falter and little opportunity for those who need it most. The gap in wealth in this country is pretty deplorable; how is that a model for the rest of the world?!
America's exceptional for its numbers in prison mostly for the failed war on drugs.
I think the critical issue is not whether we were once exceptional but whether we still are. We have folks in this country desperate to retain their own rights but unwilling to grant the same rights to fellow citizens. We live in a deeply unequal country that is becoming more and more divided in terms of wealth and class. I think our founding ideals have the potential to be renewed but we can not do it with someone in the office of the Presidency who forsakes 47 percent of Americans. And we can't do it when almost 50 percent of American exhibit a racial bias against African Americans. This is not living out the principle " we believe all men are created equal."
funny how many MPR listeners are opposed to having heard from someone who is aligned with Romney. Now you know what it is like forcing myself to listen to NPR on a daily basis, with its typical insular leftist views. Kudos to Kerri for including May. If MPR were to do that more often I might actually donate to the station
Having Cliff involved in this discussion threw the discussion off course. I don't mean we shouldn't have both sides of an issue represented, but Cliff's angle on exceptionalism is really not the norm, and is on another level.
I believe most Americans see this issue in very straight-forward terms, and understand "exceptional" as "better than." This perpetuates because we have been told about our superiority (yes, that's how we see it) our whole lives, and because we are relatively uninformed about the rest of the world. I wouldn't call it arrogance, but it is ignorance, and this is expressed through a defensiveness and reluctance to open our minds to the idea that other countries may do some things better than we do. A perfect example of this is our attitudes toward healthcare and conviction that we have the best system in the world, but statistics do not support our beliefs. Our convictions prevent us from moving forward to a truly exceptional way of life.
@KerriMPR Clifford May was one strongest right ideologues that you have had on. And he was so wrong about everything that I wanted to puke.
@Elizabeth Opposition to the current healthcare "reform" is not a function of insular thinking. It is a function of understanding that ObamaCare will do little to nothing to improve cost, quality and access at the same time. To your point, there are many international examples of how to pull off comprehensive reforms and improve quality. And many ideas on how to integrate those best practices with a market/individual-based approach that fits within the political culture of the US. But Obama instead chose to push top-down "solutions" that are untested, expensive and centrally controlled. Not the right path (and btw, I say this having worked recently for several years on international health system reform for a global consulting firm). Yes we need to reform healthcare. But the analogy that comes to mind is Detroit spending 3 decades aping Japan's use of production line automation without ever understanding what the overall process and system needs to look like. Wasted billions of $ and fell further behind. That's what ObamaCare is going to do to us
@poebel My problem with May's comments isn't that his is a Romney supporter or that he is a conservative, but that he really didn't speak to the actual question (see above) and denied that "exceptional" meant "superior" in most Americans' minds. The question above asks if we feel America is special above all others, and he refused to engage on the topic in the terms that Kerri presented: How about our own attitudes here at home about ourselves, our systems, our laws, etc., and how we feel we compare to the rest of the world? He was hijacked the conversation and into an ideological monologue. I was hoping for more of a discussion of how our view of ourselves and our country informs our policies, our interactions with other countries, and so many other actions.
The "norm" definition of exceptionalism is wrong, as can be historically demonstrated ad nauseum. Which is pretty much what May said. I would challenge anyone on the other side to point us to the philosophical underpinnings of the view that "exceptionalists" are talking about health care policy, poverty or any of these other issues. Kerri seemed surprised that the conversation veered at one point so heavily to foreign policy, which just demonstrates she doesn't get it.