American exceptionalism is a simple concept. We’re the best because of democracy, because of our revolution against tyranny, because of our freedoms. How we got here is often considered reason enough for us to find privilege in where we are. Even if we today aren’t the ones who vaulted the United States into global first place, even if we aren’t the ones who stumbled onto the country’s broad natural wealth – one of our predecessors did at some point. And that makes us special.
Patriotism is a strength. We’ve earned the right to be proud of this country. But patriotism and entitlement are different things. Exceptionalism can be a form of entitlement, a way of excusing selfishness and self-centeredness. America is the best, therefore, whatever we do is right. Or: therefore, we don’t need to be concerned with others.
In yesterday’s Times Frank Bruni outlined “The Affliction of Comfort” – the worry that those who are taken care of will put taking care of themselves above resolving the problems of others. His essay is farmed in the context of governments making decisions about the long-term welfare of citizens from a position of safety and comfort.
The piece doesn’t deliver on the promise of its title. The affliction of comfort. The inertia of the heavy. Bruni dusts the surface of Italian politics and dips a toe into the American budget mess, but there’s deeper angst at work.
America is deeply afflicted by its comfort. We are to the world what the Italian upper caste is to the average person in that country. We call the shots; we work to maintain our lead, which is already at a distance it would take enormous measures to close.
Our desire to stand astride the world is most obvious to the casual observer in foreign policy, but it is increasingly apparent in other international fights. Economic policies. Or the fight against climate change. I mean, we’re comfortable. We like things the way they are. Those rising ocean levels will, what? flood Battery Park? Parts of Miami? This isn’t the Maldives. We’ll survive. We can deal. And, besides, we are exceptional. We are our own bosses. We’ll listen to you, but at the end of the day, we’ll do what’s best for us.
This is a problem. But the bigger problem is that this same dichotomy – the established, privileged leader considering the pleas of the underprivileged – is echoed in our national economy. The upper tier – that top ten percent of income-earners who control two-thirds of the wealth of the country or the more rarified 1% who none of us are and who none of us will ever meet – are America’s wealth exceptionalists. They may not have been the ones to earn their fortunes and social position, but one of their predecessors did at some point. And that makes them special.
Like America internationally, the top tier carefully weighs the extent to which they’ll relax some small margin of their lead. Heavy hangs the head that wears the crown, I suppose – an affliction of comfort in its own way. Should any sacrifice be made to help those outside of the gates who might soon be drowning? In this moment, the decision appears to be theirs.
Having a lead doesn’t exempt you from leading. It wasn’t America’s beginning that made it exceptional, any more than it was Steve Jobs’ birth that made him an exceptional business leader. How we nurture America molds the country more than our exceptional nativity. America grows and changes.
The moment of America’s genesis, it’s worth remembering, was one in which colonists were frustrated with their unseen and untouchable rulers, sitting comfortably in London – the English empire, upon which the sun never set. In our Constitution, we explicitly rejected titles of nobility, the contemporary demonstrations of class distinction. Egalitarianism doesn’t recognize a Lord.
As the nation evolved, we inadvertently created a class system based on the bank account. Today, wealth exceptionalists lead the country. We are afflicted with comfortable leadership.
America is exceptional because we don’t pander to the exceptional. Our uniqueness stems from the idea that any of us can be President – that we all lead through our voices and our votes. The President isn’t empowered to do what he wants without consequence any more than America is. We must choose to be a nation that doesn’t treat its exception as entitlement to be selfish, nationally or internationally. It often takes courage to do what’s best for someone else.
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