The Essential Glue is American Exceptionalism

Social inequality has been rising since the 1970s, political discussions are often vitriolic. But what holds America together? Michael Kröber sat down with the political scientist Winfried Fluck to discuss.

The European: The recent announcement of moderate Republican senator Olympia J. Snowe not to seek reelection provides a stark reminder of how much American politics have become polarized over the last few years. Moderates are stepping down because they do not want to be subjected to a party line dominated by take-it-or-leave-it activists who make political compromise increasingly difficult. Does this mean that there is no longer any common ground in American political life? What could still provide the glue, and prevent a bitterly divided America from falling apart?
Fluck: Before looking for an answer one should ask whether these are the right questions. Any student of American history cannot help but be impressed by the remarkable resilience American democracy has shown through recurring periods of crisis, both as a political and as a social system. Economic crises and bitter political conflicts are by no means a recent phenomenon in American history. On the contrary, they have been there from the start. Looking into political debates of the famed founding era can be a sobering experience. After George Washington stepped down as president and the two-party system emerged, political debates were shaped by an acrimony and rhetorical excess that might put even Karl Rove to shame. Thomas Jefferson, for example, was called a “Negro President,” because the so-called 3/5th clause of the constitution made it possible for the slave-holding Southern states to increase their number of votes in the electoral college that elected the President. In the following decades, election campaigns were often low points in American political life. Negative campaigning blossomed. On the economic level, crises occurred almost by the decade during the 19th century, and social inequality already reached dramatic dimensions during the so-called Gilded Age and then again in the 1930s.

The European: The time between World War II and the Civil Rights movement, however, can be seen as a period of consensus.
Fluck: Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Great Society” already laid the grounds for intensified inner conflicts. It helped Nixon to draw white working class voters in the South to the Republican Party and thus paved the way for the rise of neoconservatism. Altogether, American society has been marked by conflict, not consensus, throughout its history. However, these conflicts and often bitter divisions have not undermined national cohesion. On the contrary, time and again American democracy has shown an amazing robustness in times of crisis.

The European: So what is the source of this resilience?
Fluck: One possible explanation is that American politics have been shaped by strong conflicts of interest from the start and that American society has therefore learned to live with conflict. All that is needed to hold society together under such circumstances are constitutionally guaranteed rights that protect “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” One may call this a “Habermasian” explanation that has important implications for the European community. Indeed, what the American example may teach us is that modern states can live with conflict, even deep divisions, as long as certain rights are constitutionally secured. However, this explanation tells only half of the story, at least as far as the United States is concerned. In the final analysis, what holds American society together is not merely the rights of American citizens but the pride of being, in American self-perception, a citizen of the greatest and most powerful nation on earth. Or, to put it differently: the essential glue, still largely untarnished, is the idea of American exceptionalism. All Republican candidates in this year’s Presidential primaries have therefore put the idea of American exceptionalism at the center and have questioned President Obama on his exceptionalist credentials. President Obama, on the other hand, despite some initial hesitation, has now come to insist on his unwavering belief in American exceptionalism. Although American politics and society may be bitterly divided, they remain united by the idea that the United States is not merely different or unique, but superior because of this difference and uniqueness.

The European: But aren’t current debates in the US driven by growing doubts about the state of American society? The OWS movement may serve as a well covered example.
Fluck: One has to keep in mind that two things are usually conflated in discussions about American politics and society that should be kept apart. In speaking about the United States one can refer to two different aspects of “America”: the American state and its government and the American nation and its self-perception and self-definition. When conditions in contemporary America are deplored, no matter whether this is done from the left or the right, this criticism is leveled against the government, not against the nation. The government is criticized for not living up to the ideals of the nation. Even in the act of criticizing current conditions, the idea of America as a superior nation is thus reaffirmed. In American political discourse strong, government-run institutions like the military-industrial complex and the national security apparatus are not associated with the state but with the American nation. They are indispensible for protecting the superiority of “America.” In military spending, American politicians can thus be remarkably generous. At the same time, politicians can be pretty mean-spirited about welfare “entitlements.” The reason is simple: welfare is framed as a government program and not as a national project. It does nothing to support the idea of American exceptionalism. Obama therefore tried to define health care reform as a long overdue national project, while critics do everything in their power to characterize it as yet another wasteful government program.

The European: But what about the ferocious debates on anti-abortion or anti-same-sex marriage policies? They hardly concern American exceptionalism and still appear to deeply divide American society.
Fluck: It all depends on who defines American exceptionalism and how it is defined. Responding to pressures by the Tea Party and other movements on the right, parts of the conservative coalition try to link American exceptionalism with their form of Christianity in order to create a Christian brand of American exceptionalism. To be sure, ever since the Puritans, religion has been an important part of American exceptionalism but, as the sociologist Robert Bellah has shown, in the form of a “civil religion” that accepted the separation of state and church and could thus embrace all Christian denominations. In contrast, current conservative redefinitions follow evangelical and fundamentalist agendas. For the Republican primaries, this may work; for the national election this may be counter-productive and President Obama’s version of American exceptionalism may prevail, because it is less exclusive and therefore more in tune with the national creed.

The European: What if economic realities challenge the idea of American exeptionalism? Recent findings that the United States is no longer the leading society in social mobility provide one example.
Fluck: Such international comparisons are still rare in American discourse, because nobody wants to be the messenger who brings bad news. Things will therefore drag on for the time being in the same way in which they do right now: on the one hand, constant discussions about whether American society is still Number One, on the other, bitter disagreements about what makes it Number One, or what could make it Number One again. Only when the idea of American exceptionalism loses its imaginary power, will it be time again to ask the question what it actually is that holds American society together.

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