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As July 4 approaches, can picnics, parades, and fireworks be far behind? That includes fireworks of more than one variety. After all, the Fourth of July can also be an occasion for hot debate well before the sun goes down. Here’s one that fits with the Fourth: Is there such a thing as “American exceptionalism?” If so, what does it mean? Is it meant to suggest that the United States is better than—or simply different from—all other countries? And are believers in American exceptionalism confined to the political right or can they be found on the left as well?
Generally speaking, American exceptionalists on the right regard the American founding as unique and uniquely important. Divisions arise over whether or not the American experiment is exportable, but there is little disagreement over the significance of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The first justified rebellion in the name of the God-given (OK “Nature’s God”-given) rights of the individual, while the second was designed to guarantee individual freedom through a federal system of limited government and divided powers.
Those on the left tend to downplay this version of American exceptionalism. Recall President Obama’s response when asked if he believed in the idea. Sure, he replied, and in the same way that a Brit believes in British exceptionalism and a Greek believes in Greek exceptionalism. In other words, every country is exceptional in its own way. Therefore, the whole matter of American exceptionalism is, well, unexceptional, not to mention unimportant.
But is it? Not if there really is something to the ideas and the achievement of the founders. And not if a Brit by the name of G. K. Chesterton was right. He thought America was the only nation founded on the basis of a creed; therefore, America was the only nation with the “soul of a church.”
None of this is meant to suggest that those on the left cannot be American exceptionalists. Many might well agree with Chesterton, especially his reverence for the creedal (“all men are created equal”) portion of the Declaration of Independence. Then there are those to the left of President Obama, who are American exceptionalists of an entirely different sort. They are socialists, who think of themselves as democratic socialists and whose sense of American exceptionalism is more inadvertent than celebratory, more implicit than explicit.
Thanks to the likes of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, socialism has made a comeback in recent months. Actually, “comeback” might not be quite right. Socialist icons Eugene Debs and Norman Thomas notwithstanding, socialism has never had an American heyday (even though Minneapolis briefly had a socialist mayor a century ago). But thanks to an always earnest Uncle Bernie and to a sometimes over-bearing Uncle Donald, socialism is on the rise in America—especially among the young.
To be sure, many factors have contributed to the surge of interest in pursuing a socialist future for America. Concern about apparent increases in income inequality is one. The call to make health care a universal human right is another. Then there is skyrocketing student loan debt, coupled with an educational system that tilts somewhere between leftward and decidedly leftward. But Sanders as the face of American socialism and Trump as the face of American capitalism have certainly helped.
In any case, if the Sanders vote of 2016 is a harbinger, and if polls are right, socialism in America could get a new lease on political life. According to a recent Harvard University poll, 51% of those between the ages of 18 and 29 reject capitalism, while fully one-third endorse socialism. If this is a portent of things to come, there might well be new benefits for some, but at the expense of a new birth of statism for everyone.
Benefits or otherwise, the ultimate question is this: Will socialism work in America? Those who are betting “yes” may not acknowledge as much, but they are American exceptionalists of sorts. Only in America . . . How often have we heard those words in reference to any number of things? Well, if socialism does some day work in America, it will be a first for any country of considerable scope and size.
What about Sweden and other western European nations? For starters, each is a highly regulated capitalist state with hefty taxes to finance welfare spending. By that standard the United States already is a socialist state.
But real socialism is another matter entirely. Margaret Thatcher was surely right: under socialism (and it always is “under”) you eventually do run out of other people’s money. The same fate may one day befall the socialist-lite countries of Western Europe as well.
Of course, money isn’t the only problem facing socialist or socialist-lite regimes. Such governments always seem to be beset with problems of corruption, waste, and mismanagement, not to mention the tyranny that accompanies its harsher varieties. To be sure, the American ideal is democratic socialism. That is Uncle Bernie’s oft-stated goal, as it was for George Orwell of 1984 fame.
But will a socialist state remain democratic or will it inevitably become 1984ish? Can such a state avoid authoritarian, or worse yet, totalitarian temptations? Not to worry, say American socialists, who are also proving to be accidental American exceptionalists.
The success or failure of socialism does not depend on size, says socialist writer Ozgur Zeren. Whether a state is composed of five people or five billion is irrelevant. All that matters is who controls the economy—“the people or the private interests.” But just who are “the people?” Will a socialist bureaucracy be representative of the people or even responsive to them?
Such questions and concerns will not go away. Something called democratic socialism has never been put in place in a country as diverse and immense as the United States. It’s also never been put in place in a republic, much less in a republic that has remained a republic.
Then there is real socialism, meaning governmental ownership of production and distribution, which has failed everywhere it’s been tried. But this is America, say American socialists. We can transition to democratic socialism and keep it democratic. We can make non-tyrannical socialism work.
Joseph Schwartz of the Democratic Socialists of America is both optimistic and blunt. There must be a “complete break with capitalism.” For example, a single-payer health care system is not enough. It will amount to little more than a “non-reform reform” unless there is “nationalization of the pharmaceutical industry and the nationalization of hospitals and clinics.” But why stop with health care. If it is so basic that it requires nationalization, why not something even more basic, namely food? Where does all of this stop? Schwartz doesn’t say. Nor does he worry about the consequences of concentrated power.
The roots of this sort of optimism runs deep. In the late 19th century Edward Bellamy penned Looking Backward. His main character, a Rip Van Winkle figure, awakens in the year 2000 to find that the country has evolved into a socialist utopia. The capitalist trusts of his day had given way to one gigantic government-run trust. More recently socialist writer, Michael Harrington, tried to fill in the details of such an evolution, all to prevent the need for a revolution, and all the while preserving democracy.
Revolutionary rhetoric can be found today, but the thrust of socialist advocacy remains evolutionary. What cannot be found are doubts among enthusiasts for socialism about the ability of the United States to avoid the pitfalls of socialism. Never mind that we are not exactly a small, essentially homogenous country, like Sweden once was. And never mind that part of the genius of the founders was their awareness that a geographically immense and ethnically diverse country like the United States could never be effectively governed in a centralized manner. Nor did they think that it should be run that way.
Advocates of socialist solutions have their own list of “never minds.” They would argue that modern technology has eliminated the need to remain true to the founders’ emphasis on the benefits of having a weak central government when it comes to domestic affairs. Really? If the recent history of the Veterans Administration is a preview of coming socialized health care attractions, technology will be the least of our problems. More than that, because something can be done technologically does not mean that it should be done politically, especially in a country of this magnitude.
How about Prime Minister Thatcher’s admonition? The socialist response is that there is so much wealth in America, especially in the clutches of the demonized one per cent, that it will be a very long time before we run out of other people’s money. In fact, advocates of democratic socialism contend that American wealth is so great that it should result in America building a socialist state that is bigger and better than anything in western Europe. According to socialist essayist Ryan Cooper, the United States “ought to be able to direct a considerably greater share of the economic product to democratic (but not socialist?) ends than a small European country,” thereby setting a “new standard for the most decent, egalitarian country on the planet.”
What about waste and mismanagement? Good ol’ American ingenuity will surely take care of that. In any case, the goal is not “some gray Soviet drudgery.” That’s reassuring. Or is it? Cooper goes on to posit that his socialist utopia would be a “place where people can, for the most part, do whatever they have reason to value.” Isn’t that what Karl Marx envisioned? And look what happened when Marxists took control in Russia and elsewhere. Those who offer statist solutions certainly don’t promise gray drudgery, but that’s what they deliver.
That leaves those not so minor matters of corruption and tyranny. Both are almost inevitable features of centralized states. Not so, offers John Molyneux in the “Socialist Review”: any abuse of power under socialism will be temporary and attributable to the lingering effects of the capitalist system that it replaced, rather than to something called “human nature.” In any case, if corruption does seep into a socialist state, those in power can depend on their allies in a largely compliant media to ignore it. Or, failing that, measures could be taken to assure that the media becomes compliant. And tyranny? Some version of the right will always be on hand to serve as a convenient distraction. After all, the right can always be relied upon to stand accused of being the real source of tyranny, whether potential or actual, internal or external.
Of course, there was a time when Americans could rely on the American tradition—and practice—of limited government and divided powers to keep corruption somewhat in check and the tyrannous completely at bay. But once socialism of any stripe takes hold, this version of American exceptionalism will be history. In its place will be the handiwork of those who have bet on the success of a different sort of American exceptionalism. Whether their bet succeeds or fails is almost beside the point. Placing that bet and then holding enough power to attempt to collect on it will be sufficient, for at that point America will no longer be exceptional in the way that it once was. And the Fourth of July will no longer mean what it once did. May Day picnics and parades, anyone?
John C. “Chuck” Chalberg writes from Bloomington.