Thursday, October 16, 2008

American Exceptionalism

A friend writes:

It feels a little too much like passover to ask: "Why is this country different than all other countries?" In the current Canadian election the more conservative party has a campaign promise not to CUT taxes. By European standards Canada is considered conservative too!

There is one point that is so good it had to be mentioned:"The nation's racial heterogeneity also partly explains its conservatism. U.S. heterogeneity sharply contrasts with the much greater homogeneity in Canada, Britain and continental Europe. People are much less likely to support income redistribution to people who are members of different racial or ethnic groups. Ethnic divisions make it easier for the enemies of welfare to vilify the poor"

Similar to the concept of attack that has come up in this election.

My friend raises several excellent points, among them is the curious case of American Exceptionalism. Why does America differ so greatly in its values with western Europe and Canada? Lots of theories have been advanced to explain the difference -- one of them being heterogeneity. However, other possibilities remain. A popular one I've heard is that the devastation of two World Wars forced the European wealthy to discover how the poor were living, thus giving them greater empathy. However, this doesn't help to explain Canada. Another possibility is the separation of church and state, which forced the church to compete with government in this country -- thus leading to competition among churches and greater religious devotion -- which in turn leads to greater conservatism.

Whatever the answer, it's worth noting that there's also a bright side to American Exceptionalism. I spend a lot of time detailing the ways in which Europe actually is better than the United States, but we do have a longer and prouder history of integration than Europe. Just look at Europe today -- they criticized the U.S. for years on our racism (for which there is no excuse) -- but that was before Europe also started experiencing massive waves of immigration. Recently, countries like France and even the heretofore friendly Denmark have seen a rise in xenophobia. Plus, they all still hate each other. If you don't believe me, ask an Austrian what he thinks of a German or an Englishman what he thinks of a Frenchman. Whatever our faults across the pond, we've at least succeeded in integrating all the peoples of western Europe -- even if it took years and massive struggles -- the Irish are now white, so to speak.

A Dutch friend recently asked me why it was that people from other nations, upon receiving U.S. citizenship, now consider themselves fully American. In the Netherlands, she explained, as the daughter of Iranian immigrants, she would never feel fully Dutch. It's true that in the United States we don't do enough to take care of those who differ from us. However, our sometimes failed devotion to social welfare also yields a nice benefit -- sometimes being American consists more in devotion to a belief in the American dream (and the benefits of Capitalism) than it consists in shared race or culture. I think this is the bright side to the campaign: While much of America may still fear those that are different, when push comes to shove, the almighty dollar is what unites us all -- as evidenced by Obama's now commanding lead in the polls.

That said, it would be nice if we could take our shared belief in the dollar and recognize that Democratic policies aren't just better for social welfare -- they are better for the economy. As I've said before, I'm a Democrat not just because it's morally the right thing, but also because it's smarter.

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