by Winfried Fluck, Freie Universität Berlin
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 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? Have the inner divisions of American politics and society reached a stage that threatens cooperation and national cohesion? And if so, what could still provide a glue and prevent a bitterly divided America from falling apart?
Before looking for an answer, however, 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.
In retrospect, only the time between World War II and the Civil Rights movement can be seen as a relatively brief period of consensus. 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.
What is the source of this resilience? 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, valid as this explanation may be, it tells only half of the story, at least as far as the United States are concerned. In the final analysis, what holds American society together are 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 are not merely different or unique, but superior because of this difference and uniqueness.
But aren’t current debates in the U.S. driven by growing doubts about the state of American society? In order to understand the apparent contradiction that Americans seem bitterly divided about the state of their America, and yet continue to believe in it, 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. The United States as a state may be in crisis, but this is not necessarily threatening, because the actual source of American national identity lies in the imaginary construct of “the greatest nation on earth.” Thus, 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. Political disagreements may be increasingly bitter, but the belief in American exceptionalism continues to provide the common ground.
The separation between state and nation can explain an aspect of the contemporary United States that strikes the outside observer as profoundly contradictory. On the one hand, there is an increasing suspicion and rejection of the government, both on the national as well as on the state level – a mood that can be found not only on the political right but in a growing segment of the population. On the other hand, the military-industrial complex and the national security apparatus have become manifestations of a state power that has no equal in Western societies. However, in American political discourse these strong, government-run institutions are not associated with the state but with the American nation, and as long as they are seen to stand in the service of the nation, they are not viewed as part of the government and its waste. On the contrary, they are indispensible for protecting the superiority of “America.” In military spending, American politicians can thus be remarkably generous. At the same time, these 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.
Ironically, there is a lesson to be learned here for the political right. Anti-abortion or anti-same-sex marriage policies are also not politics that can be easily associated with American exceptionalism. The current debate between Republican candidates for President and President Obama about who speaks for American exceptionalism is therefore also a debate about its definition. 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.
However, no matter what version wins, American exceptionalism will in both cases be the idea that still provides a bitterly divided America with a common identity as an “imagined community” that is superior. This common identity will only be threatened when Americans begin to doubt the claims of American exceptionalism and see America not as a superior nation but as one society among others, with strengths and weaknesses. Recent findings that the United States are no longer the leading society in social mobility provide one example. But such international comparisons are still rare in American discourse, because nobody wants to be the messenger who brings the 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 should lose its imaginary power, will it be time again to ask the question what it actually is that holds American society together.
Winfried Fluck teaches at the John F. Kennedy Institute for North American Studies of Freie Universität Berlin.