Sunday, December 18, 2016

Is America an Idea?

Do you believe that America is an idea? It’s an article of secular faith, held by people on both sides of the political spectrum, that America is an idea. The chances are that you believe it.

Two recent statements come to us from the progressive left, but, with more time, and with the help of some of you, I am confident that we can find conservatives who would happily embrace the idea that America is an idea.

For now, Roger Cohen bemoans the end of the American idea in a recent column. I need not tell you why he thinks that the idea is dying:

America is an idea. Strip freedom, human rights, democracy and the rule of law from what the United States represents to the world and America itself is gutted. Of course, realpolitik driven by interests is integral to American foreign policy, but a valueless approach of the kind Trump proposes leaves the world rudderless.

As jumbles go, this one surpasses all of our expectations. Did you notice the inside/outside confusion. Strip away things from something and you gut it???

You would think that the American idea is attracting adherents all over the world. In fact, as foreign countries see what the American mania about ideals has birthed they lose interest in emulating our example.

As has often been mentioned on this blog—as recently as yesterday— we can throw serious doubt on the notion that America is a democracy. We pledge allegiance to the flag and “to the Republic for which it stands.”

If we cannot make America work, then no one is going to want to be like America. If America is hopelessly divided on ideological grounds, why would anyone want to emulate our example? If America cares more about whether you accept the dogmas of the leftist cause du jour than about whether you pledge allegiance to the flag, then other countries will reject our supposed freedoms.

If those who believe most fervently in the American idea are reduced to whining and moaning over a lost election, then apparently they do not respect the rule of law or the basic contract that founded the nation. If those who believe in the idea can think of nothing better than to harass and threaten and intimidate electors-- in order to persuade them to go back on their commitments-- then they are not respecting American custom and tradition. They are animated by the idea that they need to get their way. 

Besides, America is not an idea. It is a nation. It was not founded on an idea or even an ideal. It was founded when a political contract between the states was ratified. You do not become American by believing in an idea. You do not become American by thinking some idealistic thoughts.

Being an American means belonging to a nation, a nation with borders, a nation with customs and ceremonies and rituals. If you shut those down and believe that your rights are so sacrosanct that you should disrespect the rights of other people, you no longer have a functioning country. If he mania about rights means that boys who believe they are girls are granted a right to disrobe and shower in the girls’ locker room, you should not be surprised to see that the rest of the world does not want to have anything to do with rights. And, this all predated the advent of Trump. You might say that it paved the way for Trump.

It’s nice to worship at the altar of freedom, but precisely which freedom do we mean. Do we mean free will or free speech or free lunch or free love or free trade or a free-for-all? Do we think that you should be free to do as you please and that no one is allowed to object? Would that not be an infringement on someone’s freedom? Do we have the freedom to express offensive and obnoxious thoughts? The courts say that we do, but in practice we don’t.

As Catherine Rampell wrote in the Washington Post, college students on all sides of the political spectrum are willing to infringe on the freedom of speech.

She wrote:

This year, Gallup surveyed 3,072 U.S. college students who collectively attend 240 U.S. four-year colleges. The results show that on multiple measures, self-identified Democrats and Republicans are about equally amenable to restrictions on freedom of speech and of the press. And even in cases where Democrats are more open to limiting freedom of expression, there’s still a large share of Republicans who feel the same way.

Keep in mind, these poll results predate the Trump presidency.

As for Cohen’s whining about the end of Pax Americana, the truth is that we did not produce a Pax Americana by proselytizing the American secular faith. We did it by having the world’s greatest military, a military that was so powerful that no one would challenge it.

Our Navy keeps the sea lanes open in order to facilitate global trade and commerce. If you want to complain about the end of Pax Americana note the activities of the Chinese in the South China Sea, in particular the building and arming of military bases. Dare I mention that this has been taking place without any input from future president Trump?

While the Chinese and Russian militaries are strengthening, the readiness of the American military has diminished. Now it has become embroiled over issues about gender and sexuality. When other military organizations around the world look at America and see it putting women and the transgendered in the combat infantry, they can see a manifestation of America as an idea. And they want nothing of it. Why would they?

Instead of mourning an inchoate and ill-defined idea, one would do better to ask what these ideas look like when they are translated into policy. And, what happens when the policies become actions. In this case, the policies that have discredited the American political contract have mostly but not entirely been promoted by the Obama administration.

When Cohen complains about the future Trump-Putin alliance he would do better to recall his own scathing judgment of the failure of the Obama policy in Syria. While Aleppo burns and people are being slaughtered, one has a moral obligation to do as Cohen has done: to place responsibility where it belongs.

It makes very little sense to scapegoat Trump for what Putin has been doing in Syria, and elsewhere. It makes little sense unless your idea of America is that the Democratic Party represents America and that the Republican Party does not. But, that sounds positively Krugmanian…

An Australian named Lisa Pryor also bemoans the end of the American idea. Like Cohen she does not recognize that the conditions she is complaining about already exist. They were not produced by Trump. But they were the reason why people voted for Trump.

Pryor describes these conditions:

Things were changing long before this election. Trips to Asia are now more likely to startle us with modernity. Bangkok, Singapore, even Mumbai have shocked me on visits over the last few decades, not just the wealth and development but also the music and fashion and public transportation.

For all the intractable problems in our region, there is a sense of forward movement. When we visit America now, it feels like the opposite, like decay. Roads, airports, an economy, perhaps even a society, falling to pieces. We are left in awe by the extreme poverty as well as the extreme wealth. And maybe it is because of your poetry about yourself that the turning current has been harder for Americans themselves to see.

Americans saw it very clearly. That’s why they voted for Trump. Some held their noses. Many knew that they were taking a risk.  They did not want four more years of Obama's policies.

After Pryor notes that the United States has not been setting a very good example, she adds that with Trump it is bound to get a lot worse a lot faster. She might be right or she may be wrong. Cleaning up the swamp is not going to happen overnight, if at all.

She adds the words of a former Labour Party Prime Minister Paul Keating, to the effect that America, over the past twenty years has been anything but a beacon:

Paul Keating, questioned Australia’s deference to the United States.
“This society of ours is a better society than the United States,” he said. “It’s more even, it’s more fair. We’ve had a 50 percent increase in real incomes in the last 20 years. Median America has had zero, zero.” He added, “We have universal health protection, from the cradle to the grave.”

Demographically, Australia is not America. I will spare you the details. Obviously, Australia is roughly as large as America. It has a wealth of natural resources and a comparatively miniscule population. It was become rich and can afford universal health care because it has been supplying raw materials to a resurgent China. Speaking of freedom, in China they practice more free enterprise and capitalism than we do, while stifling all democratic freedoms. Is China a free country, or not?

Today, more and more Australians see their future in an alliance with China. After all, they are getting rich working with China, why should they try to emulate a declining America.

Rather than consider the past twenty years or more of American decline, Pryor makes it all a function of Trump. She invites us to envision her crying in the shower:

Since the election I have cried many times, in the shower, in the car, as the conventions that define liberal Western democracy are stripped away by Donald J. Trump, with every distressful appointment, each impulsive outburst. I have embarrassment of grief for a government that is not mine and for a country that does not belong to me. It feels as if we’re mourning the death of an idea called America.

One imagines that it feels good to have a convenient scapegoat for the failures of past administrations, both the current and the prior administrations.

We should point out that George W. Bush's his political agenda for the Middle East revolved around that old Wilsonian idea of bringing freedom and democracy to parts of the world where people did not want it and did not know how to practice it. W. was promoting the idea of America. How did that work out?

Confusing values with ideals is a mistake. America is a nation, a nation formed by a political contract, even a compact. It cannot function if the practice of Republican government yields to a worship of ideas. 


Sam L. said...

I think Sarah Hoyt ( would disagree. Born in Portugal, she found herself with the idea of America and came here as an exchange student. Went back, later married an American, and has been here for some years. Yes, America is a nation, a nation-state, and also an idea, and an ideal.

Sam L. said...

I would specifically suggest you read her post today.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

In this context, America is a both-and. Powerfully.

Anonymous said...

No one dies on a raft trying to get to Canada.

Pajak said...

“America is the only country ever founded on a creed.” – GK Chesterton, "What I Saw In America", 1922