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Why Progressives Must Embrace the Robust Optimism of “American Exceptionalism”

By / 8.13.2010
The Hacketts Gospel Singing Shed

The Shed -- Dermott, Arkansas

Alexis de Tocqueville would understand “The Hacketts Gospel Singing Shed.”

Located in Dermott, Arkansas on the edge of a small cotton farm, “The Shed,” as locals call it, is a venue for gospel singers and fans to gather for song, worship, and fellowship. In the 1830s, Tocqueville toured America and witnessed the very sort of religiosity and voluntarism that motivated the Hackett family to transform a tractor shed into what has become a local community hub. The young Frenchman’s resulting sociological masterpiece, Democracy in America, explains “The Shed” and offers some timeless lessons about America’s uniquely ambitious political culture –
lessons Democrats looking for keys to ending the Great Recession ought to consider.

During his travels, Tocqueville recognized how republican ideals and cheap plentiful land had produced a profoundly optimistic, democratic, individualistic, entrepreneurial, and decidedly populist people. His shorthand for the differences between the U.S. and Western European political cultures – “American Exceptionalism”— remains a handy and useful concept progressives should both heed and employ.

“Exceptionalism” is not a Limbagh-esqe a priori verification of America’s supreme awesomeness. Rather, exceptionalism cuts both ways. The very populist impulses both bred the civil rights movement and spawned the Tea Party.

In the same way, American individualism is responsible for both a vibrant economic growth, a broad middle class, technological innovation, AND an anemic welfare state, concomitant high poverty and comparatively crime rates.

In sum, exceptionalism is not chest-thumpin’ We-Will-Rock-You, rah-rah USA cornpone; Tocqueville would recognize “The Hacketts Gospel Singing Shed” by echoing Denny Green’s infamous postgame rant, “They are who we thought they were!”

American Exceptionalism not only explains “The Shed.” It should also inform Democratic policy responses, both in substance and style, to the Great Recession.

Progressives understandably shy away from a term that seemingly reeks of parochialism and sounds like a potential first and middle name for one of Sarah Palin’s children. Instead of “exceptional” substitute “difference” and then wonder how and why Germans accept 8 percent unemployment as normal, middle class Danes ride bikes to work instead of drive cars, or Canadian cities are so neat-and-tidy. For better or for worse, the American “difference” is real.

Economic recoveries are like snowflakes—no two are ever the same. This should remind us that the “dismal science” is no hard science at all. To hear Paul Krugman or the Cato Institute’s certitude, however, one would hardly realize economists are making little more than highly educated guesses.

Ironically, even as partisan economists claim all-knowing prescience their field is thankfully moving away from technocratic certainty and toward ambiguity. While it is humbling (and quite a bit scary) to accept mysterious, unpredictable, and ultimately unknowable economic forces control our material fates, this is exactly why the American difference matters.

Modern progressive economic policy should combine short-term fiscal stimulus and long-term deficit reduction with rhetorical and policy faith in the American character. While sound policy matters, more and more economists realize that intangibles and emotions often spell the difference between recovery and double dip recessions.

The American difference really matters. Four hundred years of history (including the colonial era) proves that American optimism, individualism, entrepreneurial spirit, and waves of eager immigrants will eventually lead to robust economic recovery. Talk of decline, power moving east, and a new “normal” are reminiscent of the early 1990s when observers claimed Japan and Germany would overtake American economic leadership. If memory serves, the 1990s were fairly good economic times.

President Obama has provided such leadership. Time and again he has extolled the American work ethic and unique character; it is Congressional leaders and the liberal punditocracy, however, who are out of tune with the great resilience of the American tradition., Congressional leaders – who too often dwell myopically on technocratic details, medium versus big stimulus or extending unemployment benefits – fail to convey the most important ingredient for economic policy success: sunny optimism and a profound belief in an American difference.

All peoples in all lands hope, innovate, and work for a better future. Americans do so in their own unique, different, and yes even “exceptional” way. The route of this mess takes good policy but requires bold, optimistic, and a quintessentially American leadership. It is the sort of simple yet profound wisdom that a Frenchman; the folks of Dermott, Arkansas; and skinny kid with big ears and a funny name all know in their bones.

photo credit: Jeff Bloodworth