Monday September 20, 2021

American exceptionalism

August 04, 2021

On Tuesday, July 27 the US Congress held the first hearing of the Select Committee set up to investigate the events of January 6, 2021. On that day a violent mob of Trump supporters assaulted the Capitol building resulting in injuries and even death of several civilians and police officers who were on duty to protect the building.

Four officers who were on duty on January 6 and were brutally assaulted by the Trump sign- carrying mobs testified before the Select Committee. They recalled in great detail what they had endured at the hands of the mob. The entire spectacle was carried live on TV across the world. There probably isn't another such destructive act of insurrection that has been better documented in recent times.

Many members of Congress came within minutes of being assaulted by the mob. Were it not for the bravery and selflessness of the police officers many of them would surely have been in peril.

The mob had been revved up by Donald Trump himself, again in full view of TV cameras, to try and stop Congress from certifying results of the November 2020 presidential election which he had lost. There is no way to describe these acts other than as treasonous and seditious.

Yet, members of the Republican Party have been busy since January 6 in not only denying the undeniable but rewriting history. Some have even said the mob comprised ‘American patriots’ or were like tourists visiting the capitol.

Kevin McCarthy, leader of the Republican Party in the US House, could not find the time to attend the hearings where these police officers testified about the events of January 6. “He had a busy calendar that day”, said his office. Donald Trump continues his stranglehold on the so-called Republican base of voters and most republican politicians, to a point where they are busy trying to exonerate the former president.

All of this makes one wonder about the future of American democracy. For a democracy to function, it is said, there need to be at least two sane political parties. Today, that cannot be said of the US. There is much rightful pride in the US about the exceptional country that it has been – the world's largest economy, a military superpower, and a liberal democracy. While the country hasn't always lived up to its highest ideals, it has endeavored to stand up for democracy and freedom.

Being an immigrant in America, I have often heard the term “American exceptionalism”. While it is interpreted differently by different people, it is generally accepted to mean the country is inherently different from other nations, and by implication, better than all other nations. It is also believed by many Americans that their country is both destined and entitled to play a distinct and positive role on the world stage.

However, the path the country has charted over the past few years has made many across the world, and within the US, question such a premise.

Over the past few years, the US political setup has become deeply dysfunctional. Just as the electorate is deeply divided, so are the political institutions. The US political system is designed with ‘checks and balances’ with the aim of forcing consensus and collaboration between political parties. In practice, this has resulted in a system where it is near impossible to accomplish anything at all.

It takes 60 out of 100 votes in the US Senate to pass any legislation, so a minority of senators are able to stop any plans they don’t agree with.

As an example, the infrastructure in the country has been crumbling for years with no action by the successive governments. Roads, bridges, airports, power grids are all in dire need of repair and rebuilding. Administrations over the past two decades have tried and failed to approve funds needed for this work.

The Biden Administration is now trying again with some hope of success. To garner support, Biden has taken to reminding Americans that failure to improve US infrastructure is going to make America lose to China.

If it takes the scare of China to spur the US electorate and Congress into action on the most basic national needs, one must wonder whatever happened to American exceptionalism.

The writer is a freelance contributor based in Washington DC.