Overcoming American Exceptionalism to Demand the Impossible: A Key Shift in Democratic Thinking
One of my favorite book titles is that of Tom Moylan’s 1986 study of utopian literature: Demand the Impossible.
He explains, if memory serves, that he saw those words spray-painted on a wall in the Paris streets during the 1968 mass rebellions. The phrase stayed with him, clearly, as it has with me
The phrase has been re-echoing for me given recent events highlighting both the abiding death-driven GOP politics of greed but also a new ambitious Democratic politics. This evolving attitude in the Democratic Party eschews the cautious and insufficient incrementalism of even Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign in favor of a far more humane and imaginative politics of possibility. This fresh Democratic politics is rooted in not just concrete reality, but in actually existing practices in countries around the globe and even in the United States, in states such as Washington, governed by the trailblazing Jay Inslee.
One key factor in this evolution may be the loosening of the stranglehold of American Exceptionalism among Democrats as well as its waning force in United States culture overall.
After Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell recently forced a sham vote on a resolution of the Green New Deal, Texas Republican Senator John Cornyn excoriated the Democrat’s ambitious blueprint, saying, “”The Green New Deal is chockful of utopian ideas but completely devoid of concrete plans to implement any of its overreaching policies.” He dismissed the plan as a “radical environmental policy” that includes “Medicare for all, free college, and guaranteed jobs.”
Yet, while the resolution wasn’t actual legislation, many of the bold ideas involved in the Green New Deal, such as transitioning U.S. energy production to largely renewable sources, raising the marginal tax rate for earned income over $10 million to 70% (it was 90% during Eisenhower’s presidency and 71% during Nixon’s), providing government-funded college education, healthcare for all, and more, are all objectives being realized in other nations and even undergoing implementation in varying degrees in the United States.
A society with these characteristics is not just NOT impossible. It’s more than possible; it’s reality in many countries.
Germany, a nation that already generates 41% of its energy from renewable sources, recently announced a plan, expected to be adopted by the government, to shut down all 84 of its coal-fired power plants by 2038 in order to meets international commitments to address climate change. This plan came on the heels of a previous decision, made after Japan’s 2011 Fukushima disaster, to shut down all its nuclear power plants by 2022 (12 of 19 have already been shut down).
BOOM. It’s possible — and actual.
But, of course, the cultural and political mentality would need to overcome the arrogance of American exceptionalism that has so long dominated — and occluded — thinking in the United States.
What do I mean by American exceptionalism?
American exceptionalism has a long history in our culture. As Harvard Professor Stephen Walt explains, typical manifestations of this belief “presume that America’s values, political system, and history are unique and worthy of universal admiration” and “imply that the United States is both destined and entitled to play a distinct and positive role on the world stage.” They rest “on the belief that the United States is a uniquely virtuous nation, one that loves peace, nurtures liberty, respects human rights, and embraces the rule of law.” “Americans,” Walt says, “like to think their country behaves much better than other states do, and certainly better than other great powers.”
This belief is so powerful that it distorts our national vision and, because it prevents us from truly assessing where we fall short, hinders our ability to address dimensions of our culture gravely in need of amelioration.
How often during the strident debates over “Obamacare” did we hear many leaders in Washington declare that the U.S. already had the greatest healthcare system in the world, even when studies hardly justify that claim? A June 2014 study by the Commonwealth Fund, for example, ranked the U.S. last among 11 industrialized nations “on measures of health system quality, efficiency, access to care, equity, and healthy lives.”
In the realm of education, in a 2013 study by the Economist Intelligence Unit, the U.S. ranked 17th out of 40 countries in terms of educational performance.
Finland ranked first.
Yet, have we looked to Finland for answers to our educational woes? Do we ever look seriously to the models other countries offer for creating a humane society?
Take a recent example in which Senator Bernie Sanders dared critique the U.S. healthcare system because the cost of a birthing a child is $12,000 compared to $60 in Finland.
Without missing a beat, Nikki Haley, former U.S. ambassador to the U.N., tweeted, “Health care costs are too high that is true but comparing us to Finland is ridiculous. Ask them how their health care is. You won’t like their answer.”
Well, Finland’s representative to the U.N. Kai Sauer quickly responded: “Finland has a high performing health system, with remarkable good quality in both primary and hospital care. The country also achieves good health status at relatively low level of health spending.” Additionally, Sauer noted that the United Nations describes Finland as having the world’s third-lowest infant mortality rate and the lowest maternal mortality, measures typically used to evaluate a nation’s healthcare systems overall. The United States has the worst overall child mortality rate compared with 19 other wealthy nations in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, according to a study published last year in the journal Health Affairs.
“The US is the most dangerous of wealthy, democratic countries in the world for children,” according to the study’s lead author, Dr. Ashish Thakrar.
Haley’s reflexive quip exemplifies this American exceptionalist attitude that prevents us from seeing what is possible and actual, thus rendering reality “impossible” in our political discourse. We don’t even see our own failings to recognize we can do better.
In 2016, such thinking was rampant. When Sanders would bring up the fact that countries like Denmark did provide college education and healthcare for its citizens — not for “free” but through taxation — he was roundly skewered, accused on shows like Morning Joe and Hardball for making a “political gaffe” and not understanding that Americans don’t want to be Scandinavian.
Even Clinton jumped on the bandwagon, declaring, ““We are not Denmark. I love Denmark. We are the United States of America.”
Leaders like Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who do not fear being labeled European socialists, and Washington Governor Jay Inslee, who has raised the minimum wage in his state and instituted measures to achieve a green economy and address climate change while growing the state’s economy, are changing this narrative.
They see possibility because, at least in Inslee’s case, he is creating the reality, re-defining America and, indeed, the Democratic Party.
In demanding the impossible, they are making a new American reality.