by Joe Shea
January 10, 2011
THE SUM OF ALL POLITICS
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- One of the bedrock tenets of conservatism is the idea of American Exceptionalism - that the United States is the greatest nation in the world.
Yes, this nation has been successful at exporting the idea of represenative democracy around the world. Nearly two-thirds of the world's population today live in societies where traditional American civic values are upheld.
The American Idea - the idea of a nation governed by a representative democracy, a nation of laws and not men, a nation where every person has the right to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" - is what makes our nation exceptional. That idea has never been completely realized for all Americans, but that is the idea other nations sought to emulate.
These are ideas that come from the age that conservatives love to hate, the Enlightenment.
The men who drafted the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution believed in the idea that human affairs should be guided by rationality, rather than by faith and superstition. They believed in the power of freedom, democracy and human reason to change society and liberate the individual from arbitrary authority. And they got those ideas from men such as Hobbes, Locke. Spinoza, Voltaire, Rousseau and Hume.
That's the exceptionalism that we celebrate in the American Idea. But you'll never hear conservatives credit the great philosophers of the Age of Enlightenment for shaping the views of Jefferson, Hamilton, Franklin and Madison. And you'll never hear today's conservatives champion reason and rationality as the bedrock of our democracy. If anything, they are the people doing everything they can to destroy reason and rationality.
It doesn't take much thought to wave a flag and shout "We're Number One!" But even a cursory glance at where our nation stands in 2011 shows that our nation isn't all that exceptional - at least in the things that matter.
Spend some time on nationmaster.com, a wonderful online data base that shows where countries rank in various socio-economic categories, and the numbers don't back up the conservative image of the shining city on a hill:
So, what are we No. 1 in?
Well, we spend more on our military then every other nation in the world - friend and foe, alike - combined. And U.S. military personnel are garrisoned in more nations than any other nation's armed forces.
We have more of our population in prison than any other nation in the world, and we are the only industrialized democracy that still executes prisoners.
In short, conservatives love to talk about the greatness of America, but consistently fail to put their money where their mouths are.
We can't be an exceptional nation when so many Americans are out of work, and out of luck, while the wealthiest Americans grow even more wealthy.
We can't be an exceptional nation if our educational system lags behind the rest of the world, and religious superstition is allowed to trump science in our classrooms.
We can't be an exceptional nation if we refuse to spend money for the common good, while lavishing money on the wealthy and the military-industrial complex.
For our nation to become truly exceptional, we need to stop being an empire with bases and soldiers scattered all over the globe.
We need to have a nation that provides for the general welfare and invests in the public sphere. We need a democracy that isn't sold to the highest bidder. We need a free press that isn't shackled by corporate interests.
We need an economy that puts the needs of people and the planet ahead of profit. We need an educational system that produces creative, thoughtful citizens.
Most of all, we need to give up the notion that we are the most awesome nation on earth until that day comes when we can move up on all those lists of social, economic and medical well-being and once again stand at the top.
AR Chief of Correspondents Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 30 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.