The End of American Exceptionalism?

The world will mostly laugh when the conversation turns to how the United States wants to promote its style of democracy around the world. The democratic practices taking place these days in the U.S. generate no respect at all.

I have kept the pledge I made many months ago not to waste my time reading any press articles on the American presidential nominating contests, because the fifteen or so candidates on the Republican side meant that nothing would become clear until after the first round of primary elections that have just finished. I found that watching short television reports and just reading newspaper headlines or tweets provides enough news about the most important developments, which has been confirmed by my visit to the United States this week.

What none of us could anticipate late last summer when this process started was how the Republican contest for the presidential nomination would degenerate into such a dramatic display of low class behavior, wild and false statements, racism, pettiness and promises of policies, like torture, that are against America law. The debate I watched in the United States on Thursday night continued this trend of campaigning that has seen Donald Trump maintain his considerable lead among Republican voters.

This has sparked panic among much of the traditional leadership of the Republican Party, whose many officials and non-office-holding operatives and donors are frantically searching for ways to deny Trump the nomination, if he maintains his lead. Several paths to that outcome have been identified.

The consequence of all that has occurred in the presidential pre-contests to date should be significant, in several arenas. The most important one is that by revealing both the good and bad things about the United States, it shows what it really is: a unique, wealthy country with immense power, formidable technological and institutional assets, and impressive values that have been codified into law—mainly the principle of the consent of the governed—but also a country with a dark and dangerous side that accepts racism, bigotry, lying by pubic officials, hatred of foreigners, deceptive advertising, and using the military to carry out war crimes and other bad things around the world.

It also reveals a tolerance for serious levels of idiocy and ignorance among its public officials, even those vying for the presidency. This means that Americans might slowly start to wind down their mythological sense of their unique goodness and an almost divinely-mandated mission to civilize the world and spread American values. It will be difficult for any national or local politician from now on to end a speech with the very popular comment, “God bless America, the greatest country in the world,” because the past six months have clearly indicated that global greatness and exceptionalism are not, in fact, American attributes.

This electoral season has reconfirmed that the individual citizen in the United States really does matter, and does have the power to elect local and national leaders who shape national policy. Those citizens often support fools, liars, racists, bigots, clowns, and, in the eye of international law, war-mongering criminals.

The American mass media will happily broadcast, disseminate, and amplify on a twenty-four hour basis all the buffoonery that we have witnessed this season. The mass media, for the most part, makes the spectacle and its capacity to generate profits by selling advertising more important than the quest for responsible, mature, well-informed national leaders.

The political establishment of this reputedly greatest democracy in the world, meanwhile, works overtime to find a way to undermine the greatest democratic principle—the consent of the governed—by finding a way to disregard and override the expressed will of the citizens as revealed in their voting in the primaries. Instead, the party operatives and donors seek to replace possible nominee Donald Trump with a more acceptable traditional Republican candidate for the presidency.

In this way, the United States is acting like most other autocracies or oligarchies in the world, by saying it accepts the results of a democratic process but only if the results match the wishes of those who control the system, rather than reflecting the will of the citizenry.

All this should significantly lower the standing of the United States system of political life and governance in the eyes of the world. The world will still respect and even seek to emulate the great things that do define the United States, in fields like personal freedoms, an independent judiciary, higher education, technological dynamism, and others. But the world will mostly laugh when the conversation turns to how the United States wants to promote its style of democracy around the world, because the democratic practices taking place these days in the U.S. generate no respect at all.

This is probably a good thing, because the wildly exaggerated self-perception of the United States as an exceptional and unique democracy that should work to re-make the entire world in its own image was neither accurate nor realistic. Americans will be more liked around the world if they act like normal people, with good and bad characteristics, like everyone else, and accept their status.

Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly in the Daily Star. He was founding director and now senior policy fellow of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. On Twitter: @ramikhouri.

Copyright ©2016 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global

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