Ideological narratives: American Exceptionalism

I chose a political rhetoric piece to examine, one rank with ideology and underpinned by various cultural assumptions. It seems the primary purpose of the piece is to reinforce the validity of the preeminent American meta-narrative: that America is qualitatively unlike any nation on Earth before or since its founding. It is an assumption so relentlessly and deeply seated in our culture that was, until quite recently, very rarely called into question. It’s a core facet of the American public’s worldview: we’re never really finished.

In January of 2012 Walter Russell Mead, editor-at-large of American Interest Magazine and co-founder of the New America Foundation, penned an editorial titled “The Once and Future Liberalism,” a purposeful conceptualization of American history and hegemony as a protracted phenomenon driven and sustained by liberalism. It is a powerful piece of rhetoric and one of my favorite ideologically centered op-eds, the core notion of which is that American cultural, technological, and geopolitical dominance have heretofore been the result in part of a progressive American spirit. I find his perspective both radical and inspiring, but that is probably because I am a member of the dominant culture–as are we all, to varying degrees– and am looking, consciously or otherwise, for some confirmation that our greatest fears of American decline are still unfounded.

What I find most fascinating about Mead’s article is that he challenges one of the dominant American ideological frameworks while tacitly remaining within the confines of another. Mead challenges the conceptualization of the American political landscape as a battlefield between liberals and conservatives, instead positing that the current political schism is really just between conservative champions of different eras: “until we remove the scales from our eyes and launch our discourse toward the future, our politics will remain sterile, and our economy will fail to provide the growth and higher living standards Americans continue to seek. That neither we nor the world can afford.” He calls upon Americans of all political persuasions to stop trying to “retrieve the irretrievable” and “get on with the actual business of this great, liberal, unapologetically forward-looking nation.”

This betrays the underlying American exceptionalism: the United States is not in decline, but its social model is simply undergoing a paradigm shift. Mead frames our current fiscal woes and societal uncertainty not as a terminal symptom of America’s imminent drop in global influence, but merely a hiccup in our great and proud American story. If that isn’t framing, I don’t know what is.

Frankly, I agree with Mr. Mead–partly because I want to, but also because I have to; as a proud member of this privileged dominant culture, I have to believe that America’s age of influence isn’t quite over, yet. If I chose to disagree with Mead, and take our current troubles as signs of the end, what good would it do?

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