Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Exceptionalism and American Politics

There is much talk these days about American "exceptionalism"---the notion that America has been, throughout her history, different than other countries. While it's possible to overstate the differences, for more than two centuries this has been true...though, sadly, the differences are becoming harder to see.

The notion of "American exceptionalism" doesn't imply that the Founders were perfect. It merely recognizes that there was something unique about America---or the American experience---that made it different from Europe. It may have been the fact that people had to pull together to survive on the frontier; or the unique blend of Enlightenment thinking, frontier life, traditions of English liberty (such as they were circa 1700), and the chance for a fresh start an ocean away from the problems of the Old World. It's why America offered hope for the rest of the world...and why we often tend to look at things differently than most other countries.

Today, though, it often seems that we're becoming what we rebelled against: power is concentrating, abetted by corporate interests, who have their own reason for wanting a strong central government(it's easier to deal with than strong, innovative, and rising competitors), our politicians are becoming corrupted by it (a notion well known to the Founders...and one of the things that drove them crazy about being governed by England), and in some ways we're starting to become "just another country," rather than remaining true to our core principles, and the things that made us so different.

Of course, principles are often in the eye of the beholder. At the time of the Founding, English law drew distinctions between natural rights (eg, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness), civil rights (eg, owning property, being able to contract), and political rights (eg, the right to vote, or sit on a jury), and a citizen's standing in the community determined how many of these rights he enjoyed. The Bill of Rights was intended to protect us from encroachments by the Federal Government, by imposing strict limits on Federal power, and up until the Supreme Court effectively rewrote the constitution in the 1960s, we made similar distinctions: while the "natural rights" were deemed part of every American's political heritage, the rest were deemed to be matters under state control. Unfortunately, the same problems that led to the Civil War also led to problems there: the South refused to grant full citizenship to blacks, which caused problems two hundred years ago, and vestiges of those problems remain today. In addition, the modern world presents its own challenges, the leaders we elect aren't always the wisest among us, and the world keeps pushing us along the path of least resistance---ie, the tendency to put problems off until later, and to elect politicians who make the biggest promises. As a result, things are a bit muddled today, as we sort through the proper relationships between state and federal power...and this has presented fertile grounds for mischief for the ambitious.

There are, however, dangers arising from trusting to a strong central government to protect us from strong, centralized corporate power. In the end, their common interest in controlling their environment is likely to make them allies, rather than antagonists...viewing the people more as pesky whiners rather than the people the Government is supposed to serve. And with the corruption rampant in Washington, I don't think we can really trust Congress to look out for our interests: regardless of party, they're mostly out for themselves...and even with the best of intentions, the concentration of power there is too seductive for most of them to resist.

JEFFREY CAMINSKY, a veteran public prosecutor in Detroit, Michigan, specializes in the appellate practice of criminal law and writes on a wide range of topics. His books include the science fiction adventure novel The Star Dancers, the exciting second volume in the Guardians of Peace-tm series, The Sonnets of William Shakespeare, and the acclaimed Referee’s Survival Guide, a book on soccer officiating. All are published by New Alexandria Press, and are available on Amazon, as well as directly from the publisher.

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