American Exceptionalism, Cognitive Dissonance & the Divisions in America

I’ve been thinking a great deal about the divisions of our country. Specifically, I’ve been wondering how divided our country has become? Is it really more divided than ever? I think the internet would tell us that it is. And I think if you look at the right (wrong?) measures you might rightly conclude that it is, but I’m still not sure. My interest in essence of those divisions was piqued when I happened on a podcast about American Exceptionalism. The guest, Mugambi Jouet of Stanford University, pointed out that many people (most notably large numbers of the republican party) are confused by the phrase’s use of the word exceptional. He has written a book about it: Exceptional America: What Divides Americans from the World and from Each Other (University of California Press).

By the way, it’s not only the clueless-right that miss the true meaning of the phrase. This afternoon on The Daily I heard New York Times White House reporter Maggie Haberman use the phrase incorrectly while talking about Donald Trump’s stated willingness talk to strongmen like Kim Jong Un and Rodrigo Duterte. Haberman said, “The United States has long been an idealistic nation; it’s essentially this concept of American Exceptionalism. While it’s been pretty maligned, it’s basically about something being aspirational and the idea of values of freedom of constitutional democracy, and that those are the types of values that this country hopes other countries will aspire to.”

Uh, no, that is not what American Exceptionalism is about.

As I said it’s clear that the phrase can and will continue to cause confusion for people of all political walks of life. The word exceptional is typically used as a synonym for outstanding. But, when Alexis de Tocqueville coined the phrase he used it to identify this country as an exception to other western countries.

de Tocqueville found it exceptional that the very same country that had established so many colleges and universities in such a short time should have such an anti-intellectual propensity. All of the exceptions are interesting, but there’s one that I’m not sure de Tocqueville thought of:

The US is the first country to strive for a government of, for and by the people. Still, most people don’t trust the government. Moreover, I would hazard that the percentage of Americans who don’t trust the government is at an all-time high. If this is true, it could mean that people are more likely to trust a government like Vladimir Putin’s than a government like ours. Is this worrisome? Maybe.

Then again, perhaps there’s a special psychological justification for mistrusting a government of peers. Perhaps knowing with assurance that the people in government think and are motivated just the way we are is enough to give us pause. Also, could the fact that our government occasionally comes clean about its misdeeds lead some to a greater mistrust rather than confidence? We all witness the militarization of urban police forces but for some that makes it easy to harken back to the FBI sending helicopters and snipers after Randy Weaver and his family, killing his son and wife (by being shot in the back of the head) and so a correlation is solidified. Some see good (if fallible) government at work and others see an increasingly emboldened and heavy-handed state.

There’s another even simpler reason for why people find it easy to distrust the government of the United States. We’ve simply done more totally wild shit than any other country. Like what, you say? How about having a functional democracy predicated on a three hundred year old document? How about sending a man to the moon? How about driving countries like Japan and Germany to their knees only to help them become economic powers just a few decades after the end of WWII. Did I mention that we’ve dropped two nuclear bombs on populated cities?

That kind of tension, that cognitive dissonance, is largely OK. I tend to look at all evidence of the work of government as falling in one direction or the other. If a bit of work is apt to make a high percentage of people lose faith in the work of government (like the Fullerton Police’s killing of Kelly Thomas), I see it as bad. If a bit of work (like convicting ex-Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca of corruption) makes a high percentage of people gain faith in government, I’m all for it.

I realize that some folks grabbed the popcorn and were rooting for the Fullerton cops sitting on Kelly Thomas’ back while crushing the life out of him. I’m also aware that some folks thought kindly old Lee Baca must have been entrapped by the evildoers from the FBI. Again, that’s just cognitive dissonance playing out on a mass scale. Still, I stand by the work of government that increases faith in government and condemn the acts that undermine that faith.

What about proponents of  gun rights? The guest on the podcast stated that for many American gun owners the primary purpose of their guns was to protect against the government rather than against threats from other citizens. I actually had to play that part of the podcast a second time to make sure I heard him correctly; I had. Now I have to admit that the idea that you better have a 15-shot 9mm on hand because the government is going to come get you is a fairly astounding fear. But, I think fear is the key word. I think the average Trump voter was and is a pretty fearful person, one who felt as though he had been disadvantaged by pretty much everyone and had been rendered helpless by forces both seen and unseen. Not only did they feel disadvantaged by people but those who lived in rural parts of the country even felt disadvantaged by mere geography. It is easy to imagine a group of people who felt a kind of generalized fear of everything and everyone finding solace in guns, and lots of them.

Let’s think about the anti-intellectual leanings that got de Tocqueville’s attention. I think most anti-intellectual sentiment is pointed at groups of intellectuals who seemingly do no work. I think a classic moniker of the past is apt here; eggheads. These are the guys studying whatever it is you’ve never heard of or anything you don’t understand. Even the most anti-intellectual slack-jawed-yokel is inclined to see a doctor if he gets sick. He may attest to a distrust of the medical profession as a whole, maybe he thinks they’ve even secretly cured cancer, but old Cletus is still very likely to tell you that his own doctor is top-notch. That’s more of a selective anti-intellectual sentiment, one that readily finds an exception in specific people, rather than a blanket distrust of learning itself.

The internet, as always, stands ready to undermine confidence and create doubt, in those who believe differently than you do. And, this applies to both sides of a debate. The internet makes it all too easy to stay in our echo chambers and therefore encourage our divisions. But are we really all that divided? I don’t think so. The divisions we read and hear so much about divisions are largely overstated and driven by the media and the shortsightedness of both of our major political parties. Get actual people, rather than groups answering polls or being fed sound bytes or video clips, into a room and watch the divisions fade. Everyone wants to work, everyone wants to being able to afford health care and everyone wants to attain the educations they believe their chosen lifestyle demands. It’s OK to disagree about the processes and mechanism we use to achieve our goals. It’s not OK to use a politically motivated belief that the divisions are so profound that even dialogue is undesirable.

America is both an exception and exceptional and those very qualities give me the greatest hope for its future. Rather than fret over those exceptions we should celebrate them as badges of honor reflecting our diversity of thought and perspective.

American Exceptionalism, Cognitive Dissonance & the Divisions in America

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s