Just before this edition of the HPR went to press, the U.S. federal government remained shut down, a victim of allegedly irreconcilable differences between our political parties.
The shutdown may be the stuff of history textbooks, but a few weeks earlier, there was another remarkable occurrence, this time a cross-continental op-ed submission. Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia, felt compelled to write a New York Times piece warning Americans not to feel exceptional. Putin said that he “would rather disagree with” President Obama’s case “on American exceptionalism,” and concluded with a warning:
“It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see them- selves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.”
It’s easy to sound the alarm bell about national divisions, political and cultural, and to start using terms like Red America and Blue America. I have heard some prominent leaders do it. But it says something—something important—that Putin scolded a Democratic president for feeling exceptional. Flag-waving American exceptionalism, after all, was supposed to be the purview of the Republicans.
Nostalgia for a romanticized past aside, the United States has always been divided. Elections as far back as the 1800 Jefferson v. Adams bout have been soaked in vitriol. In that contest, a couple of state militias were even watching the election proceedings closely, lest a march on Washington become necessary. Today’s partisanship alone doesn’t mean we’re blowing it.
The blame for the shutdown has mostly fallen on Republicans, and that sounds about right. I left the Republican Party earlier this year; like many of my right-leaning peers, I still have basic conservative values, but the party platform had just drifted too far. To tweak a Reaganism, I didn’t leave the Republican Party, the party left me.
So we arrive where we are now, with an increasingly radical GOP hemorrhaging its more moderate support, and the federal government running on life support. Yet we have to go some- where from here. Lurching from crisis to crisis isn’t sustainable over the long term, and disunion along regional lines isn’t going to happen. We all want to know, what in the world is next?
I’m not quite sure—nobody can be—but I’m not despairing. Psychologists have long suggested that superordinate goals, goals that transcend group boundaries, weaken antagonism between groups, and we have a few of those to strive for. We may not have salient policy objectives in common, but we do have that goad and goal that Putin thought so important: American exceptionalism. It means different things to different people, but seeking it out entails a commitment to this country.
I look forward to, and expect to see, the day when the Republican Party regains its sanity. People aren’t simply born a D or R, type 1 or type 2. Political science may teach us that the parties tell the people what to believe, but on a macro scale, the parties are expressions of vast swaths of people. Looking ahead, I don’t see two Americas, Red and Blue, with little in common. The reason why is that shared commitment to whatever it is that makes this place exceptional.