A lament for American exceptionalism

The leadership that made America great seems to be a bygone memory.

by Jacob Swede

In 1779, John Paul Jones, AmericaâÄôs first well-known naval figure, sailed a squadron of dilapidated merchant ships to EnglandâÄôs mainland coast. This act was more than a pragmatic step toward winning the American Revolution. It symbolized a bold defiance of the conventional wisdom that the British navy was undefeatable. JonesâÄô attack on the English mainland was a seminal event in the American Revolution, with the rogue captain flying in the face of the oppressive English hegemony. JonesâÄô belief in the Revolution was solidified by a lofty idealism of freedom and justice, and Jones was undaunted by the ominous British Empire. During one naval battle, with defeat a near certainty, a British commander offered Jones a chance to surrender. âÄúI have not yet begun to fight,âÄù the fledgling American captain defiantly retorted. Sadly, that resolute attitude now seems anemic. The intrepid spirit that surged America through the Revolution, Frontier, Civil War, World Wars, New Deal and Great Society is a pale penumbra of its former self. The best articulation of AmericaâÄôs current political paradigm is a confused self-negation where Republicans define themselves as non-Democrats and Democrats as non-Republicans. In this morass of political stagnation, the mediocre and merely tolerable achievements are elevated to the echelon of the transcendent and sublime. One need look no further than the drivel of political rhetoric trumpeted on partisan media outlets to confirm this analysis. After the passage of what can charitably be called a diluted and compromised health care reform bill, much flourishing was made in the name of either apocalyptic or benevolent change, most notably with Vice President Joe BidenâÄôs description of the bill as âÄúa big [expletive] deal.âÄù More likely, though, is that the bill will manifest itself as, at best, a footnote rather than a chapter in American history. Even the tersest scrutiny of the bill-turned-law lends credibility to dissatisfaction. The billâÄôs well-intentioned but watery measures make it obvious that the RepublicansâÄô assertions of Barack ObamaâÄôs design for the Fourth Reich are either insidious or ignorant grandstanding. On the contrary, the bill strengthens some problems of the status quo, such as the extension on pharmaceutical industry patents, which will further crowd out generic producers and maintain inflated prescription prices. Surely Democrats, who maintain the monopoly on social justice rhetoric, canâÄôt hope to justify this to constituents already paying exorbitant amounts for prescription drug coverage. The health care bill fails to ascend to the level of legendary political projects like the Monroe Doctrine or Civil Rights Act because it has no anchor in an underlying vision for America. The commendable aspirations of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness that America was founded on are so feeble as to be nearly absent in the health care reform bill. The political disorientation typified by the health care bill is now a pandemic in modern America. Nearly two years ago, anything but political stagnation seemed impending. Obama was campaigning to change America with a coherent and inspiring vision for the future in speech after speech. More remarkable than that, he proposed projects to codify those visions into reality. While it is obvious to say he hasnâÄôt achieved that vision and presumptuous to assume he wonâÄôt, itâÄôs undoubtedly factual that he isnâÄôt on a course for success. Moderate Democrats balk at and Republicans stifle his every maneuver. Under these conditions, Obama certainly has dim prospects for even the most inanely temperate of policies. While ObamaâÄôs demeanor and beliefs upset many Americans, in the last half century heâÄôs the only politician to legitimately attempt to ignite interest in the broader question of the future of America. The health care reform bill canâÄôt be rightly understood as conforming to ObamaâÄôs vision laid out two years ago. Its various acquiescences to the Right and feeble appeasements to the Left are parasites leeching on his ideological credibility. What is certainly ObamaâÄôs is the decision heâÄôs made to sacrifice his vision of AmericaâÄôs future for the false illusion of political harmony. The climate of American politics is ripe for the articulation of a new American exceptionalism by all sides of the political spectrum. Recent presidents, members of Congress and ideologues have advocated specific issues with success, such as abortion or taxes, but never managed to articulate a comprehensive national narrative. America deserves more than political leaders who are defined by what they oppose. Productive discussion about the future does not merely hinge on negation, but rather on rhetorical positives. Democrats need not follow the example of Obama to construct their national narrative, but they must offer something. Similarly, the Republicans have a wealth of historical examples from within their own party that they can choose to reject or build upon to found the new, shining city on a hill for the rest of the world and America to follow. No recent politician seems to be intrepid enough to attempt to fulfill John Paul JonesâÄô legacy of dominating the indomitable, but Americans ought to demand nothing less. Although America is beset on all sides by lukewarm politicians forgoing the heroic for the secure, I contend that we have not yet begun to fight. Jacob Swede welcomes comments at [email protected]