Thursday, November 4, 2010

Marco Rubio’s Victory Speech and the Meaning of American Exceptionalism

by Michael Kaplan

The most eloquent of the Republican victory speeches on election night 2010 was delivered by Florida Senator-elect Marco Rubio. Rubio, young, articulate, and charismatic, is clearly a rising star of the Republican Party and the conservative movement. He is even being talked about as the hoped for “new Reagan” (the latest in a long line) and as a future president, perhaps as soon as 2016, which is what South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint predicts: “In five years, no one will remember Jim DeMint, and Marco will be president.”

In his victory speech Rubio, a man who, like Sarah Palin, is open about his Christian faith, affirmed the greatness of God and His role in human affairs. He went on to celebrate Jacksonian themes of American exceptionalism. “Americans believe with all their heart, the vast majority of them, and the vast majority of Floridians, that the United States of America is simply the single greatest nation in all of human history, a place without equal in the history of all mankind.” This of course is the core belief of Jacksonian nationalism. Calling for the nation to rededicate itself to the American Creed of equal opportunity and justice, Rubio gave no quarter to naysayers who reject American exceptionalism. “Now let me tell you, there are those out there that doubt about the greatness of America. Sometimes when I say it, I hear the snickers from some in different parts. They think it’s simplistic. But see, I know America’s great not because I read about it in a book, but because I’ve seen it with my eyes.Florida’s Cuban community, “a people who lost their country” and their dreams “through an accident of history” understand better than most how precious liberty is and how easily it can be destroyed by tyranny. Rubio locates American exceptionalism in the immigrant experience, the experience of his own life as the son of Cuban exiles.

Marco Rubio’s father Mario, who died from emphysema and lung cancer at age 83 in September, was the strongest influence in his life. Throughout his campaign, Rubio talked about his father as the iconic embodiment of both the Cuban exile experience and the American dream. Mario Rubio lost his own mother at age 6 and his father at 12.

He grew up largely in a society where what you were going to be when you grew up was decided for you. This is like almost every other place in the world. Think about what that means. That means that before you are even born, how far you are going to get to go in life is decided for you by who your parents are or are not. And that’s how it is almost everywhere in the world.
Mario came to America where he spent most of his life working as a bartender. He never fulfilled many of his own dreams but he enabled his children to follow theirs. “And they are blessed to live in this great and extraordinary society, where indeed that dream is still possible and is still true.” America gave the Rubio family the chance to transcend a tragic history and shape their own destiny and enjoy the blessings of liberty. In 1813 Andrew Jackson said much the same of his own life: “brought up under the tyrany of Britain—altho young embarked in the struggle for our liberties, in which I lost every thing that was dear to me, my brothers and my fortune—for which I have been amply repaid by living under the mild administration of a republican government.” (Andrew Jackson to Willie Blount, January 4, 1813, John Spencer Bassett, ed., Correspondence of Andrew Jackson, Vol. 1 [Washington: Carnegie Institution, 1926], p. 255.) This is what American exceptionalism is all about: not having your fate determined by the circumstances of your birth, or by the limits of your parents’ lives. For Marco Rubio, as for Old Hickory, American exceptionalism is not merely an abstract concept; it’s an article of faith, a core belief that shapes his life and his politics. And it makes Rubio a force to be reckoned with; a politician with the skills and sophistication of a professional who also has an intuitive understanding of and connection with the strongest passions and aspirations of the Jacksonian electorate.

Rubio summed up the choices he sees for America: a road to big government, economic stagnation, and diminished expectations for the future; or the road of American exceptionalism.

It is a road that says our children deserve to inherit the greatest society in all of human history. It is a road that understands that the world is a safer and better place when America is the strongest country in the world. It is a road that realizes that there is still at least one place on this planet where it doesn’t matter if your dad was a bartender and your mom was a maid. You can accomplish anything you want if you’re willing to work hard for it and play by the rules.
Critics, mainly on the left but also some on the right, have serious problems with Rubio’s vision of American exceptionalism. Peter Beinart denounced Rubio for promoting “an anti-government ideology premised on the lunatic notion that America is the only truly free and successful country in the world.” Far from being exceptional—the only nation in the world that allows for upward mobility—Beinart insists that America has fallen behind other nations such as China, India, and Brazil; nations where activist or authoritarian governments have taken charge of economic development and raised millions of people out of poverty. If there is such a thing as American exceptionalism, Beinart concludes, then you’ll find it in China, not in America. Beinart, who mourns what he sees as the death of Keynesian economics, would have us believe, to paraphrase Reagan, that government is not the problem, it’s the solution. Daniel Larison adds along these same lines that American exceptionalism, in the hands of Rubio and other Republicans, has degenerated into a form of delusional self worship and idolatry. Rubio’s vision of American exceptionalism, Larison insists, blinds Americans to the serious problems of economic and social stratification that has been shutting down the avenues of upward mobility. Working hard and playing by the rules no longer works for increasing numbers of Americans. American exceptionalism no longer bears any relation to the real America.

Michael Kinsley spells it out more bluntly: the “U.S. is not the greatest country ever.” American exceptionalist rhetoric enables Americans to indulge the misguided illusion that we are still a nation of heroic pioneers and rugged individualists. It allows Americans to believe that the rules of international conduct don’t apply to us. America’s economic and military strength, her supposedly unique devotion to liberty and mission to make the world safe for democracy, gives her license to flout international opinion, defy the U.N. Security Council and launch illegitimate wars of aggression against Muslim nations. Well, Kinsley has a message for American voters: “You’re not so special.” The heroic pioneers and rugged individualists are long gone, replaced by a nation of hedonistic, self-indulgent, irresponsible, and immature drones, who have too damn high an opinion of themselves. “This conceit that we’re the greatest country ever may be self-immolating. If people believe it’s true, they won’t do what’s necessary to make it true.” Kinsley is, for the most part, repeating the standard liberal progressive trope that Jacksonian America is exceptional only in its racism, jingoism, xenophobia, and abysmal ignorance of the world beyond America’s borders—boobus americanus. Embracing the patriotism of dissent, Kinsley sees his mission to save America from itself—from this fantasy of American exceptionalism—and to challenge those, like Marco Rubio, who would still promote this dangerous myth.

The critics, despite their vitriol, are right about one thing. America does face a rough transition to the new globalized world of the twenty-first century. Can we play to our strengths of innovation and flexibility, reform our education system, and make sure all Americans have the skills they need to succeed in an increasingly complex and volatile economy? David Brooks asks whether the Jacksonian working class in places like the rust belt Midwest has any sort of future in the twenty-first century. This is key to determining if America is still exceptional.

China, for all its emerging power, poses no real challenge to American exceptionalism. Beinart, like some other liberal pundits, is suffering from the mandarin delusion. Zhang Xin, a real estate developer and China’s richest woman, told Fareed Zakaria that China’s authoritarian state capitalism is fast approaching its own crisis point.