The Perils of American Exceptionalism

As I listened to Mitt Romney’s victory speech in New Hampshire last night, I heard the clearest crystallization of a strain of American political discourse that has worried me for some time.

In Romney’s telling, Barack Obama is a socialist, who wants to transform the United States and make it more Europe-like. On the face of it, there’s nothing surprising about a campaign  line like this coming from a Republican contender.

Romney takes things one step further, when he says, “This President takes his inspiration from the capitals of Europe; we look to the cities and small towns of America.” (I’ve put the full quote at the bottom here.)

As someone who spent the last decade living in Japan and then China, it strikes me as more than passing strange that a nation’s political elite should demonize the idea of scouring the globe for the best ideas in governance, in economic policy and development, in environmental practices, etc.. A willingness to learn this in way, to continuously compare notes with peer competitors and rivals, and to adopts and absorb best practices, even when inspired by example from afar, is an essential part of the playbook of any successful nation.

Today, China, even with all of its problems, and with an authoritarian political system that lacks appeal on many levels, is perhaps the world’s most vigorous practitioner of this approach, which might be described as: continuously learn, adopt, experiment and adjust. This has been true since Deng Xiaoping’s time, and it cannot be a coincidence that China’s economy has been the world’s most dynamic during this period. (China’s political system, though very slow to change, is not immune to this phenomenon of emulation and influence from afar, either, although that’s a subject fit for another post.)

The posturing claim that this is un-American, or that good ideas must be homegrown, or that we and our ways are and must remain pure and untainted by outside influences is a form of cultural and intellectual nativism. And as both China and Japan each learned the hard way, and at great cost after long periods of smug self-sufficiency and intellectual closure, it is also a recipe for stagnation and eventual decline.

Paper money was invented in China, during the Song Dynasty, 1,000 years ago. (The first European banknotes appeared in 1661, five centuries later.) Needless to say, no one need feel less American for using the dollar bill. By the same token, no Chinese need feel any less authentic for going to work on the subway (a British innovation), or using the Internet (U.S.), or incorporating any other of a whole host of foreign inventions that together help make the modern world.

To pretend otherwise would be silly, which is why it’s time to put this silly but persistent motif of American politics to rest.

The Romney quote:

“Make no mistake, in this campaign, I will offer the American ideals of economic freedom a clear and unapologetic defense.

Our campaign is about more than replacing a President; it is about saving the soul of America. This election is a choice between two very different destinies.

President Obama wants to “fundamentally transform” America. We want to restore America to the founding principles that made this country great.

He wants to turn America into a European-style entitlement society. We want to ensure that we remain a free and prosperous land of opportunity.

This President takes his inspiration from the capitals of Europe; we look to the cities and small towns of America.

This President puts his faith in government. We put our faith in the American people.”

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