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Commentary: Another face of American exceptionalism

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 16, 2010 - Many Americans view the United States as an exceptional country, destined to spread freedom throughout the world, "the greatest country on God's green earth," in the words of a local DJ. Secondary school texts and countless officials and commentators delight in our unique institutions and unique opportunities.

But there is another side to American exceptionalism. Institutions such as separation of powers, checks and balances, and federalism also foster a strong underlying conservatism and an emphasis on the individual, rather than the collectivity. Power is fractured, not concentrated. Few presidents get all that they wish and the inharmonious voices in the media deter success, particularly of those not on the right.

America's peculiar political system has produced weak political parties, which were further weakened by Progressive reform in the early years of the 20th century. Parties no longer select candidates nor do they fund the lion's share of a campaign.

Congressional scholar David Mayhew has succinctly noted that a congressman's goal is re-election and his or her behavior is dictated by that goal. Key votes on policy revolve around how the vote will play back home, not on supporting the party or the president. Pleasing one's campaign contributors is not an insignificant factor either.

President Barack Obama's compromise with Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell over tax cuts and unemployment benefits has rankled a number of Democrats, particularly in the House. Denied the public option in health care and reeling from a record loss of seats in the midterm, some Democrats have said enough is enough.

In the 2008 campaign, the president made ending tax cuts for the wealthy a principal goal. Now, that has been compromised away along with changes to the estate tax benefitting only the very affluent. Who are the recalcitrant Democrats in this lame duck session? Are they the folks who have lost their seats? On the contrary, the outspoken opponents of compromise are from very strong Democratic districts. They are vocal and combative now, whereas during the fall campaign they were largely quiet.

In 2010, the emphasis on individual contests was marked by ubiquitous negative advertising wherever competition existed. GOP spots disparaged "Obamacare" and Nancy Pelosi. Democrats responded with attack ads of their own, while frequently failing to defend themselves or stand up for their voting record. Government was the problem, in President Reagan's words, and government spending was the malefactor -- not the irresponsible behavior and greed of a deregulated Wall Street.

Party discipline has never been a hallmark of those in Congress. But the Republicans have come closest to it recently. They have said no on many fronts in the past two years, sometimes successfully. Their greatest success lay in the Senate because of the threat of filibuter. Although the Constitution makes no mention of a filibuster, Senate rules call for 60 votes to cut off unlimited debate. And that rule of the Senate has prevented vote on a lot of things, including the revocation of Don't Ask, Don't Tell for example.

Republicans are, by and large, supply-siders. Cut taxes and the economy will grow. It is the Republican philosophy that is in greater harmony with theories of America's exceptionalism. Supporting the private sector has become akin to trumpeting the individual. An increasingly conservative Supreme Court has continued to apply individual liberties to corporate entities, most recently in the area of campaign finance.

In the end, the renewal of tax cuts and unemployment benefits, as well as a cut to the payroll tax, and limits to the estate tax will probably prevail. Despite the trillions in deficit and the money owed to China, our system is not good at imposing loss, particularly on voters and contributors. One cannot imagine our Congress undertaking the British program of severe austerity to counteract burgeoning debt. The U.S. will stumble along with its focus on re-election and scoring points back home. And yet, some decry the pragmatism of a president who would take half a loaf. After the ravages of November, half a loaf may look pretty good.

Most Americans pay little attention to news but respond to the slogans that seem most in keeping with their patriotic vision. That vision is redolent of the rights of the individual and the dislike of government and communitarian solutions, part and parcel of American exceptionalism.

Lana Stein is a professor emerita of political science at the University of Missouri at St. Louis.

Lana Stein is emeritus professor of political science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. She is the author of several books and journal articles about urban politics, political behavior and bureaucracy.

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