I want to start off this essay by admitting that I am both vastly under qualified and justly qualified to write on this topic. I am 21-year-old undergraduate college student that holds no education further than a few upper level political science classes, some months traveling abroad and reading done on my own. Hell- I wasn’t even old enough to vote in the last Presidential election. However, I, and many others hold a qualification that gives me not only a right, but an obligation to write on this: I am voting American. It is the duty of every American voter to understand the challenges that face our nation and aid in finding a solution. If we see a serious problem in our government, we have the power to make the necessary changes. Our nation is currently experiencing crippling gridlock and divide that has realigned the electorate’s goal from working towards ever-constant improvement of the once greatest Nation in the world, to the disillusioned civil war between two parties who’d rather die of starvation than share the kitchen. This is not the American way. We are living in a country that has internalized a misguided concept of American exceptionalism that is counter-intuitive to very ideal it represents. This essay will work to identify the problems with the current practice of our pseudo-exceptionalism and try to identify a pragmatic solution that can be embraced by all Americans and bring us back to the country we know it can be.
The concept of American exceptionalism is the belief that America is the best country in the world and that our values are the most noble; so much so that we must work to spread them to every corner of the world. This belief has been present in our country since our inception. Early settlers attempted to westernize the Native Americans and rid them of their ‘savage’ ways. Americans pioneers felt is was their manifest destiny to extend the reaches of the nation from sea to shining sea. The United states has engaged in almost every major conflict overseas because we feel that it is our duty fight against powers that threaten the American way, even if they it has no direct effect on domestic life. Because of this, we have grown to the world power that we are today. However, this ideal is by no means negative. America has fought for freedom for countries controlled by strict dictators, been at the forefront of revolutionary technological advances, and have created a nation that truly believes in and promotes the opportunity for success. In that sense, American exceptionalism isn’t a belief, but a truth and a force for good. We were proud of our accomplishments, but never settled for the status quo. We believed in our leaders and knew that they were looking out for the interests of the people, not themselves or their party. Americans had a jovial opulence that radiated from the beaches of California to the skyscrapers of New York. Unfortunately, this is not the American exceptionalism we have come to know today. Fearful of attacks and slander, we have come to know a brand of American exceptionalism where we are incapable of admitting our own fallibility in order to preserve our party’s image and take down the other. If we cannot admit our own mistakes, how can we expect to make substantive change in a broken system?
If you look at the infrastructure of any successful company or team, you will find a constant principle: self-evaluation and constant improvement. Companies are always looking for ways to improve on their past performances through a process of reflection. Silicon Valley, the mecca of technological innovation and progress, takes great pride in the process of trial and error. The more you fail, the more opportunity you have for success. If an idea doesn’t work, you acknowledge its shortcomings and make the necessary changes it needs to be a success. Admittance of failure isn’t shamed, but rather celebrated because there is an understanding that failing and self-evaluation is part of the process. Similarly, if a previously dominant sports team is in a slump, do they continue in their ways? No. They identify what they are doing wrong and make the necessary changes to get on their track of previous success. Knowing this, why does our nations leadership seem to ignore this process?
To be clear, when referring to this idea of self-evaluation, I do not include critiques from the individual on the nation by placing sole blame on the beliefs of the opposite party. This isn’t evaluation for the sake of progress, instead it is critiques aimed at questioning the competency of the individual. That is not to say that we cannot make legitimate critiques on the decisions of our leaders who the rightful fault is owed–in fact that is encouraged. The issue comes when we forego facts and place all blame on the opposition, so much so it blinds our ability credit them with legitimate successes that they experience. The unfortunate reality is that our leaders in our political system seldom admit personal wrongdoings for issues facing our nation; “it is never our own fault, but rather the fault of someone else”. If there is an issue in our country, it is because of the decisions that come from the other side of the aisle. Much of this can be equated to the two-party system and the inescapable reality that politicians must have public support for get reelected so they can maintain their employment. Our political system has become so partisan and our political rhetoric is so outwardly focused that the only way to survive is to assimilate to this faulty style of governance. Republicans outwardly assign all problems in our country to the decisions of President Obama without the willingness to congratulate his legitimate successes or even exercise the idea that policies implemented by a president take decades to fully manifest, and maybe some of the issues we are currently experiencing could have been the result of past leadership. Similarly, Democrats hold on to their lofty, ideologically driven policies without the ability to acknowledge the economical impractically of implementing such policies, and then blame the republicans when they fail. As a result, critiquing the decisions of our nation is perceived not as an attempt to improve on an already great system, but rather an attack on the American way and a faulting love and belief in our values. Our politicians are unable to admit fault without experiencing detrimental backlash to their public image and career as a whole. This brand of misguided American exceptionalism not only hinders our ability to soar to the great heights our country is capable of, but is harmful to the very principle it is seemingly trying to protect. How can we expect to grow, as a nation if we cannot do honest, public self-evaluations where we admit we are our judgment could’ve been better and look to the every American for new ideas without being ridiculed for our mistakes? We should be valuing are politicians as we do CEO’s inventors, musicians and athletes on their ability to learn from their mistakes and grow from them, not cutting them down for it.
So how do we change this system that we are currently stuck in? The first step may seem trivial and insignificant, but I believe it lies within the ability to empathize with people of dissenting opinions. It is no secret that our two political parties have different theories on successful governance. These theories reflect the inherent values they find important in a society they wish to live in. And while these theories and values may differ, each has the same goal: shaping a nation that provides its citizens with the rights and opportunities that are universal to mankind. Contrary to common rhetoric, it is ignorant to believe that either party has the goal of ruining this country with their policies; each believes that what they are doing is the right way to achieve the common goal and to believe otherwise is ignorant. However, for better or for worse, the reality is that we have a system that requires cooperation and compromise across the aisle. Therefore, we must employ empathy if we wish to make substantial change to our broken system. Sun Tzu famously said “to defeat your enemy, you must become your enemy”. It is not my intention to lay claim that the ‘other’ party is the enemy (though that statement wouldn’t be far off in the eyes of the public) but rather to apply this point to policy making. It is imperative to understand why someone believes what he or she does before fully discounting his or her claim. As mentioned before, everyone has a the same goal they’re working towards, so by understanding why someone believes what they do and acknowledging the validity of their intent, we can hold a rationally driven debate on the merits of each opinion and work to find some middle ground that accomplished the common goal. Not only does this practice make debates more efficient, but also it humanized the competitor and fosters productive relationships that can pay dividends in the future. This idea of empathy may seem insignificant and trivial in comparison to other issues facing our nation, but it undoubtedly a step in the right direction.
If, as a nation, we collectively decide to embrace this paradigm shift–applaud our leaders when they admit wrongdoing, reward empathetic debate and condemn crippling partisanship, we can start on the path that leads us back to true embodiment of our previously practiced American exceptionalist ways.