Imagine a country in which the average cost of being elected to the lower house of that nation’s parliament had reached a million dollars, and in districts where television advertising costs were high, that the money needed to finance a successful campaign frequently amounted to double or triple that. Then add the fact that the median cost of getting elected to the upper house was more than eight times that—8.53 million dollars—again, with many campaigns spending much more. While you’re calculating this, don’t forget to factor in the influence of monies spent by interest groups of all sorts that, while ostensibly used to promote the group in question’s particular cause, can be considered part of the campaign budget of candidates associated with the cause in question. More broadly, imagine a country where there has been an unbroken trend toward the candidate who spends more money wins; and that this trend has reached the point, where, during the last general election, the best-funded candidates won nine out of ten contests, and 95 percent of incumbents in the lower house and 93 percent of those in the upper house were re-elected. And finally, keep in mind that the country in question is one where third parties have almost no chance of competing successfully, and the two parties—that, between them, defend in every way they can their joint monopoly on power and, indeed, a long history of colluding in the drawing of parliamentary district lines in such a way that favors incumbents on either side—now each spend something on the order of half a billion dollars in those elections in which the presidency is at stake. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the United States of America.
But you knew that already, as well or better than I do. What indeed is more well known about American politics than the fact that it is ruled by money and that virtually every reform attempting to deal with the issue either has failed to usher in the hoped-for reform, has had a counter-productive effect, or has been rolled back by the courts? The only reason I indulged myself in the pale conceit of not naming the United States in the first sentence of this post was because our collective familiarity with how fundamentally undemocratic our political processes are in practice continues to be at complete odds with our seemingly equally generalized conviction that our democracy doubtless has its flaws, but that it still is fundamentally solid. If we were talking about another country where these were the conditions in which elections took place and parties governed, not in our House and Senate, etc., but another people’s parliament, would we take seriously the claim by that nation’s citizens that their democracy was substantive rather than formal?
Forget about American exceptionalism, our national contribution to that capacious category—the patriotism of fools. Tragic and self-destructive as it is, compared to the gap between our claims about our politics and their actual reality, it is a second-order problem. The question that should trump all others, given the undeniable fact that our politics are a duopoly and our elections are all but completely dominated by money (that is, again, if you raise more money, you have nine chances out of ten of winning an election—odds anyone in his or her right mind would accept gleefully practically no matter what the wager), is how can we Americans still pretend to ourselves, let alone to others, that we are living in any sort of democracy, not to speak of one that we have the right to boast is superior to that of other countries? Lowry and Ponnuru’s National Review “exceptionalism” essay was controversial in many quarters, but while liberals challenged them strenuously on issues of arrogance, and, more substantively, on issues of war and peace and the role of force, few disagreed with their claim that that country was “freer, more individualistic, more democratic, and more open and dynamic than any other nation on earth.”
In a way, I wish I believed that Lowry and Ponnuru, or, for that matter, liberal writers who have offered their own disquisitions on the exceptional quality of American democracy, were just being cynical—pandering to what they perceive as the American public’s wish to be reinforced in their belief in the myth of the country’s goodness and its greatness. But I am certain they are sincere. It all has a whiff of the old joke about Marxism that if the facts don’t fit the theory so much the worse for the facts.
So here are some facts, beyond the brute fact that money rules our politics to a degree unheard of in any other developed country with, ahem, the possible exception of Berlusconi’s Italy. 1) The United States ranks between Hungary and Russia, and behind virtually all developed countries (Canada, almost the entire EU, Israel, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand) in terms of voter turnout. 2) According to the OECD, the U.S. has both the highest level of income inequality and the highest rates of poverty of any OECD country with the exception of Turkey and Mexico. 3) Lest this be attributed solely to the situation of first generation immigrants bringing down the national average, inter-generational social mobility has for quite some time been lower in the U.S. than in Germany and Australia, and considerably lower than in either Canada or the Nordic countries.
If Americans were evaluating another country that had these social and political indicators, would we even dream of saying we were looking at democracy compared to which others, whatever virtues they possess, still fall short? Of course not: We’d laugh at the mere suggestion that we do so. But we’re not like other countries, we’re exceptional: That’s our story, and we’re sticking to it.
The outsized pair of rose-colored glasses that Americans donned so long ago now seem as if they are welded to the nation’s collective face. Self-love is an addiction, not just a lie. But the lying has to stop.
I note with resignation James Kirchick’s attack on my first post on the Lowry-Ponnuru exceptionalism piece. There is enough navel-gazing in the blogosphere as it is—as even a cursory look at the endless (and endlessly tedious) ongoing tit-for-tat sneering between bloggers on the National Review’s “The Corner” and on Mr. Kirchick’s The New Republic makes clear. For me, one of the great strengths of the World Affairs Daily’s group blog is that it has had vision and originality to run writers whose viewpoints are not just divergent but, for all intents and purposes, diametrically opposed one to the other. I cannot believe that any reader of this blog believes that Mr. Kirchick thinks well of, let alone agrees with much of anything I write, whether on American exceptionalism or anything else, or doubts that I return the judgment in kind (and that the same can be said of Joshua Muravchik and Andrew Bacevich). To me, while of course it would not be difficult to do so, it doesn’t seem like the best use of either time or space on this blog to spell out these fundamental differences to a readership more than capable of inferring them. So I’m going to pass on the chance to reply to Mr. Kirchick in the perhaps vain hope that a familiar habit of the blogosphere not be imported here. What Mr. Kirchick chooses to do is of course his own business.