How Is America Looking Now in the Eyes of the World?
American “exceptionalism” was first trumpeted in 1831 by the French political observer Alexis de Tocqueville, who lauded our emerging nation’s unique ideology based on limited government, liberty, egalitarianism, individualism and populism.
America became the
destination of Europeans tired of being politically and religiously oppressed by theocratic despots and economically oppressed by the privileged ruling classes. America offered the opportunity for economic progress based on effort rather than class standing. It was the “golden door” as immortalized on the base of the Statue of Liberty.
In European eyes, America’s promise continued well into the 20th century. In 1941, FDR articulated to the world America’s support for four fundamental freedoms — freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.
Subsequent administrations, with bipartisan support, endeavored to mitigate economic and political discrimination against minorities and to provide economic safety nets to the recently unemployed and to families with dependent children. Steps were taken to ensure health coverage to the aged, the young and low income earners.
Over the last decade, however, government programs to secure “freedom from want” have been increasingly called into question. Many now feel that government economic guarantees serve as a disincentive to the personal industry and accountability they considered critical to America’s successes. Concomitantly, the rapid increase in the share of income going to the richest Americans has resulted in increased attention to “class warfare.” Conflicts over the appropriate role for government currently now take center stage in the political arena.
West Europeans, in contrast, have remained widely supportive of a different social compact. They are accepting of higher tax burdens and a relative leveling in incomes in order to ensure economic well-being and economic opportunity for all citizens. Individual liberties are protected by institutionalizing the tolerance of differences. Governments are trusted to do the bidding of the people.
West European governments walk the talk when it comes to personal liberty and tolerance. Throughout most of West Europe, abortion is legal upon request, or exceptions are made for rape, health, mental illness and fetal defects. All West European countries have legalized either gay marriage or same-sex civil unions.
West Europeans consider it essential to ensure that all of their fellow countrymen have access to a basic standard of living. Access to health care is considered as a right, not a privilege. Minimum wages are set at levels that allow workers to stand on their own two feet. West Europeans see an American income distribution heavily skewed in favor of the richest classes, an American middle class under siege, and lower classes unable to gain access to basic necessities.
West Europeans understand the importance of education to upward mobility, which studies have shown is now greater than in the United States. The quality of public education is relatively standardized throughout each nation, while college tuition is either free or heavily subsidized. Many American students, however, are disadvantaged by inadequate public schooling or find themselves priced out of a college education.
Europeans look to and trust government to provide a wide range of services on their behalf and accept a heavy tax burden to get the job done. They view the American political system as being rendered ineffective by partisanship, noting that American confidence in its Congress is at record lows.
West Europeans also see the increased influence of American moneyed interests in engineering legislation and influencing electoral outcomes. They read about actions taken by states to potentially limit voter access to the ballot box.
Americans tend to be dismissive of European attitudes across the board and are loath to assess our nation’s strengths and weakness vis-à-vis other countries. Most Americans feel government has become too costly. Many Americans believe there are limits as to what behaviors should be tolerated in order to maintain the American way.
The prospect of increasing taxes on the majority of Americans to address current financial problems, broaden entitlement programs, or substantially improve educational quality seems beyond the pale, regardless of the political party in power.
We are truly a great country, capable of great deeds. We remain the richest and most powerful nation on Earth. We are a warm, welcoming and engaging people. We are “can do.” Although a 21st century de Tocqueville would be quick to acknowledge America’s accomplishments and its unique role on the world’s stage, one wonders whether he would continue to characterize America as exceptional in comparison with West European countries.
West Europeans clearly have problems of their own, but — unlike here — they have resolved the conflicts over the appropriate role for government in ensuring economic security, educational equality and individual choice.
Paul Ericson is a retired social studies teacher at Pinecrest High School. He previously served with the U.S. Army and the Central Intelligence Agency.
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