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“The greatest nation on earth”? Obama’s victory speech viewed from overseas

Level Playing Field, The Hindu, 17 November

I woke early on Wednesday morning to check the results. First, I was relieved. Romney had failed, and more importantly the bigots and obscurantists who backed him had failed. Then I watched Obama’s victory speech, and what I felt was something other than relief.

The speech was dubbed “magnificent” on the Guardian’s front page by Jonathan Freedland, who hailed it, as did others, as a return to the bold, inspirational style of 2008 and a harbinger of a more ambitious second term.

I understand why people in the US clutch at straws, but I wonder how many times Freedland and other liberal commentators will clutch at this particular straw before they realise that it is in fact only a straw?

What struck me about Obama’s “soaring rhetoric” was just how rhetorical it was, and especially how heavily it leaned on the rhetoric of American exceptionalism. Dodging specifics, mixing sentimental anecdotes with sweeping platitudes, Obama invoked a special American destiny, unique among nations.

He put the theme up front in his opening sentence: “Tonight, more than 200 years after a former colony won the right to determine its own destiny, the task of perfecting our union moves forward”. He went on to laud “the spirit” of America “that has triumphed over war and depression, the spirit that has lifted this country from the depths of despair to the great heights of hope.”

America here becomes not just another country with a history of its own but a kind of charged metaphysical entity, an abstraction as potent as it is amorphous.

The ideology of American exceptionalism has always been about consolidating national unity – not so much against foreign foes as against domestic division, especially class division. Obama’s speech followed that well-worn path, moving towards an affirmation of a unique American bond. “We remain more than a collection of red states and blue states,” he declared, employing a mantra that served him well in the past, “We are and forever will be the United States of America.” He concluded by vowing that with “God’s grace we will continue our journey forward and remind the world just why it is that we live in the greatest nation on Earth.”

“The greatest nation on earth”? Imagine if the same boast had been made by the leader of any other country. It would be considered tasteless braggadocio at best, and something altogether more menacing at worst. Imagine the reaction to such a claim being made by the leaders of Iran or China, not to mention Germany or Japan. In the mouths of Russian politicians it’s considered mindless, dangerous demagoguery. But this ritual yet at the same time stridently combative flattering of the national ego is deemed part and parcel of US politics, so much so that few comment on it.

Let’s stop for a moment and examine the claim.

What constitutes national “greatness” and how is it to be measured? What exactly is it that makes the US “the greatest nation on earth”? Obama noted that “this country has more wealth than any nation” and “the most powerful military in history” as well as a “culture” that is “the envy of the world”, but none of these, he insisted, were the real sign of America’s “greatness” – though they seemed to be offered as supporting evidence.

No, the President argued, “what makes America exceptional” – an explicit reference to the exceptionalist doctrine, of which he is a professed adherent – “are the bonds that hold together the most diverse nation on earth. The belief that our destiny is shared.”

In fact, the US is no more “diverse” than, for example, India or South Africa, nor is it unique in being knit together despite its diversity. One of the ploys of American exceptionalism is to take a universal trait or abstraction and make it the special property of the US. Obama went beyond the usual ahistorical claims on “freedom” and “democracy” to add in “love and charity and duty and patriotism. That’s what makes America great.”

Love, charity, duty and patriotism are all fine qualities, and undoubtedly assets to any society, but can the US really claim a greater store of them than other countries? And are they subject to the comparative measurement implied in Obama’s use of the superlative “greatest”?

A glance at the CIA World Factbook is enlightening. In the maternal mortality rankings the US, with 21 deaths per 100,000 live births, has the 47th best record, behind Europe, South Korea and Turkey and on a par with Iran. In infant mortality the US ranks 49th, inferior to Cuba, the EU and Japan. When it comes to life expectancy at birth, the US ranks 51st. And in education spending as a percentage of GDP, the US comes in at 44th, its 5.5% far behind Cuba’s top ranking 13.6%. On the other hand, when it comes to the percentage of the adult population suffering obesity the US ranks above all except a handful of small Pacific Ocean states (and Saudi Arabia).

These rankings, based on national averages, actually make the US performance look better than it is. If the measurements were confined to the 50% of Americans on below median incomes, the rankings would all be decidedly worse. This is because the US is one of the planet’s most unequal societies. According to the Gini coefficient, a measure of income distribution, the US lies 91st, considerably less equal than Turkey or Ghana or Vietnam or the EU countries. Yet Obama insisted, “We are not as divided as our politics suggests.”

It’s true that the US has the largest total GDP and the highest per capita GDP (barring a few enclaves and tax havens). It certainly has by far the largest military: it accounts for 41% of total global military spending, more than the next six biggest spenders combined. Obama’s speech included a specific pledge to preserve this particular form of superiority and hand it down to future generations.

To understand that, it’s necessary to clock a few other US “number ones”.

In the total value of shares issued by publicly traded companies, the US is far and away the top act (70% more than the combined EU total and 4 times China’s holdings), as it is in the total value of direct investment in foreign countries. At the same time it’s also the world leader in external debt, owing $14.7 trillion to foreigners, only a little less than the combined EU total. Though it may be only number two in total CO2 emissions (after China) it’s far ahead of its rivals in emissions per capita, and still imports more crude oil (in total and per capita) than any other country, a quarter of the global total.

But does any of that matter in “the land of opportunity”? Obama had a curious 21st century take on what he called “the promise of our founders”:

“It doesn’t matter whether you’re black or white or Hispanic or Asian or Native American or young or old or rich or poor, able, disabled, gay or straight, you can make it here in America if you’re willing to try.” (emphasis added)

The crowd cheered the diversity of Obama’s catalogue, and of course Romney would have omitted the “gay or straight” category, but it has to be said that nothing like the idea of “making it” appears in the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” are something different, and they are an entitlement, not conditional, as Obama claimed, not available only “if you work hard”. This is a neo-liberal twist on American exceptionalism, re-cast in the argot of the prevailing cult of individual success. But it is at the same time a reiteration of one of the central beguiling motifs of American excpetionalism: America as a society embodying the very principle of social mobility.

Surveys show that people in the US have a greater faith in their country being a meritocracy than citizens of other countries. In a poll conducted by the Economic Mobility Project, nearly 7 in 10 Americans said they had already achieved or expected to achieve “the American Dream” at some point in their lives. Clearly the old myth endures, even though it has come to bear less and less resemblance to reality.

Studies have demonstrated repeatedly that social mobility is in fact more restricted in the US than in many other wealthy countries. For example, a US male’s income is nearly twice as reliant on his father’s background as a Canadian male’s. In the US, 42 percent of the sons of fathers born in the poorest quintile remain in that quintile, far higher than the 30 percent in Britain or the 25 percent in the Scandinavian countries. The statistics also confound the rags-to-riches narratives celebrated by American exceptionalists. The percentage of sons born to fathers in the poorest quintile who ended up in the wealthiest quintile in the US is 7.9 percent, far lower than in other wealthy countries, where rates ranged from 10.9 percent to 14.4 percent. That’s partly because – as reflected in its Gini coefficient – in the US the gap between the poorest and richest quintiles is much greater than it is in other countries.

One of the functions of American exceptionalism is to bind the poor and the working class to a system that exploits them. Like other narratives of national unity, it masks divisions and conflicts of interest and obscures real choices.

You could see the insidiousness of its logic in the two examples Obama offered of “the spirit at work in America”: first, “the family business whose owners would rather cut their own pay than lay off their neighbours” and second, “the workers who would rather cut back their hours than see a friend lose a job.”

To the extent that they exist, the first group make their “sacrifice” individually and voluntarily. Obama says nothing about imposing that sacrifice on top corporate executives, who are, far more often than family businesses, the employers of the second group, the workforces who are compelled, collectively, to trade pay for jobs. Apart from anything else, it’s a false counter-position, since pay and jobs are interdependent – pay generating the demand that creates jobs. It was notable that Obama in his lengthy list of thank yous omitted any mention of the unions, despite their massive donation of money and volunteers.

Since Obama is so keen on international superiority, let’s compare the US presidential election to the recent election in Venezuela, where Chavez won a much more decisive victory on a significantly higher turn out. The election was deemed scrupulously fair and efficient by observers, something few would claim for the US exercise, marred as it was by attempts at voter suppression. It’s been noted that Obama triumphed in the face of four years of aggressive, obnoxious and well-funded opposition, but that was nothing compared to what Chavez had to contend with, including the standing threat of a US-backed coup. He was outspent by his rival by three to one and vehemently opposed by the great bulk of the country’s media. He didn’t have Obama’s high tech campaign machine but unlike Obama he had the advantage of standing for something decisively, tangibly different from his opponent. As a result Venezuelans enjoyed the kind of “real choice over issues” that Obama in his speech improbably claimed made Americans the envy of the world.

Globally, Obama’s victory will be greeted by a sigh of relief but few expectations. In contrast, Chavez’s victory offers hope to hundreds of millions of the poor across the global south. It shows that there is an alternative to the neo-liberalism to which Obama is so firmly wed, and that this alternative can work. Under Chavez, both relative and absolute poverty in Venezuela have been substantially reduced – the former from nearly 50 to 24 per cent and the latter from 25 to 7 per cent. In contrast, under Obama, in the “greatest” and wealthiest nation on earth, the poverty rate has steadily increased, reaching 15.9 percent last year, 48.5 million people.

Taking cognizance of these contrasting records would benefit no one more than Americans themselves. They are at one with much of the rest of the world in being the victims, not the beneficiaries, of American exceptionalism.