It’s an article of faith among most U.S. conservatives that this nation is Number One in the world, that non-Americans are lesser beings, that “American exceptionalism” is self-evident and self-explanatory. According to Pew’s Global Attitudes Project, 63 percent of conservatives believe that America’s culture is superior to all others.
But how can they claim that America is Number One in the world when America can’t even keep its government functioning? How can they pump their chests about “American exceptionialism” when the shutdown they ginned up is making us look exceptionally inept?
Conservatives, particularly in the Reagan era, used to pride themselves on projecting an American image of robust internationalism; we were “the shining city on the hill” that all other nations aspired to emulate. But this week, the right-wing shutdown cadre has made America an object of global ridicule. In the eyes of many commentators (most of them allies, no less), Uncle Sam looks like a dumb and dumber goofball who can’t tie his own shoes.
For instance, the BBC intoned, “That leaders of one of the most powerful nations on earth willingly provoked a crisis that suspends public services and decreases economic growth is astonishing….Even in the middle of its ongoing civil war, the Syrian government has continued to pay its bills and workers’ wages.” In western Europe, a think-tank scholar tweeted, “Next time you blame the woes of developing nations on ‘poor governance,’ think about how the U.S. government arrived at today.”
In France, the newspaper Le Monde assailed the “grotesque” shutdown, and aimed its editorial message at one of America’s founding fathers: “Jefferson, wake up! They’ve gone crazy!” In Germany, Der Spiegel Online declared, “A superpower has paralyzed itself,” and the business daily Handelsbatt depicted the Statue of Liberty in chains, capped by the headline, “The Blocked World Power.” In Spain, the El Pais newspaper marveled at America’s “suicidal madness.”
Granted, some of these reactions have a touch of schadenfreude, taking pleasure in our misfortune. That’s especially true with the French, who always love to tweak us, even while forgetting that if not for America 69 years ago, they would’ve stayed under the Nazi heel. But why give them an excuse to treat us as a laughingstock?
And the current scoffing spans the continents. In China, an entertainer tweeted, “Chinese must be wondering – When will America embrace real reform? How long can this system survive? Where is America’s Gorbachev?” In China, a government-run news website said the nation should be “on guard against spillover of irresponsible U.S. politics.” In India, business executives told the Voice of America that they couldn’t fathom how an advanced nation like America could allow its government to close, and a college student in New Dehli said it was “sad and shocking.” In the Philippines, an editorial writer asked, “How did the world’s lone superpower come to such a sorry pass?” In Malaysia, a news website ran the headline, “U.S. shutdown leaves the world scratching its head,” and the story said that some Malaysians “had trouble suppressing smirks.” And The Australian newspaper said that the shutdown “doesn’t say much for the budgetary process in the world’s largest economy.” And so on.
Not that any of this matters, of course. The Republican extremists who manufactured this crisis probably don’t care a whit about what the world thinks, because: (a) they know virtually nothing about the world, having been elected in 2010 to focus on the domestic front, and (b) what little they know about the world is that America is Number One, for the simple God-given reason that America is Number one, and that nothing could conceivably imperil our image as Number One.
But here’s the thing: This is not just about image. This is not just about whether we look bad. This is about something tactile and substantive. This is about money.
In the postwar decades when the GOP was riding high, it championed economic internationalism, a stable and thriving global business community, with the dollar as its linchpin. But today, as the party sinks ever lower, it has triggered a government shutdown and threatened yet another debt default crisis, thus sowing economic uncertainty worldwide and hurting the value of the dollar. That takes real genius – albeit the kind of breaking-bad genius that animated Walter White.
Foreign policy analyst John Norris wrote yesterday that “from China to Europe to Latin America, the repeated head-butting in Washington over the debt limit is pushing more and more finance ministers to lose faith in the dollar as the preferred global reserve currency…Why would any party choose to inflict such willful damage on America’s hard-won global economic brand?”
Because it is blind to the consequences of its actions. Because it fails to realize that, thanks to its recklessness, “American exceptionialism” is just an empty phrase.
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