Jonathan Zimmerman commentary: How the GOP gave up on American exceptionalism
Is this a great country, or what?
That’s been a 50-year refrain of Republicans, who have made “American exceptionalism” into a kind of emblem for their party. America is a unique force in world history, they insist, a beacon of hope and liberty for the entire globe.
That’s over and done. Republicans still mouth the pieties of American exceptionalism, of course, especially around election time. For all practical purposes, however, they have rejected it. To the Grand Old Party, America ain’t so grand.
Witness the standard Republican responses to the massacre in Uvalde, Texas, where 19 children and two adults were slaughtered by an 18-year-old with an AR-15-style rifle. Dismissing pleas for gun regulation, GOP politicians said the only way to guard against such massacres is to make sure that other citizens — you know, the good guys — are armed.
Think about what that says about America if they’re right. It means that we no longer have a nation that can protect its own people, which is a fundamental duty of governments everywhere. It means that we can’t trust the officials we elect to make us any safer. It’s each man and woman — and, yes, child — for themselves.
How great does that sound, to you? To me, it’s a vision from hell. It’s not a place where I’d like to bring up my own kids, or to grow old myself. It’s a war of all against all, where only the strong — and, of course, the armed — survive.
It’s also a place afflicted by “cultural sickness,” as U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz told the National Rifle Association convention three days after the Uvalde massacre. The problem in America “has never been about guns,” the Republican from Texas said. It’s “despair and isolation and violent hatred,” which have infected the heart — and the soul — of the nation itself.
“Tragedies like the events of this week are a mirror forcing us to ask hard questions, demanding that we see where our culture is failing, looking at broken families, absent fathers, declining church attendance, social media bullying, violent online content, desensitizing the act of murder in video games,” Cruz declared.
Again, is that the country where you want to live? All of the issues Cruz identified are real, of course. But if we look in the mirror, and that’s all we see, well, what does that say about us? Nothing good, that’s for sure.
The rest of the world has been looking at us, too, and wondering what is ailing America. Other countries see us as exceptional — in exactly the wrong ways.
That’s what a British reporter said, in a revealing exchange with Cruz following a vigil for the victims in Uvalde. “Why does this only happen in your country?” the reporter asked Cruz. “Why is this American exceptionalism so awful?”
The phrase clearly rankled Cruz. “I’m sorry you think American exceptionalism is awful,” he shot back. The reporter replied that he was only condemning “this aspect of it” — that is, mass shootings — but Cruz wasn’t having it.
“Why is it that people come from all over the world to America?” he asked. “‘Cause it’s the freest, most prosperous, safest country on Earth — stop being a propagandist.”
Let’s leave aside the efforts by Cruz and the GOP to keep people from coming to America: the Muslim ban, the Mexican wall and more. The idea of America as the “safest country on Earth” contradicts everything we know about firearm deaths, which increased in the U.S. nearly 10% between 2003 and 2015, even as they fell in other wealthy democracies.
More to the point, given the tragedy in Uvalde, children are vastly more likely to die from guns here. In a recent study of 31 high-income countries — mostly in Europe — the U.S. accounted for 92% of all of the firearm deaths of children between 5 and 14. Yes, you read that right: More than 9 of 10 of the kids who died from guns did so right here in the USA.
For the life of me, I don’t know how you can square that with the idea that America is the greatest — or the freest, or the safest — country on earth. And I don’t think Republicans can, either. To borrow from Cruz, they should stop posturing as propagandists for American exceptionalism. They gave up on it a long time ago.
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of “Whose America? Culture Wars in the Public Schools,” which will be published in a revised 20th anniversary edition this fall by the University of Chicago Press.
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