Thursday, July 1, 2010

An Off-Topic July 4 Paean to American Exceptionalism: What the Russian Spy Affair Teaches Us

We're coming up on the July 4th weekend. Disease Management Care Blog traffic is winding down. All around you, presenteeism is rampant. Why be an exception? The DMCB says its OK to relax for a few minutes, because it's a good time of year to think about American Exceptionalism.

Before readers roll their eyes at this off-topic and unabashed jingoism, consider the mysterious case of the alleged 11 Russian "deep cover" agents. If the charges are correct, Moscow's intent was to penetrate U.S. policymaking circles with deep cover agents feigning middle class suburbanism. While the whole affair is enough to make one ask if le Carré's Karla never left us, the point is that foreign governments believe persons of modest means in the U.S. can influence elected officials, regulators, government appointees and politicians.

The surprising thing is that they are correct. It's even more surprising that we haven't noticed how significant that is.

Contrast American middle class political "access" with the powerful elitist, class-driven, connected, aristocratic, monied or familial undercurrents present in other democracies. Of course, the U.S. has its Camelots, legacy college admissions and gazillionaire politicians but where else could a person of color win the U.S. Presidency, a Latino scrape her way to the U.S. Supreme Court or a Jew armed with nothing but chutzpah, charm and intellect become a Harvard Dean and then navigate through the toxic partisan rancor of the U.S. Senate? In the meantime, the Brits' current Prime Minister is of royal descent, the French President not only insufferably acts like member of European nobility, he is one, and the Italian Prime Minister's privileged status is in no small measure helped by his considerable media empire.

Authors, columnists and professors (just some of the chosen covers of the alleged spies) in many other countries certainly have the means to influence the political process. The point is that we Americans have long assumed that, because much of our ruling elite is, well, much like the rest of us, the barriers between our government and our authors, columnists, professors plus Joe the Plumbers, former Alaskan Governors and custard shop managers are far more porous. In the U.S., we've not only believed that persons of modest means can become Presidents and Supreme Court Justices, we've also come to expect that they will actually listen to us. Yes, it's a noisy mess of town halls, YouTube, talking heads, Tea-bagging, commenting on proposed regulations, political AM radio, blogging, emailing, California Propositions, PACs and Pink Alerts but it all works somehow. That's why anyone with an opinion on health reform should expect to be heard. Compared to the rest of the world, that's unique. That's exceptional.

This Russian Spy Affair shows Moscow was impressed enough to try to use it against us. We should be impressed too.

And on this July 4th, the anniversary of our Declaration of Independence, this is something to be grateful for.


Dr Synonymous said...

Hurray for the DMCB for great All-American insight! Hope your blog post is read by Andrew Bacevich who wrote The Limits of Power, The End of American Exceptionalism (2008). Your take on one aspect of exceptionalism should be echoed enthusiastically. Happy Fourth of July!

Jaan Sidorov said...

Thanks Dr. Syn. I forward the text to the Wall Street Journal for consideration in their "Notable and Quotable" section. I guess that's another manifestation of American Exceptionalism: belief in and the occasional use of the "Hail Mary Pass."