|Angel Torres / Flickr|
This election cycle, two candidates have dared to touch a third rail in American politics.
Not Social Security reform. Not Medicare. Not ethanol subsidies. The shibboleth that politicians are suddenly willing to discuss is the idea that America might have something to learn from other countries.
The most notable example is Bernie Sanders, who renewed his praise for Western Europe in a recent interview with Ezra Klein. “Where is the UK? Where is France? Germany is the economic powerhouse in Europe,” Sanders said. “They provide health care to all of their people, they provide free college education to their kids.”
That's right. That's right. And what's wrong with that? What's wrong when you have more income and wealth equality? What's wrong when they have a stronger middle class in many ways than we do, higher minimum wage than we do, and they are stronger on the environment than we do? Look, the fact of the matter is, we do a lot in our country, which is good, but we can learn from other countries.Democratic politicians, and especially the furthest-left ones like Sanders, have always been more open to the Scandinavian example than others - but it’s been a long time since anyone so liberal has achieved Sanders’s prominence nationally.
“The genius of America for those progressives was to be wise and thoughtful and smart in extracting the best from this whole world of experience, adapting it to American conditions and American political realities, and making it work,” Rodgers says. In particular, Theodore Roosevelt was “unabashed” about “gleaning the best that the world had to offer for incorporation into the American social, political, and cultural systems.”
The major turning point came in 1945. “The Americans came out of the Second World War with a sense that there was no country like them,” Rodgers says. “They imagined they had won the Second World War all alone, as if the Soviet Union had nothing to do with it. When it was done, Western Europe was obliterated. They stood all alone in their own minds as the defenders of freedom.”
That’s where things stand today. But in a post-Cold War world, the increasingly strident repetition of “American exceptionalism” starts to seem more like a mantra for warding off an increasingly connected world, and one in which the U.S. doesn’t have a monopoly on good ideas (the popularity of the phrase in the age of Obama is surely in part a result of discomfort caused, and sometimes outright bigotry inspired, by Obama's own international roots - the son of a Kenyan, raised partly in Indonesia). In other words, the louder insistence on exceptionalism may actually herald a greater acceptance of foreign ideas.
Jeb Bush and Bernie Sanders may seem, at first glance, an unlikely duo to lead that charge. But who better to represent America’s capacity to absorb the best that other lands have to offer than the conservative scion of New England bluebloods who married a Mexican woman, and the socialist son of a Jewish immigrant father?