There’s Got To Be A Morning After
by Irene Colthurst
Remember back when it was morning in America? When our future looked bright and white and our perceived values were destined to spread, seduce, and inspire the world over? Our home front was secure, our lawns perfectly mowed, everything was in place as the American empire, real or implied, gave the rest of the world a certain brand story that was both reviled and admired, depending on who was asked. But the same was true domestically, as the American dream was, for the most part, reserved only for a certain class of men. And as usually follows, so was American foreign policy decision making. So now as the 21st century has painfully thrown us and the world into chaos and self reflection, what happens to America’s diminishing role as its supposed only superpower?
Some may argue that America’s retreat from the world is a positive, an opportunity for us to focus on our domestic struggles that have been spilling out into the streets with more and more frequency and urgency. They say this anger and uprising will push through true transformation, towards a more progressive and egalitarian society. While others argue that the decline of America’s white picket fence-ism corresponds to its decline as a world influencer; that a certain type of white patriarchy is also the true definition of American exceptionalism, meaning, its decline predicts our own. And others still look up and see that “shining city on the hill” and believe that today’s pesky darkness is just a glitch in the matrix. In any case, the 20th century is over and we’ve already lived through that endless morning in America. Right now it feels a bit more like the morning after.
Which raises the question: can the United States be declining in hard power while the historically inequitable domestic American society might be poised to move closer to reflecting its founding ideals of social and political egalitarianism? Compared to the immediate post war period – the point at which many Western Europeans seem to believe American history began – the U.S. is becoming, for the good and the bad, much less economically and militarily dominant. For example, one observer, the French public intellectual and philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy (BHL) is a concerned believer in the global necessity of that super power. While British journalist Justin Webb is more skeptical of the future, seeing the potential for his own country to move out of the diminished state of being perpetually in America’s shadow.
These observers will find that the trajectory of the U.S. domestic national story is far more ambiguous. We are living at time when the most racially diverse generations in the nation’s history are coming of age, while they are also the most economically leftish in eighty years. The contemporary re-emergence of the broad social and economic left in the wake of Donald Trump’s election has also involved some preliminary steps towards articulating a post-imperial U.S. foreign policy. This period may involve a transition to a United States that lacks great global power, while the distribution of power within American society becomes more egalitarian.
BHL, considering the U.S. to be a peculiar and “reluctant empire” that naturally turns inward, would be concerned but not surprised. For him, a post-imperial American left represents a continuation of an inherent part of the American character, though his views are also clouded by a vision of American society that is purely male and mythological.
American neoconservatives define American exceptionalism as a celebration and projection of the raw power of a martial, male-coded distinctive cultural virtue, and with it a moral and cultural superiority. However, American progressives base their definition on a dissident critique of the malignant foundations of that same American society. In many ways, their more progressive structural analysis can provide crucial insights for our understanding of this moment, yet it is striking how little consideration our Western European friends ever give it. For the progressive critique leads to condemnation of the exercise of American great power, seeing it as the mere extension of those structural domestic inequities already place.
Many progressives, like feminist writer Rebecca Traister, focus on analysis of American domestic society, so their optimism centers on the future possibility of a major, even revolutionary shift away from domestic inequity. Progressives tend to consider loss of American power an unambiguously positive development. They share that optimism with many non-American leftists, but those non-Americans primarily see the U.S. as a great power behaving as a standard great power, and not as Americans behaving in the particular ways that are shaped by American social conditions and history. So while it is interesting to take in these critiques, its important to always consider the source, as their understanding of American society only echoes our post war behavior abroad.
According to intellectuals like Englishman Justin Webb, the BBC’s Washington, D.C. correspondent in the George W. Bush years, that decade’s hubristic use of American power in fact left the country weaker. In 2009, when he returned to the U.K., Webb wrote a memoir entitled Cheers, America: How an Englishman Learned to Love America, and spoke to a British audience about the U.S. at the London School of Economics. In his writing and his comments he contrasted the damage the Bush administration caused to American power against the rise of other powers. This standard great power (indeed Eurocentric and imperial-framed) narrative of what Webb terms American “comparative decline” rests on an implicit assumption that the start of American postwar military and economic dominance is the point at which U.S. history and trajectory began to matter.
Culturally, military power is of course coded masculine, while the concept of nations serving as cultural models for others is coded feminine. Realpolitik considers nation states to be like billiard balls: the hard outer shell defining a hollow interior that is of no interest to the grand game of global politics. But the interior of the ball isn’t empty, its filled with people who care deeply about their own society. They are not merely faceless denizens of an imperial Emerald City. For American women, non-whites, and others left out of the spectrum of power, the question of whether American society can be restructured to include them stretches forward as a vital yet unfinished project. A major shift in who holds power within American society would change it as much or more than a continued reduction in its military and economic advantages.
Webb, like some other British observers of the U.S., did try to develop a sense of the domestic society, that hollow interior. However, he often examined the U.S. like a blinkered ethnographer. Where he does leaven his analysis with social context, he did so expressly from the vantage point of skepticism towards American conventional myth-making. Like most non-Americans, he defaulted to engaging with the conventional wisdom in the U.S., which has been shaped by white men for almost all of the country’s history. Yet Webb believed that skeptical assessment of its foundational myths reveals the unchanging truth about American society. His arguably fatal error was to choose a very niche, elite version of that white male as a case study of the mainstream – he examines an upper class social club in white South Carolina and then remarks that the behavior and attitudes of its members “sum up the place,” by which he means, the entire United States.
This fundamental analytical error might be more understandable if Webb did not seem to fail to explore other lenses for viewing the U.S. or its role in the world. While he does acknowledge how intrinsic racism is to the nature of the country, he also sets himself up as an arbiter of the truth of brittle American myths. The narrowness of his observed experience means he fails to see the American progressive tradition as an aid in understanding the country or its future. His analysis of the 21st century strains on American superpower and the British ambivalence towards the Special Relationship between the U.S. and the U.K. rests on firmer ground.
Where non-Americans focus on the U.S. as a military power, the American view considers the United States to be first and foremost their country —a nation that developed in a peculiar but mostly organic fashion. This domestic perspective does not rely, as Webb does, on snapshot views and narrow case studies of insular, elite communities to build a working understanding of the American status quo. Instead it is grounded in a complicated history. In contrast to neoconservatives, American progressives reject the idea that the U.S. has ever had anything like a golden age of domestic bliss. However, some on the broad American left-of-center do see potential for progress towards a yet unrealized American egalitarianism in the contemporary upheaval. That conviction is understandably most firm among non-white progressives, for whom the racial structure of American society forms a fundamental impediment to any kind of political or socioeconomic nostalgia.
For Rebecca Traister, that possibility rests on the role of a decidedly non-hegemonic, and indeed keenly dissident force in American life: women’s anger. The catalytic impact of female rage in each of the country’s movements for progressive social change extends back to the earliest days of the republic. Crucially, the anger of women of all races plays this radical role, in stark contrast to the postwar growth of hierarchical military power. In the series of movements they sparked, a more organic and self-critical version of the country emerged, one that Traister aims at the contemporary middle class white ladies of #theresistance. Traister therefore holds a powerful middle ground. She is able to assert the historical reality of American inequity, but her pragmatic engagement with this nuanced history also lets her see cycles where others see mere rises and declines. She can then make the optimistic liberal case that American reactionaries are fighting so fiercely right now because they recognize the dually progressive and patriotic promise of this moment: the country could be on the verge of fully embodying its own ideals.
Traister’s analysis is notably domestic. Like most of the feminist left, she ignores the issue of American global power to focus on the structure of U.S. society. However, the decline of masculine military power may further degrade domestic reaction, and bolster the power shift she is hopeful for. Any social shift also holds implications for American power, but Good and Mad does not invite those outside the U.S. to consider the current and historical dissident dimension to the country. She and Webb each speak about the U.S. to their own audiences. For both sides, this dynamic is typical – rarely does a Briton discuss the U.S. with a knowledgeable American for a British audience. Notably, BHL aimed his case at an educated, civically-minded American audience, and seems to be thriving as much as Traister’s. British evaluation of the U.S. would benefit from inclusion in this conversation.
Justin Webb does not include this progressive activist, non-default perspective in his evaluation of the United States, but more than that he seems intent on precluding it as a basis of analysis. Asked by a British interviewer about whether Americans are aware of the global skepticism of continued American claims to international leadership, Webb goes straight into an attempt to deconstruct the whole concept of American exceptionalism. He does not explore the variation in the term’s meaning inside as opposed to outside the U.S. He was incredulous at the idea that Barack Obama would demur that he believed in American exceptionalism the same way a Greek believed in Greek exceptionalism – as a mere patriotic attachment to the particular society. To Webb this answer was beside the point, because American exceptionalism is moralism about American power and how it flexes in the rest of the world. To American progressives, however, the answer sounds like a diplomatic variation on their understanding of the term. To them, America is exceptional because its history shaped it to differ from other developed countries in some exceptionally malignant ways.
But for Webb, American exceptionalism is a received concept unrelated to the domestic development of American society. It is indeed a “whole idea” without variations in meaning beyond an imperialistic impulse, and it is accepted or rejected, perhaps with “genuine trouble,” but without analysis. The saving grace therefore is that “on an interpersonal level Americans lack a desire to subjugate anyone,” he says. “And yet as we all know...” the U.S. has acted imperialistically throughout its history, and still retains imperial power. How does he try to explain that disconnect? Without a more concrete definition of American exceptionalism than a vague idea that the U.S. is the best society and therefore can militarily impose itself on others, he cannot begin to grapple with the idea of multiple American perspectives on the idea.
Webb’s eventual reconciliation to what he terms American patriotism involves admiring the Bushie neoconservative version of it: rightish, pro-hegemonic, superficial/brittle, and latently ethnonationalist. This is the version of American patriotism reflected in the Texas barbeque served in the military mess halls of L. Paul Bremer’s Baghdad Green Zone. He and they may not recognize any other more subtle, conflicted attitudes within the country towards American patriotism. Yet it’s a cultural conflict we are fighting on the home front everyday.
It is easy to imagine Traister (or other progressive writers or historians) contrasting the progressive and neoconservative ideas of American exceptionalism for a British audience. Harder to imagine is Webb grappling with whether and how an American anti-racist white feminist writer such as Traister could also be an American patriot. His “debriefing” interview at the LSE on his time in the U.S. was entitled “How I Learned to Love America” and it does appear that for him the country is fundamentally a singular and distinctly neoconservative entity that, like the nominal concept of its exceptionalism, must be accepted or rejected in total, by non-Americans and Americans alike.
Implicit in this view is a rejection of the radical middle ground Traister holds. If an American must either reject or embrace the U.S. as a singular neoconservative entity with a messianic rationale, there is no space for a progressive and anti-empire building patriotism that pursues grassroots political reform of American society in order to bring it closer to its founding revolutionary promises. There is no room for an anti-imperialist American patriotism, even though that precise ideological concept has existed throughout American history alongside the messianic American imperialist impulse.
Justin Webb may believe his countrymen must rely on China’s rise as a credible rival to American power to make it possible to end Britain’s role as always in the United States’ shadow, allowing Britain to pursue its desire for an autonomous foreign policy. But since he fails to acknowledge and incorporate American progressive analysis and insights, he cannot see the possibilities for a new, more equal British-American relationship to emerge from the renewed progressivism steering the U.S. into a post-hegemonic future out of ideological conviction as much as necessity. American progressivism’s anti-imperialism, developed out of an analysis of the society’s oppressive power structures, could be precisely the ideological ally that Britain needs to effect a “parting of the ways” on the Special Relationship.
Allowing that the “America is in decline” narrative might be mistaken, Webb nevertheless does not acknowledge the possibility of an American ideological framework where great power “decline” is irrelevant or even welcome. If progressive trends and democratic movements within the U.S. provide a new possibility of revolutionary progress in dismantling the country’s structural inequities, it is easy to imagine a dynamic where non-Americans take notice of the reduction in American hard power with glee or ruefulness while entirely ignoring the optimism among Americans who work for and welcome a fairer, more humane and democratic society.
In contrast to Webb’s rather elite, centrist, mainstream-driven observational skeptic approach, Bernard-Henri Levy (BHL) is an avowed man of the left. Having examined American society in a neo-Tocquevillian manner in the mid-2000s, he diagnosed the current American retreat from international engagement as a moral retreat from its values and identity. His position is a notable partial triangulation between the sympathetic non-American skeptic of America’s role in the world and the American progressive’s insular, structural anti-imperialist optimism for a shift in domestic power.
As a Frenchman, he has not been shaped by the peculiar restraining resentments that the Anglo-American Special Relationship often appears to cultivate in British observers; BHL is simply pro-American due to his family’s wartime experience. Coming from the generation of the late 1960’s left, BHL does recognize American power’s brutal excesses. But he does not share American progressivism’s structural critique of American society. In his new book The Empire and the Five Kings: America’s Abdication and the Fate of the World, he rejects the idea that indigenous genocide played a structural role extending throughout American history into the present. He views American military dominance as a distinct phenomenon, not the mere extension of domestic power relations. He also believes in the vital importance of the role of the American democratic model, the “shining city on a hill,” for people around the world. American progressives find this preposterous.
Where Traister sees this moment as offering a chance at fulfilling the ideal of domestic equality, BHL sees the U.S. turning away from the traits that non-Americans most admire about it: its liberal democratic heritage and what he calls its “moxie,” or willingness to stand up militarily to autocracy and aristocracy. They do agree, however, on the vital urgency of this potentially transformative moment. Meanwhile, Justin Webb admits that the United States’ domestic faults, economic and social inequality first and foremost, are a real problem for friends of the U.S. Where BHL is aware of the progressive critique but rejects it, Webb would benefit from recognizing how American progressivism speaks to both those domestic structural inequities and extends that analysis to anti-imperialism. Both men might welcome Traister’s optimism about the America’s domestic trajectory, but Webb may also believe that a more egalitarian U.S. would turn away from hegemony, and therefore lose its very meaning. BHL’s belief in American imperial “reluctance” rests more fully on an analysis of the ineffable American character, seemingly divorced from social realities.
The insights of American progressivism could benefit non-Americans as they seek to make sense of this potentially transformational era in the domestic history of the United States and how that might effect its relations with the world. The truth is, many Americans would trade today’s version of American power for a more equal domestic society less driven by the abuses, resentments, and tensions of the past few decades. As progressivism gains ground, our western cousins could use its analysis to understand the new American society coming into being as American influence and power, as we know it today starts to fade. One day this new kind of influence could wind up being even more powerful. Now wouldn’t that would truly be exceptional?