Americans should wake up to the fact that their President’s victory speech was just empty rhetoric, and that the recent election in Venezuela offers more hope to millions.

I woke early on Wednesday morning to check the results. First, I was relieved. Romney had failed, and more importantly the bigots and obscurantists who backed him had failed. Then I watched Obama’s victory speech, and what I felt was something other than relief.

The speech was dubbed “magnificent” on The Guardian’s front page by Jonathan Freedland, who hailed it, as did others, as a return to the bold, inspirational style of 2008 and a harbinger of a more ambitious second term.

I understand why people in the US clutch at straws, but I wonder how many times Freedland and other liberal commentators will clutch at this particular straw before they realise that it is in fact only a straw?

What struck me about Obama’s “soaring rhetoric” was just how rhetorical it was, and especially how heavily it leaned on the rhetoric of American exceptionalism. Dodging specifics, mixing sentimental anecdotes with sweeping platitudes, Obama invoked a special American destiny, unique among nations.

He put the theme up front in his opening sentence: “Tonight, more than 200 years after a former colony won the right to determine its own destiny, the task of perfecting our union moves forward”. He concluded by vowing that with “God’s grace we will continue our journey forward and remind the world just why it is that we live in the greatest nation on Earth.”

“The greatest nation on earth”? Imagine if the same boast had been made by the leader of any other country. It would be considered tasteless braggadocio at best, and something altogether more menacing at worst. Imagine the reaction to such a claim being made by the leaders of Iran or China, not to mention Germany or Japan. In the mouths of Russian politicians it’s considered mindless, dangerous demagoguery. But this ritual, yet at the same time stridently combative flattering of the national ego, is deemed part and parcel of US politics, so much so that few comment on it.

Let’s stop for a moment and examine the claim. What constitutes national “greatness” and how is it to be measured? What exactly is it that makes the US “the greatest nation on earth”? Obama noted that “this country has more wealth than any nation” and “the most powerful military in history” as well as a “culture” that is “the envy of the world”, but none of these, he insisted, were the real sign of America’s “greatness” – though they seemed to be offered as supporting evidence. No, the President argued, “what makes America exceptional” – an explicit reference to the exceptionalist doctrine, of which he is a professed adherent – “are the bonds that hold together the most diverse nation on earth. The belief that our destiny is shared.”

A number of “number ones”

In fact, the US is no more “diverse” than, for example, India or South Africa, nor is it unique in being knit together despite its diversity. One of the ploys of American exceptionalism is to take a universal trait or abstraction and make it the special property of the US. Obama went beyond the usual ahistorical claims on “freedom” and “democracy” to add in “love and charity and duty and patriotism. That’s what makes America great.”

Love, charity, duty and patriotism are all fine qualities, and undoubtedly assets to any society, but can the US really claim a greater store of them than other countries? It’s true that the US has the largest total GDP and the highest per capita GDP (barring a few enclaves and tax havens). It certainly has by far the largest military: it accounts for 41% of total global military spending, more than the next six biggest spenders combined. Obama’s speech included a specific pledge to preserve this particular form of superiority and hand it down to future generations.

To understand that, it’s necessary to clock a few other US “number ones”. In the total value of shares issued by publicly traded companies, the US is far and away the top act (70% more than the combined EU total and 4 times China’s holdings), as it is in the total value of direct investment in foreign countries. At the same time it’s also the world leader in external debt, owing $14.7 trillion to foreigners, only a little less than the combined EU total. Though it may be only number two in total CO2 emissions (after China) it’s far ahead of its rivals in emissions per capita, and still imports more crude oil (in total and per capita) than any other country, a quarter of the global total.

But does any of that matter in “the land of opportunity”? Obama had a curious 21st century take on what he called “the promise of our founders”:

“It doesn’t matter whether you’re black or white or Hispanic or Asian or Native American or young or old or rich or poor, able, disabled, gay or straight, you can make it here in America if you’re willing to try.” (emphasis added)

The crowd cheered the diversity of Obama’s catalogue, and of course Romney would have omitted the “gay or straight” category, but it has to be said that nothing like the idea of “making it” appears in the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” are something different, and they are an entitlement, not conditional, as Obama claimed, not available only “if you work hard”. This is a neo-liberal twist on American exceptionalism, re-cast in the argot of the prevailing cult of individual success. But it is at the same time a reiteration of one of the central beguiling motifs of American excpetionalism: America as a society embodying the very principle of social mobility.

Surveys show that people in the US have a greater faith in their country being a meritocracy than citizens of other countries. In a poll conducted by the Economic Mobility Project, nearly 7 in 10 Americans said they had already achieved or expected to achieve “the American Dream” at some point in their lives. Clearly the old myth endures, even though it has come to bear little resemblance to reality.

Since Obama is so keen on international superiority, let’s compare the US presidential election to the recent election in Venezuela, where Hugo Chavez won a much more decisive victory on a significantly higher turn out. The election was deemed scrupulously fair and efficient by observers, something few would claim for the US exercise, marred as it was by attempts at voter suppression. It’s been noted that Obama triumphed in the face of four years of aggressive, obnoxious and well-funded opposition, but that was nothing compared to what Chavez had to contend with, including the standing threat of a US-backed coup. He was outspent by his rival by three to one and vehemently opposed by the great bulk of the country’s media. He didn’t have Obama’s high tech campaign machine but unlike Obama he had the advantage of standing for something decisively, tangibly different from his opponent. As a result Venezuelans enjoyed the kind of “real choice over issues” that Obama in his speech improbably claimed made Americans the envy of the world.

Globally, Obama’s victory will be greeted by a sigh of relief but few expectations. In contrast, Chavez’s victory offers hope to hundreds of millions of the poor across the global south. It shows that there is an alternative to the neo-liberalism to which Obama is so firmly wed, and that this alternative can work. Under Chavez, both relative and absolute poverty in Venezuela have been substantially reduced – the former from nearly 50 to 24 per cent and the latter from 25 to 7 per cent. In contrast, under Obama, in the “greatest” and wealthiest nation on earth, the poverty rate has steadily increased, reaching 15.9 percent last year, 48.5 million people.

Taking cognizance of these contrasting records would benefit no one more than Americans themselves. They are at one with much of the rest of the world in being the victims, not the beneficiaries, of American exceptionalism.


World hails Obama victoryNovember 7, 2012

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