It was difficult and took much of the rest of the ICE ride to try to explain the completely foreign concept of American Exceptionalism to my new acquaintances. It was foreign to them, and is probably foreign to most Americans. At least the people I know. So I went on.
"Perhaps de Tocqueville started it in the 1830s in his Democracy In America when he wrote that Americans were 'quite exceptional' and that perhaps no people would ever be in the same position again. According to de Tocqueville, it was the Puritan ethic of the American settlers, the lack of a history of feudalism, and the 'virgin' land itself that made America 'exceptional.' Americans differed from Europeans even though they came from Europe. This was the support Americans used for 'Manifest Destiny' or the right to expand throughout the continent without questioning the destruction of the existing Native American civilizations that millions of indigenous people had established for thousands of years. America became the Land Of Opportunity.
"The phrase 'American Exceptionalism' became common in the 1920s when it was used--are you ready for this--by the American Communist Party to explain that America was not subject to the Marxist Laws because it was a classless society. However, to the Soviet Communists, the Depression showed the flaw in that argument. The most common concern should be directed toward the present interpretation of the phrase by the neo-conservatives in America, which use the term to mean America is superior to all other countries, and is not subject to the rules of law which the international community has established. The neo-cons argue for an American Empire, which has a mission to forcibly impose American values of government and culture on any other country it sees fit through military and economic power. The neo-cons argue that President Obama does not believe in 'American Exceptionalism' because he believes that while America has a major role in leading the nations of the world toward democracy, morality, and peace, it cannot do it alone but must join in partnerships with other nations.
"But what is exceptional about a country founded on accepting the principle of slavery, genocide of the indigenous peoples, and voting rights only for male property owners? What is exceptional about a country that has less social mobility than many European countries, and greater income inequality than most European countries? What is exceptional about a country that tries to limit the voting rights of minorities, that has more weapons in private hands than the next 20 countries combined, and that attempts to erase 60 years of gains in civil rights, woman's rights, and gay rights in one election? America cannot be the "shining city on a hill" when it has a very high murder rate, a huge prison population, pockets of extreme poverty, and a terribly inequitable health care system. America is no more exceptional than many other countries, and in many way less exceptional
"No one can get elected to any official national or state office in the U.S without stating support for American Exceptionalism by repeatedly referring to America as The Land Of Opportunity, to The American Dream, and any of many other trite pseudo-patriotic expressions. Why is this important? Mainly due to the fact that since the Reagan era, America has no longer been The Land Of Opportunity, and The American Dream has turned into a myth.
"Since Reagan, the percentage of national wealth held by the richest 1% of Americans has doubled, the percentage of wealth of the richest 0.1% has tripled, and the average income for the 99% has barely moved. This is one of the points that the Occupy Movement was trying to emphasize. Compared to the other first world countries, the U.S. has the lowest equality of opportunity, and this includes 'Old Europe'. We have low social mobility. The status you were born into largely determines the status you will obtain in your adult life. Much of this has to do with differences in nutrition, education, peers, social pressures--things that are mainly a result of the opportunities that wealth can provide. And the rate of difference in equality has been increasing, especially through the eight Bush years, and not slowed much through the first four Obama years. We are heading toward an America that has two classes--the rich and the poor--and very few in the middle class, if we cannot stop and reverse this trend toward income inequality.
"As Americans, we have to acknowledge that Obamacare is important for the future of our people. We have to acknowledge that true improvement in education is important for the future of our people. We have to acknowledge that those richest Americans who create wealth for themselves but not economic growth for the 99% have to pay their fair share and stop filling their pockets with corporate welfare.
"This failure of American Exceptionalism is hurting the 99% by restricting economic growth for the middle class, keeping the poor from having a fair shot at obtaining their potential, and will eventually negatively affect those at the top, who have for the past few decades benefited from tax cuts for themselves and spending cuts for programs that can help improve income equality. This is what the New Deal and the Great Society programs were trying to accomplish, and Reagan, the Bushes, and, yes, even Clinton have created the means to destroy. There is a line from a Paul Simon song: 'We went so well so long...when I think of the road we're travelling on, I wonder what's gone wrong'.
"We have seen the enemy in the morror. Yes, he is us. We must change, or the loss of The American Dream will be permanent."
As we pulled into the Frankfurt bahnhof, I thanked my fellow riders for letting me rant on. We walked down to platform, and as I looked for my connecting ICE, I wished them well. We will never meet again. I don't know if I had an effect on them, but it mattered more to me that I said it all. Eventually I will return to the U.S. and get involved again. Perhaps I will never run for political office again, but I had served as an elected official for over 12 years, and now I knew more about myself than I had before the train ride. Funny how a stranger's question of What Is Wrong With America, and one's response can, in a few hours, make you realize that in order to make the world better, you have to commit to improving it yourself. You have to get a backbone again.