Around the world, people are counting. It’s been 14 days, and the United States government is still not open for business. Chinese tourists, stopped beyond the locked gates of Yellowstone National Park, are grappling with a concept they don’t quite understand: “How could the government ever shut down?” Meanwhile, investors in London, Tokyo and Singapore anxiously await the Thursday deadline for raising the debt ceiling, which if not met, would send shockwaves through the world economy.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid called the government shutdown “an embarrassment to the nation.” Who is the audience to America’s embarrassment? One might presumably answer: the world, in particular those countries that do not share America’s political values.
When John Kerry asserted that “the world is watching us” during the House hearing on Syria, he was channeling JFK, who famously invoked the “city on a hill” imagery in a speech in 1961, at the height of the Cold War. The idea that America must serve as an example to the world, that its political system and democratic institutions are models for all to emulate, is a centuries-old concept.
In this day and age, perhaps we should reconsider the concept of American exceptionalism. Is America, despite its military strength and financial influence, still suited for the responsibility of being the shining city upon a hill?
In light of the recent political crises on Capitol Hill, the international supporters of liberal democracy have found themselves in an awkward position. They have long dealt with the criticism that the United States is hypocritical — that it touts the values of liberalism but practices political realism. They must now explain another, more troubling problem: American democracy is simply not performing up to par.
The critics have been loud and conspicuous. For example, a commentary piece published by Xinhua, China’s official news agency, quipped: “As U.S. politicians of both political parties are still shuffling back and forth … without striking a viable deal to bring normality to the body politic they brag about, it is perhaps a good time for the befuddled world to start considering building a de-Americanized world.”
The fact of the matter is that, America’s political system has failed, demonstrating in the process certain structural weaknesses that have never seemed more threatening. Mired by partisanship and ideological polarization, Congress has failed to pass common sense legislation such as immigration reform, and is now holding the international economy hostage by threatening to default on the nation’s debts.
If we subscribe to the belief that American democracy is the most perfect, or least flawed model, then every time it fails, the opponents of democracy score a resounding victory. Authoritarian states point to America’s missteps, where they find excuses with which to push off democratic reforms.
American politicians should try to get their act together, but what if they don’t? Would the detractors of democracy have proved their point then? With rampant gerrymandering, America’s electoral districts will not become more balanced anytime soon. In the foreseeable future, the nation will continue on the path of ideological divergence.
If we are to continue to promote the values of democracy and freedom internationally, then we must first debunk the myth of America as a city on a hill and seek to disentangle American democracy with the concept of democracy itself. The American political system is far from perfect, and it has a long ways to go before it can claim to embody all of the great ideals that it bears under its name.
The equating of democracy with the American political system is a legacy of the Cold War that must be corrected. In 1945, there were few truly democratic states; today many flourishing democracies abound. Although American democracy is experiencing structural challenges, those difficulties do not underwrite the superiority of democratic systems as a whole, and cannot validate the legitimacy of authoritarian regimes.
Instead of depending on America to inspire the world and throwing our hands up when it fails to do so, perhaps we should seek to criticize each political system for what they are, America’s included. For if we continue to equate American politics with democracy as a whole, then we will be placing the fate of the international democratic experiment in the hands of Ted Cruz. And that is truly a frightening thought.
Xiuyi Zheng is a senior in Davenport College. His columns run on alternate Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.