Photo by Reuters
American Exceptionalism is the idea that the U.S. is a uniquely superior country due to its origin and ideologies. This belief is largely grounded in the idea that America was founded on ideas rather than culture, supposedly making it a more ideal society. However, the American political system is grounded in the culture of Western Europe, which, despite the prevalence of democratic institutions, I argue was not culturally democratic. The most healing thing the American state could do is accept how completely ordinary it is and take accountability for the role it has played in preventing the exceptionality of other countries. Throughout this article, this will be compared to the way Classic Barbie had to face the problematic aspects of her existence to grow into greater happiness in Greta Gerwig’s 2023 Barbie.
Picture it: you’re in the movie theater with your friends, and your excitement seems to fill the palpable hush. If the movie wasn’t really your speed, I ask that you employ your imagination anyway. Classic Barbie is idolized, nobody is doing it like her. Suddenly, her world falls apart around her; culminating when, lord forbid, she gets cellulite. On a desperate search for answers, Barbie’s now flat feet carry us to a pivotal moment; our dear Weird Barbie presents her with an adorable pink heel or a plain Birkenstock. The stylistically preferable heel would allow Barbie to return to the ignorance of her old life while the Birkenstock would force her to confront the truth of her world. Barbie does not hesitate to make the easy decision of the heel. I mean, who would willingly choose to destroy their understanding of the world? It sounds terrifying. However, her present circumstances don’t allow her to remain ignorant.
Yet, the once revolutionarily amazing American state crumbles around us and we still shout, “American Exceptionalism”. We draw differences between ourselves and politically unstable countries. But, former Senator Claire McCaskill was quoted saying, “‘Dysfunction and chaos are now in the political bloodstream…’”. In fact, the New York Times chief White House correspondent argued that American constituents have come to expect governmental incompetence to cause crises; to the extent that when the potential government shutdown was announced, American searches for National Coffee Day 2023 outnumbered questions of a government shutdown. When this is considered alongside the January 6th Riots, which marked the first non-peaceful transfer of power in American history, it must be asked to what extent America is still a functioning state. However, rather than slipping on the Birkenstock and confronting the truth of where its flat feet are coming from, the American state continues to teeter unflatteringly in its too-tall heels and spout the empty ideals of American democracy.
I say empty ideals of American democracy because while America has built its institutions around the idea of democracy, it has never been culturally prevalent in the West. For example, despite democracy aspiring to egalitarianism, upon America’s conception, only white land-owning men could vote, not even all white men. Further, Sun Yat-sen, A Chinese political philosopher, claims that the idea of “restraint” – as seen in Western treatment of Chinese immigrants – is something that was unique to Europe in the Dark Ages yet has been carried into modern political systems. Sun Yat-sen, a Chinese political philosopher, points to the prevalence of xenophobia and awful treatment of Chinese immigrants as Europeans carrying the attitude of “restraint” that was so prevalent in the Dark Ages into their modern political systems. Even today, DACA recipients, people who grew up in this country, are banned from voting in federal elections. This attitude can be traced back even further to the strict citizenship practices of Ancient Athens, the government from which ours evolved, in which xenophobia was prevalent.
Further, this opens us to another of Sun’s critiques of the Western political system, namely, its resistance to change, which will lead us back to Barbie. Sun says, “While books on military tactics written ten years ago are no longer used, Plato’s Republic, which was written two thousand years ago, is still a valuable reference book for political scientists,”. Beyond pointing out the focus of Western energy on war over politics, it suggests the lack of adaptation in Western politics as a source of instability. This is echoed in the size of the contemporary military budget as compared to the domestic budget ($782 billion v. $730 billion). Especially given how different the American constituency looks today, it seems quite possible that a lot of political instability is due to the inability of the American government to adapt. Much like Classic Barbie discovers when she enters the real world, echoed in the words of Paulo Freire, a Latin American Liberation Theologist, the very act of existing in a static manner, of not growing, causes one to become tyrannical. Barbie is confronted by Sasha, who tells her she has become a force of oppression rather than a force of liberation. This is where America finds herself too, refusing to accept the confrontation of those she has hurt.
The American nation needs to realize that it’s standing on the same precipice. To realize that, just as Barbie cannot ignore the pain of Gloria, whom she swore to help and then abandoned, America cannot ignore the pain of all the people it dangled freedom and liberty in front of and then oppressed. Part of this oppression was the painting of the Western nation-state as the ideal form of governance and the only successful way of maintaining democracy, based on the intellectual superiority of the white man.
However, Senegalese scholar Cheikh Anta Diop proposed an alternate theory. In his Cradle Theory, he argued that there were two cradles of humanity, the Northern Cradle (Europe) and the Southern Cradle (Africa). While the more abundant, agricultural society of Africa produced more matriarchal societies, the nomadic life necessitated by the harsher conditions of Europe led to the development of patriarchies. This goes against the more widely accepted idea in Eurocentric theories that the patriarchal society is an evolution of the matriarchal. In fact, the concept of grassroots democracy was essentially in practice in many matriarchies. I do not mean to argue that pre-colonial matriarchal societies were perfect; I simply point out that the modern state was born out of the cultural practices of Europe and that it has not achieved any form of ideal.
At a minimum, an ideal democracy includes effective participation, equality in voting, an informed electorate, citizen control of the agenda, inclusion, and fundamental rights. While not having the level of institutionalization and protection found in modern Western states, matriarchal societies effectively practiced these concepts. Everyone was given one vote, everyone gathered to discuss the issues raised by other citizens, and all decisions must be unanimous. It represents a functioning grassroots democracy born not out of abstract ideals but the culture of the people. Pre-colonial Africa was not the only society to have such democratic beliefs. Mencius, a Confucian scholar, said, “The people are the most important element of the state, the territory comes next, and the king last”. I find difficulty seeing this echoed in America where 60% of adults live paycheck to paycheck and our President makes $400,000 a year.
Speaking of the American constituents, American citizens, specifically those in positions of privilege cannot be left unaccountable. In Barbie, the Barbies actively embraced the oppressive ideals that Ken returned with. Only once they rid themselves of those oppressive beliefs, are they able to gaze upon the chaotic disaster of the patriarchy and plan for the future while it destroys itself. After all, the state and its people are inherently connected. A culture that believes in inequality will breathe life into a government that propagates oppression. Paulo Freire argued that if the attitude of hierarchy was carried into a regime, it did not matter how equal the institutions were, the regime would become oppressive. For example, despite equality before the law being institutionalized in American democracy, the cultural oppression of Black Americans has been institutionalized as well, undoing equality before the law, and causing Black Americans to be incarcerated at five times the rate of white Americans.
Therefore, there needs to be a change in the locus of American self-confidence from superiority over others to genuine self-love, releasing the need for domination. As the Barbies remember, they are each individually amazing. The embracement of xenophilia grounded in self-love seems a necessary basis for one of the most diverse countries in the world. This means that white Americans need to accept that race is a social construct generated to serve colonial interests and holds no truth. Men need to accept that women are of equal capability and deserve equal autonomy. The rich need to understand they did not get to where they are by simply working harder. America needs to rid itself of the rest of its colonial beliefs, and, like Ken, allow people to love whoever they are when they aren’t constantly trying to prove themselves good enough to others.
It does not matter how institutionalized democracy is in a country, if democracy is not likewise culturally present, democracy will not be able to be sustained. The only way for America to ever truly exist as a democracy is for a democratic cultural revolution that acknowledges America has partaken in not only anti-democratic but actively oppressive behavior. Accountability needs to be taken and work needs to be done in both healing the wounds caused and reconsidering our manner of governing society.
This article was edited by Sarah Davey.