Nationally and globally, the economy is at a tipping point. The GOP, driven by invincible ignorance or cynical design – and perhaps both – is working overtime to trash the recovery with budget cuts that would drain demand from the economy – or a debt ceiling vote that could trigger a financial collapse equal to 2008, or perhaps unpredictably graver. For proof, all you had to do was listen to Mitt Romney's announcement speech today. In it, he made a smarmy attempt to blame Barack Obama for the economic pain actually caused by the dereliction of duty by George W. Bush & Co., pain that was then prolonged by the obstruction of congressional Republicans. Those legislators contrived successfully to limit the stimulus package, block a second one, and forthwith blame the stimulus that saved us from another Great Depression for the slow climb out of the Great Recession. Never, of course, did they mention that the America’s deep deficits were generated by the fraudulent Bush war in Iraq and the unfair Bush tax cuts, which were founded on the false premise that they would pay for themselves.
The same tawdry spectacle has played out for two years and more in America's capitol, a place that is still, despite recently fashionable worries about its destiny, the indispensible engine of the world economy. Indeed, the future of billions of human beings is determined by our elections, in which most of them have no vote. JFK once noted that the proudest boast of the ancient world was the boast of democratic citizenship: Civis Romanus sum: 'I am a Roman citizen.' The inescapable reality of the present world, for better or worse, is that people everywhere have to say, Civis Americanus sum. That's strikingly clear here in Europe, in good times and bad. President Obama is a more popular, hope-giving figure than the leaders he recently visited; he’s the counterpoint to Bush and the redeemer of an American image carelessly disfigured during the first decade of the century.
And now the GOP that has moved decidedly to the right of Bush would compound his errors. Congressional Republicans could shatter the restored credibility of the United States by refusing to protect its full faith and credit by raising the national debt ceiling or by holding that essential measure hostage to the repeal of the New Deal – something that never even occurred to Ronald Reagan or either Bush president. In those Oval Offices, they regularly signed debt-ceiling increases.
Republicans generally, from the newest tea-soaked member of Congress to the weak brew of presidential candidates, have also adopted and ritualistically invoked a notion of American exceptionalism that all but explicitly proclaims that we have a unique mandate – with the religious right, presumably our own Mandate of Heaven – to do whatever we want, wherever we want. In the name of strengthening the nation, they would weaken it, losing respect, fraying alliances, and forcing the United States to go it alone in a fateful time? Retreating to this notion would represent one of history’s more stunning examples of the triumph of arrogance over experience.
There is an American exceptionalism that, rightly understood, holds that we have something exceptional to share with others, not to impose upon them. The ideals that underlie our whole national life are, as Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln argued, life forces in the world that can inspire great change – and they have, from the France of 1789 to the Arab Spring today. You sometimes have to fight for those ideals; but above all, they are beliefs, not bullets or bullying. There is a self-defeating xenophobia in the impulse to exercise power without "a decent respect to the opinions of mankind," as the Declaration of Independence puts it. But the Republican hardliners, and they're indisputably the Republican Party now, repeatedly assail the president for "kowtowing" to foreigners simply because he's renewed America's standing by listening as well as leading. Supposedly this is soft; just ask Dick Cheney. But to the discomfort of the unilateralists, it was Obama not Bush who got Osama bin Laden.
This president understands that going it alone is for exceptional moments, not the order of every policy and every day.
American exceptionalism required another dimension 50 years and more ago – a dimension profoundly implicated in the economic and budget choices that face Washington this summer. To stall or reverse the recovery would impose new pain on tens of millions at home. But this is not just a domestic issue. The decisions shortly to be made in that short span from the White House to Capitol Hill won't ripple, but roll across the world, with vast consequences for people on every continent. The decisions will also reassert or subvert this country’s unique place and influence in the global economy.
An American default – or deliberate descent into another economic crisis – is still unthinkable to most of the world’s markets, most of the world’s leaders, and most of global civil society. What great nation would do this to itself – and everyone else?
The unthinkable was entirely unsaid at a meeting of NGOs, major corporations, and female entrepreneurs and political figures who came together over Memorial Day weekend at Villa La Pietra, the NYU campus in Florence. They weren't intent on abstractions; their focus was women's economic empowerment. They shaped an agenda for next November’s G20 summit of the major economies – a message to the G20 from the G50, the women who are half the world. The agenda proposes specific, achievable measures in areas that range from land rights to women’s access to finance.
The question here is not only justice, but, as the corporate representatives emphasized, the prospects for global prosperity. The fuller participation of one billion women who are today exiles in their own economies will be a key to future global growth, a generation of new demand from new consumers – and over the next decade and more, a rise in jobs and standards of living in the US and Europe as well as the developing world.
This may seem far from the spectacle of partisan maneuver currently playing out in Washington. I suspect that House Speaker John Boehner and his cohorts have given even less thought to such challenges than they have to the unemployed in their own districts, for whom they have yet to offer a single actual jobs bill. Those who have formed the La Pietra Coalition assume that progress is possible, that their voices can make a difference, that the G20 can be brought to respond – and that America can and will lead.
None of that will happen if instead we are misled or blunder on economic policy. Then the G20 won't be discussing how to make progress, but how to climb out of a catastrophe of America’s making. Women, and so many others, will be left behind. America’s word will be less heeded, and perhaps it will actually mark a starting point for America’s decline.
Within our own borders, the Republicans' strategy on the budget and the debt ceiling can be seen, accurately, as rolling the dice with the American economy, gambling that it will crap out to their political advantage. As I've argued before, this strategy could backfire. But beyond any calculations about 2012, at risk are not just American jobs and homes, but around the world the very ideals of justice, equal rights, and opportunity that are this country’s defining gift to others.
The Republicans may preach it – but today, in Washington, the "loyal opposition" appears anything but loyal to American exceptionalism.