American Exceptionalism: the view from the Republican peanut gallery

By Simon Allison 31 August 2012

Business as usual in the Land of the Free as the would-be leaders of the free world gathered for the third day of the Republican National Convention to tell America exactly what their brand of freedom is all about. By SIMON ALLISON.

Under the bright lights and star-spangled banners, the speakers extolled the virtues of their candidate, explaining how billionaire Mitt Romney’s planned tax cuts for the rich will benefit the poor and decrying the evils of universal health care. It is the right of the people to live in poverty and sickness, after all.

Meanwhile, some attendees demonstrated just how they plan to use their freedoms in a Republican America. The baying crowd shouted down a Puerto Rican delegate – one of the few speakers of colour – with raucous chants of “USA, USA”, preventing her from delivering her speech in support of Romney as planned, while an African-American camerawomen working for CNN was subjected to racial taunts straight out of the good old days of slavery and segregation.

In the camerawoman’s words, as relayed by the Washington Post’s Jamila Bey: “‘I was just about to put on my headset when someone started throwing peanuts at me,’ she told me. ‘I didn’t understand what was going on.’ She recovered enough to ask one man, ‘Are you out of your damned mind?’ A pair of older white men walked to the railing preventing people from falling down into the camera pit. One hurled more peanuts at her and taunted, ‘Here! Want some more peanuts?’ Then they actually started hitting her with them. ‘This is what we feed to the animals at the zoo!’ he continued.”

The incident caught the attention of Republican security, and one member of the peanut gallery was ejected from the conference hall. The party is far from blameless, however; its swing to the right and alienating, divisive campaigning was always going to attract the nut-jobs.

In the middle of all the convention hoopla, the Republicans quietly released their political manifesto. Very quietly. “This year the party seemed to go out of its way to make sure even fewer people read the manifesto,” wrote Nick O’Malley in the Sydney Morning Herald. “Perhaps it was concerned that reporters could not be relied upon to ignore the document as thoroughly as usual this year.” If you want to know what the Republicans actually stand for, then drown out the fundamentalists, crazies and tea parties and read it yourself.

But maybe you’re not in the mood for a gentle soporific, in which case here are the highlights – it makes for scary reading for America’s moderates and liberals. Abortion is opposed in all circumstances, as is any form of gun control. Marriage is defined as between a man and woman and the right of states to ban gay marriage is affirmed. Obama’s plan for universal health care should be scrapped and replaced with a voucher system. States that have implemented draconian anti-immigration laws should be left in peace to do with their immigrants what they like.

Observing from South Africa, or anywhere else in the world, it’s easy to feel a little smug, and enjoy the schadenfreude; there’s something strangely satisfying about watching a country with such a high sense of self-regard develop these obviously regressive social policies.

Don’t get too smug, however. There’s a fairly large section in the manifesto written with the rest of us in mind. It’s the foreign policy bit, entitled “American Exceptionalism”, which tells you all you really need to know about the Republican world view: America is the chosen land, unique and better, and that “the twenty-first century will be one of American greatness”. Where Obama was weak, Romney will be strong; where the Democrats are soft and ineffectual, the Republicans will be tough and take no prisoners.

This is all fluff, of course; if four years of Obama have taught us anything, it is that there is precious little difference between his foreign policy and George W. Bush’s. There are still troops in Afghanistan, there are still prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, and the War on Terror is being pursued as vigorously as ever (if perhaps a little more efficiently; why commit American troops when, say, African soldiers can do the same thing for cheaper?).

The real difference in Republican foreign policy comes at the intersection of their domestic and foreign policies. America has never been shy to export its ideology to the rest of the world, but the Republicans aren’t very happy with the liberal twist that Obama’s administration has given to the American dream as sold to developing nations. “The effectiveness of our foreign aid has been limited by the cultural agenda of the current Administration, attempting to impose on foreign countries, especially the peoples of Africa, legalized abortion and the homosexual rights agenda. At the same time, faith-based groups – the sector that has had the best track record in promoting lasting development – have been excluded from grants because they will not conform to the administration’s social agenda. We will reverse this tragic course…”

It’s tempting to dismiss this policy as a case of cheap points scoring, but this would be a mistake. The fact is, the Republicans aren’t completely wrong. America’s insistence on gay rights particularly has limited its influence in Africa, complicating relationships with some African leaders and slowing progress on other, arguably more substantive issues. Malawi in particular bore the brunt of this policy, with that country’s blatant discrimination against homosexuals under the late president Bingu wa Mutharika cited as a factor in revoking aid money.

However, it’s a flexible position as far as Obama is concerned. Uganda’s awful record on gay rights hasn’t stopped his administration developing a very close friendship, both military and political, with President Yoweri Museveni; and the United States remained resolutely silent when Nigeria enacted a law making gay marriages illegal and punishable with jail time.

George W. Bush’s administration showed more determination in pushing their ideology, particular on the issue of abortion. Shortly after taking office, a decision was made to cut all aid to non-governmental organisations that provided or counseled women on abortion. 

Presumably, these are the policies to which Romney’s Republicans intend to return as they “reverse this tragic course”. Nevermind that the ban had little impact on the number of abortions in Africa, which continued to increase.

The reality is that neither party really cares what African men and women (or men and men,or women and women) do in the privacy of their own continent, or how many African fetuses don’t make it to term. Both parties are playing to their bases, using a foreign policy issue to prove how serious they are about the very domestic and potentially election-winning flashpoints of abortion and gay rights.

This is American Exceptionalism as seen from the perspective of the rest of the world: an America unconcerned with much except itself, pushing a foreign policy that, without exception, is dictated by domestic political consideration. It doesn’t seem very exceptional at all. DM

Read more:

  • RNC ejects attendees for assaulting an African-American camera operator with peanuts in the Washington Post
  • GOP Convention: Humanising Romney, attacking Obama on Daily Maverick

Photo: Delegates dance and wave signs during the third session of the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida August 29, 2012. REUTERS/Joe Skipper


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