Motley Moose – Archive

Since 2008 – Progress Through Politics

Beyond the Hyperbole: A Post-Declinist America

My mother was fond of telling me–after several instances in which I did not get my way as a child–that I could always go “pout” about it. My dad had an Army-related phrase for it: “Go pound sand.”

Part of the growing-up process as a child was getting beyond temporary setbacks–psychological, physical or otherwise–and doing what needed to be done at school, around the house or in the community. Coming of age in rural America, without the frills of shopping malls or high-speed internet, drove this message home even farther.

One individual who knew the virtues of a rural upbringing well was a man named Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus. A Roman, more than four centuries before the birth of Christ, Cincinnatus was forced to live a very simple life on a small farm he and his family used mainly for subsistence. Yet when Rome fell pray to misfortune in a fight against the Aequians and the Sabines–and the Roman senate devolved into a state of panic–Cincinnatus was called upon by his fellow countrymen to serve as dictator, wielding totalitarian power, in order to defeat the empire’s foes.

A remarkable sixteen days later, Cincinnatus had vanquished his foe and, instead of continuing to enjoy his unrivaled power, resigned as dictator and went back to tending his farm.

There are few greater stories of humility than the life of Cincinnatus.

More than two millenia later, a group of British citizens in a colony called “America” rebelled against their king. Armed with an idea and a Declaration, these colonists gave birth to the first federal republic in the history of the world. Over the course of the following two centuries, the descendants of these audacious rebels persisted through droughts, plagues, depressions, civil war, assassinations, foreign aggression, government shutdowns and numerous peaceful transfers of power from one political ideology to the next.

“American Exceptionalism” sounds like exactly what it is: a belief that the United States of America is truly the greatest nation on the planet. To different folks, it is exceptional for different reasons: military might, diplomatic strength, educational prowess, entrepreneurship, industrial ingenuity, a hub of exploration, a place for political and religious freedom, a hope for human equality, a land of competitive drive and opportunity. These varied beliefs are not mutually exclusive, either, further adding to the wonder that is the world’s first republic.

The reality of the American form of republicanism, though, is a faith in people–especially in an informed, active citizenry. The concept of citizenship has expanded since the beginning, from white male property-owners to include all men and women of any race, religion or set of beliefs. A child born in the United States is more likely to fly into outer space, boldly push the feats of invention and innovation or positively affect the future of humanity than a child born anywhere else in the world.

All this flies in the face of those who tell us today that our country is in “fail mode;” that we are “going downhill fast,” in the midst of destruction or capitulation. We are led to believe those who tell us that holding a political idea, or an idea about freedom and equality in society, means we are destroying that very society we so proudly covet. In a nation founded on freedom of speech, we are told that words that do not fit a conservative framework are wrong and should be banished or belittled.

These defeatists–“American declinists,” one might say–didn’t learn the lesson from childhood. I imagine my mother might tell them, in reference to their sour attitudes, to “go pout about it.” My father might tell them to “go pound sand.”

It is 2011. The United States of America has existed as a bold experiment for over 235 years. Our President is Barack Obama and the Speaker of the House is John Boehner. The world continues to spin on its axis and revolve around the sun. And do you know something?

America is still Exceptional.

Despite what the pundits say; despite the sensationalism that sells; despite the “tabloidization” of the news cycle–you cannot point to another country on the face of this Earth as one you’d rather raise a family, start a business, speak your mind, find your purpose or chase your dreams. For all the talks of debt and deficit, military and manufacturing, the one pervasive truth that drives the world is that America inspires confidence and draws the world’s finest.

The greatest mistake of our time would be to purposefully crumble the foundations of that confidence, or to kindle crisis out of thin air to scare the world into doubting our abilities. The greatest shame of our time would be to commit this grave mistake for the purposes of gaining political power–a sort of extortion to crash the ship of state in an effort to wrest control of the helm.

Americans in these days are called–like Cincinnatus, the humble Roman–to carry up the cause of good governance and public service, even as our own personal fields and families need tending. Representing the people should not be a lucrative career path, but rather a humble one. Serving the country necessitates courage and humility, not brinksmanship and intransigence.

Beyond the hyperbole of defeatist conservative tactics–claiming that an honest discussion about the role of government in economic tough times is somehow un-American–are the same reliable values that have comprised America for centuries: Accountability. Responsibility. The courage to dream.

The American story is being written every day by each one of us, and our decision to accept someone else’s views of the fall of America will precipitate a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you believe America is in decline, you are hastening that reality.

But if you believe America stands for freedom no matter which political party or ideology holds office, you are a disciple of the cause taken up by men like Washington, Jefferson and Adams; Clay, Webster and Sumner. American exceptionalism holds no exceptions for color, creed or politics. America will endure only because it endures in the hearts of her people first.

So the debates we must have in the coming years will be difficult, with one side proclaiming anything less than full capitulation to their demands means the implosion of freedom and democracy. That’s a tough bargaining position to strike, and certainly not one worthy of the public trust. But let us never accept the misguided view that we are anything less than Exceptional–Democrats, Republicans and Independents alike; let us never be divided by this shrill tactic.

We stand together with the first great American Cincinnatus and his words:

“Citizens, by birth or choice, of a common country, that country has a right to concentrate your affections. The name of American, which belongs to you in your national capacity, must always exalt the just pride of patriotism more than any appellation derived from local discriminations.”

And we move forward with the words of another American president:

“So let us begin anew-remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate…

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and a lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

No matter the political outcomes of elections or opinion-news pie
ces, let us never forget to be Americans first and partisans last.


  1. To take a step back from the inevitable “oh noes” of recent political events. We have a president we can be proud of and there are still public servants who inspire us. Let’s lift them up and encourage more children to be like them. Let’s reaffirm our commitment to public service for the good of the country.

    Thanks for reading, as always, my friends!

  2. Shaun Appleby

    Not a fan but still, New Jersey Governor Christie on challenges to his appointment of Sohail Mohammed to the state bench:

    Christie: They are criticizing him because he is a Muslim American…I was disgusted, candidly, by some of the questions he was asked by both parties at the Senate judiciary committee…Sharia Law has nothing to do with this at all – it’s crazy! It’s crazy. The guy’s an American citizen…This Sharia Law business is crap. It’s just crazy, and I’m tired of dealing with the crazies. It’s just unnecessary to be accusing this guy of things just because of his religious background.

    Marie Diamond – Gov. Christie ‘Disgusted’ By Criticism Of Muslim Judge: ‘This Sharia Law Business Is Crap’ Think Progress 4 Aug 11

    Got to love New Jersey sometimes.

  3. Paul Nurse on Charlie Rose captured us well. As the President of the Royal Society of London and former head of Rockefeller University he is as qualified an observer of us as there is, and he nailed the optimistic enthusiasm and free flow of information that not only made America great but does so for a long time into the future.

    America is not in decline. It remains the one place in the world where ideas and creativity and capital combine with seamless fluidity. The attempts by China and Russia and many others to recreate a Silicon Valley outside of this country do not succeed, because you cannot establish innovation with concrete and steel.

    I just got back from Security BSides Las Vegas 2011, where again for a few days I talked almost continuously with a smart bunch of folks about this topic itself and a fractal cloud of topics that themselves are what makes this country exceptional. A constant exchange and processing of thoughts and views on not only the security issues that this particular crowd can chew on like chicklets, but on politics and sociology and international affairs and agriculture and…  Gun-toting hardcore conservatives and neon-haired chain-mail bikini-ed liberals (in one session two guys showed how to turn a grenade launcher into a system for aerial video and wireless surveillance :~). Dillon showed another set of exploits against some industrial gear and added further heat to a multi-billion-dollar German manufacturer.

    Anyone who says this country is in decline needs to get out more.

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