American politics and its discontents

The election of Speaker of the House of Representatives in the 118th US Congress last week was an extraordinary spectacle, one that stretched over four gruelling days and 15 agonisingly long rounds of contentious voting and that led to a near brawl in the chamber.

No one had seen such a historic debacle, on such a gargantuan scale, since the late 1800s, nor could anyone have written a more colourful script about the norm-shattering drama even if they tried.

That it all took place during the week of Jan. 6, the second anniversary of the assault on the US Capitol by a mob of Trump supporters who sought to block the certification of Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential victory, gave an added symbolic pitch to the spectacle.

I watched it. You watched it. Everybody and his uncle watched it. Aghast. And what we were left with in the aftermath was this one question: What did it all say to us about the sorry state of American politics and, more importantly, about the equally sorry state that “American exceptionalism” has descended into in our time.

Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-NC) waves off House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy and his Floor Director John Leganski at McCarthy’s side after things became physical around Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) and House Freedom Caucus members after Gaetz voted “present” rather than voting for McCarthy in a late night 14th round of voting for a new House Speaker on the fourth day of the 118th Congress at the US Capitol in Washington, on January 6, 2023.
Image Credit: REUTERS

Shining city on a hill?

No myth is more deeply embedded in American history and encoded in the DNA of America’s national character than this messianic view of the world — a myth whose roots go back to the Pilgrims’ vision of the New World as the “shining city on a hill”, and whose ethos continues to define the self- image of contemporary America and the consciousness of its people.

This claim to exceptionalism in modern times, traditionally embraced more by right wing than by left wing circles in political culture, has it that America’s manifest destiny is not just to lead the free world but to be its exemplar. And it will do so because, well, America is not only inherently different from but inherently superior to other nations.

And the more in recent years this exceptionalism became “less exceptional” because, let’s say, of a puncture in its tired, Anglo-centric assumptions, the more the so-called “white backlash” hit back.

Recall Newt Gingrich, Speaker of the House between 1995 and 1999, hollering at whoever wanted to listen, in the US and abroad, that America was the “most unique civilisation in the world”. (Never mind, incidentally, that a grammarian should’ve slapped his wrist for prefacing the word “unique” with an adverb).

And recall, in equal measure, Donald Trump introducing Americans to the notion of America First, namely, when in doubt, tap into — sorry, Spiro Agnew — the discontents of the “silent majority” and the alarm that majority feels over the diminution of its privileged status as lord of the manor inhabiting an exceptional place in the globe.

All of which takes us back to the speakership fiasco in the House last week, which represents a decline in the putative exceptionalism of the American political system, which in turn represents the deep polarisation, divisiveness and the penchant for trafficking of untruths that characterise the soul of American society and its public discourse.

Politicians of the calibre we saw on television putting in their two-cents worth of politicking in the US House of Representatives are not qualified — not by a stretch — to deal with the crisis that bedevils America at this time in history.

A sad showdown

And it no secret that the overwhelming majority of the politicians you and I saw horse trading over whom to give and not give the Speaker’s gavel to at the end of day are — not unlike other politicians who had preceded them in congress during the tenures of administrations book-ended by Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump — ill-informed and little-read individuals allergic to knowledge, elected by voters who know that in a democracy rule is exercised by the people but too often do not know what they rule over.

“Critics say that America is a lie because its reality falls so short of its ideals”, wrote Harvard University political scientist Samuel Huntington, who gained both acclaim and notoriety for his 1993 thesis on the “clash of civilisations”. “They are wrong. America is not a lie. It’s a disappointment”.

And what could be more disappointing than the spectacle of polarisation, rancour and divisiveness overtaking American politics, the one you and I, along with everyone and his uncle, watched on live TV last week?

Fawaz Turki is a journalist, academic and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.