Politics & Policy

Anti-American Exceptionalism

Eva Longoria speaks at the 2012 DNC convention. (Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
If America is alone, is it therefore in the wrong?

The actress and Democratic activist Eva Longoria, who apparently has never heard of France, was ruthlessly mocked this week for her claim that the United States “is the only country that promotes monolingualism.” Both of the assumptions behind that statement are false: The United States does not promote monolingualism, and some other countries, and would-be countries such as Quebec, do. Ms. Longoria is a native of Corpus Christi, Texas, where state standards at the time of her high-school education generally required two years of the same foreign language, and where neither the University of Texas nor Texas A&M, which Ms. Longoria attended, will admit students without two years of the same foreign language. Ms. Longoria currently is a resident of California, a state in which official business is conducted in more than 30 languages. As for other countries, suffice it to say that neither China nor Mexico is offering driver’s-license exams in Farsi. Spain has one language with national official status — guess which.

Ms. Longoria is not what you would call a rigorous thinker. Arguing in favor of immigration reform, she demands to know whether Americans are ready to pay — horrors! — $17 for valet parking or “$8 for a head of broccoli,” but in the very next sentence boasts of paying three times the going rate for avocados, choosing much more expensive organic avocados in order to ensure that “a farm-worker wasn’t sprayed with pesticides.” So, paying more to avoid Round-up residue is an act of civic virtue, but paying more to ensure that farmworkers are not being paid starvation wages in a market in which wages are depressed by the flood of illegal workers from Latin America is xenophobia. That’s one way to read the guacamole.

So, another dopey celebrity heard from — who cares?

Ms. Longoria’s error is interesting to me because it is an example of anti-American Exceptionalism, i.e. the common belief among progressives that the United States is uniquely backward and knuckle-dragging in various critical ways. Most often, you hear that idea’s characteristic phrase — “We’re the only country in the civilized world that . . . ” in the context of the health-care debate, or when Democrats are arguing for sundry welfare benefits or employer mandates such as maternal leave.

For instance, during the debate over the Affordable Care Act, our reliably ignorant friends at ThinkProgress lamented that the United States was the only advanced country that did not provide “universal health care” to its residents, and noted that the United States performs relatively poorly on health metrics vis-a-vis Switzerland, among other countries. But Switzerland doesn’t exactly have what you’d call “universal health care,” at least not in any way that is distinct from the United States, in which Medicare, Medicaid, and other programs perform much the same role — albeit relatively poorly — as European social-welfare programs. Switzerland has 60-odd private insurance companies offering lots of different kinds of health-care plans, some with relatively high deductibles; individual rather than employer-based coverage; and an individual mandate — sort of an idealized version of Obamacare, minus the class-warfare rhetoric, the homeopathy subsidies, and the implementation by nincompoops.

In fact, Swiss voters have just rejected by a 2–1 margin a Canadian-style universal/single-payer system. Even though the Swiss system of Obamacare-style subsidies and mandates has produced an entirely predictable outcome — premium creep, i.e. bending the cost curve upward — the Swiss like their private insurance.

But then, the Swiss tend to like their government relatively small and local, which is both wise and admirable. The same voters who rejected single-payer health care also recently rejected a proposal for a minimum wage, leaving Switzerland as one of the few developed countries without one at the national level. No doubt Swiss progressives go about honking that Switzerland is the only civilized country without a minimum wage. But the question is whether the policy is a good one or a bad one, not whether it is internationally common.

There are many policies in the United States that are radically different from those in other countries. For instance — and for the moment — when we talk about freedom of speech, we really mean freedom of speech, at least until Harry Reid and the Democrats get around to repealing the First Amendment. Canada and the United Kingdom talk a pretty good game about freedom of speech, but, as Charles C. W. Cooke and others have reported here, theirs is a hollow commitment. If you are a Canadian churchman whose sermon hurts the wrong set of privileged feelings, you can go to jail. Certain political ideas are officially verboten in Germany.

So the United States is practically alone in the world in not suppressing unpopular political views and religious ideas. Should we change that, and become more like Venezuela or Singapore? Ms. Longoria might consider that the United States really is practically the only nation in the civilized world that would accept tens of millions of illegal immigrants with the level of docility on display for the past several decades. Perhaps she’d prefer a more German response?

The entire American political model is based on codifying policies that were in effect practically nowhere else in the world in the late 18th century. The supposition that people could get along without a king or a state-run church or a national censor, that they could choose their own faiths, speak their own minds, print their own newspapers, carry their own guns, and choose their own leaders without oversight from a hereditary aristocracy — at the time of the American founding, those ideas were considered more or less bonkers in most of the civilized world.

That’s a real fault line between conservatives and progressives: The Right tends to see those policies and institutions unique to the United States as markers of our liberty and excellence, while the Left sees policies and institutions unique to the United States as indicators that we are simply a few rungs on the evolutionary ladder behind Finland. It’s American Exceptionalism vs. anti-American Exceptionalism, and the latter tendency is by no means limited to such lightly informed Democratic emissaries as Eva Longoria.

— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent for National Review.

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