Note: this was first posted to my now-defunct political blog Gandalf's Hope on 4th February 2011
How is the US exceptional? I would say it is an exceptional nation because it is based upon an idea, the idea that all men are created equal. Of course, the United States has gone through tumult on its way to fully learning, embracing and embodying that idea but nonetheless, the extent to which the US pursues that vision, and the way in which the consequences of that vision such as individual freedoms and democracy are embedded deeply into United States culture do in my opinion make the US an exceptional nation (and, indeed, one to which I often consider emigrating).
How is the US imperial? Well, the simplest way to demonstrate that is to ponder a handful of facts. The US maintains 730 army bases in 50 nations around the world (some would say it is higher). It operates (for now) the global default currency, and thereby enables a transfer 'rent' from the rest of the world. It dominates a number of client states and has intervened explicitly or tacitly throughout the world (most notoriously in Iran). Most explicitly, the US with around 4% of the world's population enjoys something like 25% of the world's natural resources, most especially oil. We might have a long academic debate about just how the US qualifies as an 'Empire' but if we avoid the semantic quicksand the essential point seems unassailable.
It seems to me that discussions of the worth or otherwise of the United States is often bedevilled by a failure to distinguish between these two aspects of US polity. Real life is of course much greyer than any binary definition can allow for. Those who defend the exceptional nature of the US are often hard-pressed when faced with evidence of US government complicity in torture and other systemic abuse. On the other hand, those who are most convinced that the US is the Great Satan and an evil empire are hard-pressed when presented with the strong evidence available that the US is often a force for good in the world, not least in terms of the highest values embodied in the constitution and the sheer grace and decency of so many individual citizens.
There is, inevitably, a tension between these two strands of current US life, and because the world is going through a process of upheaval the world has an interest in seeing which way the US will choose to go. For the truth is that the Imperial structure established by the US, most especially since the end of WW2, is now breaking down. The US is going to go through a process of relative weakening. Instead of being the overwhelmingly dominant nation, within the next thirty years the US will become more of a 'primus inter pares' - still very strong, but with several other strong nations alongside it: China, India and Brazil are the most obvious three, possibly accompanied by an EU, but not accompanied by either Russia or South Africa, the other two nations often suggested as potential major states.
In this context, the US governing class is faced with a choice. Does it seek to preserve imperial power and control for as long as possible? Or does it seek - in accordance with its own exceptional highest values - to enable a peaceful transition into a different world order?
The way that governing classes think is often preserved at an institutional level. By that I mean that, in order to become a member of the governing elite one has to adopt the values of the institutions into which one becomes trained as a member. In order to gain power within the system, the bona fides of acceptance of the system have to be demonstrated. When all is well this provides a cohesive strength and stability and is a prerequisite for long-term stable government. However, what this process does not prepare for is an existential crisis when the fundamental basis of the establishment is called into question. In such a situation the perpetuation of group-think leads the governing class to become more and more detached from the emerging reality, with the inevitable consequence of collapse or revolution.
It seems clear to me that this is what is happening in the United States at the moment. The present occupant of the White House - in my oh-so-humble opinion - is a corporate shill who lacks the character required to be anything other than a front for the governing class. As a man who has made a habit of pleasing people and being as inoffensive as possible, and without the moral hinterland required to recognise the crises engulfing the world at this time, he operates as a teleprompter operator articulating the assumptions and preferences of those who have benefited most from the imperial system, and who are acting with increasing desperation to preserve that system from collapse. This can be seen from the healthcare system designed by pharmaceutical and insurance corporations through to the bailouts given to the wealthiest banks (at the expense of the middle class) and the way in which the revolving-door culture between Wall Street and Washington is repeatedly renewed and affirmed.
If there is to be any hope of a benign transition to a different world order, one in which the US can take an esteemed place alongside other powerful nations and continue a 'soft-power' revolution to slowly transform the world, then there must be a change of leadership. The world is crying out for a US that lives out the exceptional path, not the imperial path. This needs a leader that embodies that higher path and is able to call the United States to its own highest values and ideals. This needs a leader with proven courage in standing up against vested interests. This needs a leader with grounded attachment to moral high ground, most especially in a faith which enables a discrimination between the true light of the world and worldly pretenders to that light.
There is, of course, one person who fits that bill. The imperial system, the governing class, recognises that existential threat and is thereby doing its damnedest to destroy that threat, through a consistent and co-ordinated campaign to defame and demean Sarah Palin, the former governor of Alaska. This does not mean that Palin is perfect and without flaws and weaknesses. It does mean that here we have someone who may just possibly be the last best hope for US exceptionalism.
This is not a Democrat vs Republican challenge. The governing class would be perfectly content with Mitt Romney or any of the other seven dwarves that may be contending for the GOP nomination. No, this is about the possibility of a creative renewal of the United States enabling it to work for the highest possible outcome. The stakes are very real, up to and including another US civil war or (more likely) a more global war, if the governing class sees that as the only way in which to preserve its power. The only way in which a higher path might be taken is if the governing class itself is detached from its hold on the levers of US power, and the US enabled to return to its own best values and practices. Of course I may be wrong, but I do see Palin as the one contender who might possibly be able to do that.
Addition for October 2012: I respect Palin's decision not to run, but I still believe that she is the right person for this time of crisis.