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America: exceptional no more?

Rough treatment of detainees, a shocking wealth gap, political dynasties – here?

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American exceptionalism – the view that America is unique among nations – is a treasured creed. That's why it is so troubling to observe radical changes in American public life that threaten to make the United States look like many other countries, including those in the so-called third world.

Consider four important dimensions: a comfort level with growing wealth and income disparities, the embracing of previously eschewed means in combating national security threats, a loss of confidence in the integrity of the election process and in the judicial system that is its ultimate arbiter, and a trend toward political dynasty.

Americans have always embraced capitalism and accepted the legitimacy of the highly variable standards of living it produces. But even as recently as 15 years ago, they would have been justified in pointing at others overseas – Brazilian society was often cited as the archetype – for extreme inequality of wealth distribution. Today, they increasingly take for granted the stagnation, at best, of the vast American middle class. Many American workers, under enormous pressure from global competition, aren't getting ahead.

Yet some investment professionals earn more than a billion dollars in a single year. Indeed, income data confirm that the gap between those in the top few percentiles and other Americans has increased dramatically since 1990. And consider the vast amount of political energy devoted in recent years to the cause of helping very wealthy Americans avoid estate taxes. Even the supply-sider Reagan administration two decades ago considered full repeal of the estate tax too far-fetched to aggressively pursue.

Legal niceties aside, what is undeniable about the ongoing "torture" debate is that in the past several years, the US has been subjecting some detainees to treatment that Americans previously associated with other countries – countries they considered, to put it bluntly, less civilized. Those other countries justified their harsh practices by the harshness of the realities they confronted in trying to provide their citizens with a reasonable degree of order and security. Americans tended to dismiss this as rationalization for self-serving brutality at the expense of a system of laws. But today the US government unapologetically justifies its own actions by a similar logic.

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