The United States, as every American schoolchild knows, is the oldest and still greatest political democracy on earth. Non(Un?)-Americans may disagree, but on one point there is complete unanimity: the United States is different. Just how different can be gleaned from two seemingly innocuous statements by the man who is still America’s numero uno, Bill Clinton. The first is one of Clinton’s favourite aphorisms, one he is fond of repeating at nearly every opportunity:

There’s nothing wrong with America that can’t be cured by what’s right with America.footnote1

The second is a little homily he delivered in December 1997 at a televized ‘town hall’ meeting in Akron, Ohio:

We live in a country that is the longest-lasting democracy in human history, founded on the elementary proposition that we are created equal by God. That’s what the Constitution says. And we have never lived that way perfectly, but the whole history of America is in large measure the story of our attempt to give more perfect meaning to the thing we started with—the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.footnote2

Both statements are worthy of close inspection. The first is of value because of the insight it offers into the solipsistic nature of us politics. If what’s wrong with America can be fixed by what’s right with America, then it is a very small step to concluding that all answers must come from within. Since Americans have no need to learn from anybody else, outside help is unneeded and unwanted. Foreigners have nothing to offer. They should keep their opinions to themselves.

The second statement represents the same principle applied to history. The story of the United States, it seems, is also a closed circle. No matter how far America travels in the world, it always circles back to the principles that gave it birth. Given that it is the job of Americans ‘to give more meaning to the thing we started with’, however, it appears that those principles were somehow ambiguous or incomplete in their original form. Filling in the Founders’ blanks is not easy. Considering that Clinton, a former law professor no less, is so ignorant of what the Founders wrote that he believes that ‘the elementary proposition that we are created equal by God’ comes from the Constitution when fact it is a paraphrase of a famous line in the Declaration of Independence (‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights...’), it is extremely difficult. But in the end it does not matter. The important thing is that they try. Americans know that even though they ‘have never lived perfectly’, they always wind up ‘more perfect’ than when they started. They know this because they are Americans. No one else even comes close.

Solipsistic reasoning like this, so common in the us that it all but goes unnoticed, is at the heart of a growing crisis of American democracy. Americans can proclaim themselves the greatest democracy on earth, one that is more perfect with every passing year, because: (a) it is an article of national faith that this is the case; (b) given that American politics are a closed circle, there is no real basis for comparison with any other country that Americans can possibly regard as valid and therefore no basis for contradiction; and (c) relative to its own narrow legal standards, the United States is indeed freer and more liberal than at any time in the past. Although the American Civil Liberties Union (aclu) is forever moaning about the Bill of Rights hanging in the balance, the fact is that Americans have never been freer to speak or write what they please, to express themselves politically, artistically, or sexually, to worship or not to worship as they may wish.