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William Marina: A Mirror To US Exceptionalism

Holding Up a Mirror to the Face of U.S. 'Exceptionalism'

October 18, 2004
By William Marina

Separated by one hundred and four years, the presidential elections of 1900 and 2004 offer some startling and almost eerie similarities.

In 1900 the Democratic challenger, William Jennings Bryan, opposed incumbent Republican William McKinley, ostensibly over the issue of U.S. imperialism in the Philippines, and years later (1937), the Stanford historian, Thomas A. Bailey asked, “Was the Election of 1900 a Mandate for Imperialism?”

After the breakup of the Soviet Union more than a decade ago, the emerging neoconservatives now surrounding George W. Bush increasingly began to take up the theme of the grandeur of a U.S. Empire—forget mere hegemony. Given the commitment of huge expropriations of money and lives, not to mention the restructuring of our republican institutions to accommodate that vision, one might think that the “great debate” of election year 2004 would focus around that issue. But, neither President Bush nor the challenger, Senator John F. Kerry, has chosen to make empire an issue of the election. As with the issue of Israel, the U.S. empire remains another virtually invisible 800-pound gorilla chained off to the side, almost certain to break free later.

In 1900, as in this year, there was also the threat early on of a third candidate, then fielded by the Mugwumps, independents and reform-minded Republicans and centered around the Anti-Imperialist League—people such as Senator Carl Schurz of Missouri, all of whom saw imperialism, with a raging insurgency in the Philippines, as the major issue of the day.

These independents met in Indianapolis in August 1900, and Bryan came to address them. His rousing speech convinced the group to support his candidacy, promising that he would make imperialism the central issue of the campaign, much as former Vermont Governor Howard Dean began to do with respect to the election of 2004 in the months prior to the Democratic Party caucuses.

While opposing the annexation of the Philippines and the counterinsurgency against the Filipinos in which hundreds of thousands of civilians were being killed, Bryan had supported the Spanish-American War, the first bold thrust of U.S. imperialism. Similarly, Senator Kerry has supported the war in Iraq to rid the world of terrorists, who themselves oppose the U.S. empire’s longstanding interventions in the Mideast.

The answer to Professor Bailey’s question above is that the 1900 election was not a “mandate” for imperialism. Having neutralized the threat of a third party, Bryan himself subordinated the issue to his old battle cry of “Free Silver,” much to the consternation of the anti-imperialists.

William McKinley had an excellent handler/financier, the coal/steel industrialist Mark Hanna (who later replaced McKinley’s vacated Senate seat), and it is no accident that Bush’s alter persona, Karl Rove, has spoken often of his admiration for Hanna, and how his man, Bush, like McKinley, is also “a man of the people.” It took years for historians to “discover” the obvious, that McKinley was not a weak president, simply bending to “the will of the people.”

In 1900, however, it was difficult for the Anti-Imperialists to paint a picture of McKinley as an empire-bent, militarist dictator (his vice presidential running mate, Teddy Roosevelt, much better fits that picture as does Vice President Dick Cheney today), because as someone put it then, “The man on horseback cannot have his ear to the ground.”

Thanks to George Bush’s gregarious personality, Rove has likewise been able to develop the image of “a man of the people”—good ’ole six-pack George in his Texas boots. Similarly, while in 1972 John Kerry had come a long way toward confronting the true Demons of Empire after his experience in Vietnam, he now seems to have fully eschewed that knowledge.

And so, for over a century, thanks to the disingenuousness of U.S. government leaders, the American people have been able to participate in what the historian William Appleman Williams once called “The Great Evasion,” as the institutionalization of empire has become a “way of life,” fundamental to most of the major problems facing us as a nation, and certainly not part of any solution.

What the historian can do at this juncture is to suggest that we have not reached an “End” to history, nor is America some kind of “exception” to history. The historian’s role is to hold up a mirror, as in Cervantes’ insightful Don Quixote, not just for an individual, but for an entire society.

Empire has consequences! Empire, and its foreign policy, imperialism, is to a nation, what “sin” (violating the Golden Rule) is to an individual. One can only ask for forgiveness, and make restitution, after having acknowledged that one’s actions were wrong. Certainly, President George W. Bush, although more obstinate than most, is not alone in needing to confront that dilemma.

Empire is about power; absolute power corrupts because it allows people such as Donald Rumsfeld to treat people, whether Iraqi civilians or American soldiers, as mere ciphers. But fundamentally empire concentrates power in the State—as Oswald Spengler said, it is “centralization unadulterated.”

Most of the key instruments that made possible the creation of a prosperous American republic, ranging from a viable and open political system to free entrepreneurial markets, have become institutionalized and bureaucratized, and even corrupted into a two-party cartel on the one hand, or a quasi-corporatism (neo-mercantilism) on the other, which allows an evasion of liability and responsibility.

Imperialist foreign quarrels themselves are built on a welfare-state political culture, what the Romans called “bread and circuses,” and we call Social Security, Medicare, veterans’ benefits, etc. As productivity and economic well-being suffer from the financial burden of imperial government intervening around the world, people embrace empire all the more for fear that to halt the glory of imperialism will threaten the “security” of the welfare state that they have come to rely on—the empire’s power to “deliver the goods” at home.

In 1775, John Adams warned that empire was characterized by despotism without a rule of law, while in 1821, his son John Quincy Adams predicted that the U.S. going abroad “in search of monsters to destroy” might cost America her very soul. After another election in which American politicians have wholly evaded the issue of empire, it remains to be seen whether other social leaders, academic, religious and civic, can raise up a mirror with which Americans can view the U.S.’s increasingly ugly imperial image, as all too apparent to a growing number of nations and peoples in the rest of the world.


William Marina is Research Fellow at the Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif., and Professor Emeritus in History at Florida Atlantic University.

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