The last, best hope of Earth?

Is the United States unique? Roger Johnson examines the role that exceptionalism has played in the p

John McCain and Sarah Palin have made a peculiar addition to the language of presidential campaigning. On 11 September at a Columbia University forum and at the vice presidential debate, each expressed a belief in the idea of American exceptionalism.

It is a mild surprise to see these candidates appropriating a term more commonly found in academic discussion of American society and history. “American exceptionalism” is used to describe ideas that the United States contains unique factors that make its culture, politics or character qualitatively different from any other. Such ideas are found in historical interpretation, but also in national ideology - and at points where they intercept.

Describing themselves as exceptionalists might be new, but the idea they expressed was resoundingly consistent with presidential rhetoric. Significantly, Palin twinned the idea with an evocation of Ronald Reagan and his “shining city on a hill.” Responses, such as Roger Cohen’s at the New York Times have focussed on this latter association, with its threads to John Winthrop and undertones of religious destiny. Others, such as Rush Limbaugh and Gerard Baker, have grasped at the theme of exceptionalism, seeing it as a dividing issue between the candidates. The impression persists that it belongs to and defines the American right, and by extension the McCain/Palin campaign. This is due to easy assumptions about America’s cultural divide, but also to President Reagan’s remarkably successful appropriation of exceptionalist narratives of American strength, righteousness and destiny, and his persevering hold on the current Republican party image.

At best this underestimates the giddy exceptionalism that infuses Barack Obama’s own rhetoric and image, at its most absurd it depicts him as an unexceptionalist – one who seeks to expose America’s limits, and relegate it to the ordinary.

Obama has depended on narratives of America’s unique and transcendent nature, and has presented himself and his future presidency as the product and evidence of an exceptional nation: “I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.” This came from his speech last March which focussed on the issue of race in his candidacy and in America.

Though rarely part of Reaganesque celebratory national narratives, America’s racial divide is often interpreted as vital to its exceptional nature, defining the country and shaping its history. In confronting it, Obama implicitly accepted this, but also constructed around it a narrative of unique American potential for change and self-betterment.

Also implicit was his potential as a symbol through which racial understanding and national unity could be achieved.

In the end, the presidency is a fundamentally exceptionalist institution, through the myths it contains about the potential of American citizens to rise to the top, about the potential of American power and world leadership, and about the preservation and perpetuity of American democracy. It demands of its candidates to draw on and promote what it represents, and offers in its past an illustrious array of symbols through which they may do so.

While the Republicans have chosen Reagan, Obama has consistently evoked Lincoln and his vision of America as “the last, best hope of Earth.”

Roger Johnson is an Associate Tutor in American Studies at the University of Sussex. He studied at the Institute of the Americas in London and is pursuing a doctorate on cultural memory and the Reagan administration.
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The age of China's female self-made billionaires – and why it could soon be over

Rags to riches stories like Zhou Qunfei's are becoming less common.

Elizabeth Holmes, 33, was the darling of Silicon Valley, and the world’s youngest self-made female billionaire. Then, after a series of lawsuits, the value of her healthcare firm plummeted.

Holmes might have abdicated the billionaire crown, but another tech queen was ready to take it. Only this time, the self-made female billionaire was not a blonde American, but Zhou Qunfei, a 47-year-old from China. She dropped out of high school and began working at a watch lens factory as a teenager. In 1993, when she was in her early twenties, she founded her own company. Her big break came ten years later, when Motorola asked her to develop a glass screen for smartphones. She said yes.

Zhou is in fact more typical of the SMFB set than Holmes. Of those listed by Forbes, 37.5 per cent come from China, compared to 30 per cent from the United States. Add in the five SMFB from Hong Kong, and the Middle Kingdom dominates the list. Nipping at Zhou’s heels for top spot are Chan Laiwa, a property developer who also curates a museum, and Wa Yajun, also a property developer. Alibaba founder Jack Ma declared his “secret sauce” was hiring as many women as possible.

So should the advice to young feminists be “Go East, young woman”? Not quite, according to the academic Séagh Kehoe, who runs the Twitter account Women in China and whose research areas include gender and identity in the country.

“I haven’t seen any of these self-made female billionaires talking about feminism,” says Kehoe. Instead, a popular narrative in China is “the idea of pulling yourself up by your boot straps”. So far as female entrepreneurs embrace feminism, it’s of the corporate variety – Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In has been translated into Mandarin.

In fact, Kehoe believes the rise of the self-made woman is down to three historic factors – the legacy of Maoist equality, and both the disruption and the opportunity associated with the post-Mao economic reforms.

Mao brought in the 1950 Marriage Law, a radical break with China’s patriarchal traditions, which banned marriage without a woman’s consent, and gave women the right to divorce for the first time.

In Communist China, women were also encouraged to work. “That is something that was actively promoted - that women should be an important part of the labour force,” says Kehoe. “At the same time, they also had the burden of cooking and cleaning. They had to shoulder this double burden.”

After Mao’s death, his successor Deng Xiaoping began dismantling the communist economy in favour of a more market-based system. This included reducing the number of workers at state-owned enterprises. “A lot of women lost their jobs,” says Kehoe. “They were often the first to be laid off.”

For some women – such as the SMFBs – this was counterbalanced by the huge opportunities the new, liberal economy presented. “All this came together to be a driving force for women to be independent,” Kehoe says.

The one child policy, although deeply troubling to feminists in terms of the power it dictates over women’s bodies, not to mention the tendency for mothers to abort female foetuses, may have also played a role. “There is an argument out there that, for all of the harm the one child policy has done, for daughters who were the only child in the family, resources were pushed towards that child,” says Kehoe. “That could be why female entrepreneurs in China have been successful.”

Indeed, for all the dominance of the Chinese SMFBs, it could be short-lived. Mao-era equality is already under threat. Women’s political participation peaked in the 1970s, and today’s leaders are preoccupied with the looming fact of an aging population.

“There has been quite a lot of pushback towards women returning to the home,” says Kehoe. Chinese state media increasingly stresses the role of “good mothers” and social stability. The one child policy has been replaced by a two child policy, but without a comparable strengthening of maternity workplace rights.

Meanwhile, as inequality widens, and a new set of economic elites entrench their positions, rags to riches stories like Zhou Qunfei's are becoming less common. So could the Chinese SMFBs be a unique phenomenon, a generation that rode the crest of a single wave?

“Maybe,” says Kehoe. “The 1980s was the time for self-made billionaires. The odds aren’t so good now.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.