My American exceptionalism fantasy is over: How these midterms sealed the deal

When I lived abroad, I’d proudly defend this country and extol its virtues. Here’s what changed my entire worldview

Published November 6, 2014 6:13PM (EST)

    (<a href=''>Curioso</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>/Salon)
(Curioso via Shutterstock/Salon)

Elections often hurt. Especially when they make you feel like a fool. I was one of the few who had held out hope that the electorate in key states would favor Democrats in respective races for Senate seats and governorships. As the map turned red over the course of Tuesday evening, the unraveling of my faith in the American political system -- begun just about a decade ago during a lengthy trip abroad -- completed its spiral.

Over 2003 to 2004, I lived in Italy for a year. It was a politically tumultuous time in America, and I spent much of my time in Italy fielding questions from concerned Italians about what was going on in the States. There was concern about the flawed election results of 2000, America’s withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol, and, of course, America’s response to the attacks of 9/11.

While the Italians were heartbroken by the attacks and deeply sympathetic to their beloved ally from across the Atlantic, they were also deeply concerned about our government’s response. Italians, having so much bloodshed on their soil over the course of a few millennia, hate war. And while they may have been skeptical about the post-9/11 war in Afghanistan, they were outraged by the invasion of Iraq. Of the 600 cities around the world that hosted simultaneous protests against the Iraq War on a February day of 2003, the largest -- by far -- took place on the streets of Rome where an estimated 3 million people gathered. I arrived in Italy the following month to inspect our potential rental property and sign a lease, and rainbow Pace (peace) signs draped across facades were still so ubiquitous that the architectural aesthetic of the country had been altered.

Almost all of Italy’s animosity was directed toward the Bush administration. The Italians couldn’t -- in their hearts -- blame America yet as a country, so they blamed our leaders at the time. It was an easy thing to do, considering how Bush and Cheney and company exposed themselves, especially from abroad, to such profound ridicule. But there was also a larger concern about America in general, how we as a country were heading down the slippery slope toward the sinkhole of corruption and impotence, something the Italians have known so well for so long that they entertain no aspirations of ever escaping.

I spent much of my time in Italy over 2003-04 reassuring Italian friends and acquaintances and strangers that, yes, America was in a bad place at the moment -- a bit rattled from the terrorist attacks -- but we would come to our senses soon enough and systemic corruption and political impotence would never take hold in the world’s greatest democracy. I assured them that many American people already objected to the war in Iraq (we had hosted large protests, too!) and surely more citizens would see the light as the absurdity of the case for war and of the failure of the war itself become more and more evident over time. I felt particularly emboldened when John Kerry became the front-runner for the Democratic nomination in the 2004 presidential elections. Surely, a decorated war hero and an honorable veteran of the U.S. Senate from the great state of Massachusetts could make the case -- particularly in light of no WMD and no embrace of the U.S. as liberators from the fractured Iraqi society -- that the chicken hawks of the Bush administration did not deserve a second term.

Many Italians expressed skepticism at my claims. Their faith in America waned while my patriotism surged. Often, when conversation veered toward argument, and criticism of America felt personal and extreme, I’d turn the tables in defense. Look at Italy? The wealthiest man in the country, a corrupt media mogul, is the prime minister. Services stink. With the systemic corruption and flat-out absurdity of the Italian political system, fractured by provincialism, ideology and regional acrimony, meaningful progress is nearly impossible. At least -- I said with my parting words -- America could still be and will be redeemed.

Good thing we moved back home shortly before the elections of 2004. Considering the number of promises I’d broken about the American electorate, coupled with the aspersions cast against the Italian system, there might have been a Roman-size protest outside our property near Florence. All of the post-election communication I did get from those in Italy was of the told-you-so variety. You see? This is how corruption works. Once it takes hold, it just gets worse and worse. The cancer metaphor came up often. For “evidence,” they latched onto reports that the early exit polls favored Kerry and that there were widespread voting irregularities that all favored the incumbent. They referred back to the seemingly inexplicable decision of the 2000 Supreme Court in Bush v. Gore as a precedent in America for large-scale political corruption. They shuddered when John Kerry quietly accepted his defeat without protest. It was then, so stunned and stung by Kerry’s loss, that I began to consider the cynical Italian perspective on politics, though I held on to most of my optimism for a better America.

And after suffering through a painful second term of President Bush, my hope was delivered in the form of Barack Obama. I connected with candidate Obama on such a personal and symbolic level -- not to mention a redemptive one -- that his campaign and its culmination became the highlight of my standing as an American citizen. The fact that America could produce and recognize such an amazing leader validated the theory of American exceptionalism, which I’d been embracing since my Italian days. Even my cynical Italian friends were impressed and inspired.

Little did any of us know that the hilarity of the failed Palin bid for vice president would somehow embolden the extremists, while the Republican establishment would be so frightened of an Obama presidency that together they’d usher in an era of American absurdity and obstructionism -- one that propelled us as a nation not toward a shining beacon of democracy, but a parody republic. It was hard to watch. So hard, that I had to tune out after the reelection of President Obama, a victory not nearly as sweet and meaningful as the first, considering the circus the Republicans offered this time as a harbinger to their continued truculence regardless of the results.

Last summer, I had to reckon with what had become of American politics as I was back in Italy for my first extended stay since 2004. Over the course of five weeks, in the company of academic expats and Italian intellectuals at the university where I taught, I had to often discuss and, thereby, consider the current status of politics in America. What was alarming was how much more dysfunctional and corrupt America had become since my last time among the Italians: The Supreme Court outdid Bush v. Gore with Citizens United; an entire political party made it their mission to do nothing but undermine a sitting president (not to mention mock, harass and humiliate him) and then blame him for the dysfunction; districts have been redrawn to favor perpetual Republican dominance of the House; despite the recent economic crisis, wealth has been hoarded by the richest of the rich; middle-wage income is stagnant; our infrastructure crumbles; student debt soars while jobs are scarce; the government’s only meaningful action was to shut itself down; established freedoms for women are under siege; no progress has been made on the environment or immigration. It was hard to admit.

My belief in America’s potential for redemption has, once again, been severely challenged. This week’s midterm elections portend the further corruption and continued impotence of our government. The Republican victories seem to support the ideas of sabotage and subterfuge as strategy. This morning I heard a Republican member of Congress, which is surely their new talking point, claiming that Republican success was a tacit rejection of President Obama’s version of “do nothing” government. If only Republicans did satire …

What makes this situation so alarming is that we as a country, when it comes to politics, are now more than ever, similar to Italy. Only bigger. And that hurts.

By Andrew Cotto

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