American Exceptionalism As A Concept Is Really Defunct: Ian Bremmer
The Statue of Liberty stands in New York, U.S. (Photographer: Michael Nagle/Bloomberg)

American Exceptionalism As A Concept Is Really Defunct: Ian Bremmer

The incredible divisiveness, the de-legitimisation of the election, the erosion of U.S. political institutions, that is perhaps the most significant takeaway of the year and of the election, said Ian Bremmer, political scientist and founder of Eurasia Group.

Bremmer spoke to BloombergQuint while the ballots were still being counted but the leads put Democrat presidential nominee Joe Biden closer to victory than Republican incumbent President Donald Trump.

Assuming a Biden-Harris win, Bremmer said the absence of a Blue Wave, no Senate majority and a narrower majority in the House of Representatives would create a gridlock that would limit the Democratic reform agenda on issues like the economic stimulus, climate change, healthcare and more.

“Just the idea that you have a president that will have won by five million votes and will not be able to move forward on any reforms that he personally wants to see is kind of unheard of in a democracy in the world today and yet it’s exactly what you are going to be seeing in the U.S. next year.”

But maybe, as important as the fissures, or even more, are the implications of the failure of many in the establishment to, yet again, read public sentiment right. “I don’t think lessons have been learnt in the last four years,” Bremmer said.

“A country that is this divided with political institutions that have eroded along those divides, a media that plays almost exclusively to the political preference of their primary viewership, a social media which acts as a megaphone to exaggerate those differences, all of those things pull at the fabric of civil society in the U.S.”

“They make the average American no longer know what the country really stands for.”

And though the American dollar, tech companies, banking system and entrepreneurial efficiency retain their power, the intangible, aspirational quality that the American way of life once represented, that is gone today, he added.

“I’m 50, my first trip outside the U.S. was in 1986 to the Soviet Union and we beat the Soviets in the cold war because our ideas were better. Because our political system was aspirational, not just in the U.S. but to all the people in the former Soviet republics. In 2020, which is not so much later, there’s almost no one around the world that would look at the U.S. and say I want my system to work like that. You might say that about Canada, Germany, the Nordics, maybe even Japan, but you wouldn’t say that about the United States. And, American exceptionalism as a concept is really defunct.

“Now, American power is not, the role of the American dollar is not, the role of the American tech companies, efficiency, market expertise, banking, all of those things they are not going away. But there’s something more meaningful than that, more intangible than that, more human than that, that the U.S. did represent and reflect, the system that really engendered the aspirations of our collective humanity, and a lot of that is gone today. I think that this election reflects that reality very well.”

In a recent column in the Time magazine, Bremmer likened the American democracy to being closer to Hungary and Turkey than Canada and Germany. When asked about the unflattering comparison, he pointed to institutional corruption, a dysfunctional legislature and a president that governs via executive orders. “If you want to think about the U.S. political system in a spectrum, where Canada is on one side and China and Russia are on the other and Turkey is in the middle, you would have to argue that the U.S. is not in the same place as Canada today. It’s just not. It’s eroded, it’s slipped and it’s continuing to slip. I think that’s going to continue to happen over the coming years.”

Watch the interview with Ian Bremmer, Founder and President, Eurasia Group.

Edited Excerpts.

How do you assess this election? The polarised environment it was fought in. And the closely contested outcome.

Huge turnout. Lot of Americans really care. Higher than we have seen in a century, great to see that Also, United States is an incredibly divided country. More divided than any other advanced industrial democracy in the world. And the fact that President Trump is going to lose. But he will not accept the legitimacy of the outcome, in my view, I’d be surprised if he offers a concession speech. Furthermore, many of his supporters will believe the election was stolen against him, that it’s going to be rigged. The feeling of division in the United States is likely to only intensify on the back of this very hard-fought election.

Add to that, that we do not have a Blue Wave. Biden will have won by many millions of votes, a larger margin than Hillary Clinton lost by in 2016. But the Democrats are very unlikely to take the Senate, they are losing seats in the House. And, gridlock is frequently something the markets like in the U.S., you’ve seen some of those moves in the last 48 hours, but you know the actual people of America need relief. They need support. Those that are starting to default on their credit card bills, starting to be evicted from their apartments. And, the ability to get significant stimulus through in a very tightly contested election with a Senate that is not in alignment with the new President...

Just the idea that you have a president that will have won by 5 million votes and will not be able to move forward on any reforms that he personally wants to see is kind of unheard of in a democracy in the world today and yet it’s exactly what you are going to be seeing in the U.S. next year.

Were you anticipating a Blue Wave?

I was anticipating a Biden win. I was also anticipating a contested outcome. The incredible divisiveness and the delegitimisation of the election, the erosion of U.S. political institutions, that is perhaps the most significant takeaway of the year and of the election.

What does it say about political scientists ability to read American society correctly if they were anticipating a Blue Wave that has clearly not come through?

I don’t think lessons have been learnt in the last four years. I think that most people four years ago that were expecting a Hillary Clinton win—by the way, four years ago, I did expect a Clinton win, I was surprised by the Trump win—but I think four years after you have the establishment political class in the U.S., on the left and the right (most of them don’t like Trump as a human being) saying now that we’ve had four years of Trump obviously the only people that would support Trump are racist, obviously everyone understand he’s such a horrible president they’re going to vote him out.

They don’t understand that deeply in the United States there are a lot of people, and not just white people, there are a lot of Hispanics, there are a lot of Blacks, Asians, Muslims. There are a lot of Americans who have been living in the U.S. and they look at the political system and they say those people will not help me. Those leaders, the media, the CEOs, the scientists, the doctors, the bankers, they will not help me. And, I’m not going to talk to them, I’m not going to support them. If the pollsters call me up I’m not answering the phone because I know those people have been lying to me for a long time. That’s how you got Brexit, that’s how you got the gilets jaunes in France (yellow vest movement)...

At least in continental Europe they are treating coronavirus as one thing. The whole continent, they’ve got a big problem and they are all trying to respond together. And indeed, you’ve got 27 countries that are voting unanimously to support functionally a Marshall Plan that would redistribute wealth to the people who most need it.

In the U.S. coronavirus has been politicised vastly greater than we’ve seen in any other wealthy country in the world. And, I think people are very, very angry about that. That’s why even with 250,000 people dead, 10 million coronavirus cases, a hundred thousand cases yesterday, a new record, you still managed to see so many Americans coming out, record turnout, saying I’m voting for that guy.

I think people need to understand that what’s happening in the U.S. is much deeper than the tweets that President Trump puts out everyday.

The lack of a Senate majority or a narrower win in the House will limit the Democratic agenda on climate change, stimulus, healthcare, etc. But, that experts have misread public sentiment, does that also not serve as an encumbrance on political, ideological agenda of a Biden presidency?

Yes. A country that is this divided with political institutions that have eroded along those divides, a media that plays almost exclusively to the political preference of their primary viewership, a social media which acts as a megaphone to exaggerate those differences, all of those things pull at the fabric of civil society in the U.S.

They make the average American no longer know what the country really stands for.

I’m 50, my first trip outside the U.S. was in 1986 to the Soviet Union and we beat the Soviets in the cold war because our ideas were better. Because our political system was aspirational, not just in the U.S. but to all the people in the former Soviet republics. In 2020, which is not so much later, there’s almost no one around the world that would look at the U.S. and say I want my system to work like that. You might say that about Canada, Germany, the Nordics, maybe even Japan but you wouldn’t say that about United States. And, American exceptionalism as a concept is really defunct.

Now, American power is not, the role of the American dollar is not, the role of the American tech companies, efficiency, market expertise, banking, all of those things they are not going away.

But there’s something more meaningful than that, more intangible than that, more human than that that the U.S. did represent and reflect, the system that really engendered the aspirations of our collective humanity, and a lot of that is gone today. I think that this election reflects that reality very well.

What does that mean for countries like China? An America that remains more inward looking, less super power-ish, leaves large gaps open?

It certainly creates a lower common denominator globally. The idea that China doesn’t respect human rights is harder to criticise collectively when the U.S. doesn’t care as much. I mean you had elections just the other day in Tanzania and elections going on now in the Côte d'Ivoire and I noted that our state department was heavily criticising both of those electoral processes for irregularities in the vote. It’s really hard to do that and not have people laugh at you when you’re own president is putting out “stop the vote, it’s rigged”.

At the very least, we should probably as Americans suspend criticism of other countries’ elections for a couple of years. Maybe let Canada do it for a while, while we get our own house in order.

Clearly the Chinese like that, because it means the Americans are no longer as capable of offering that kind of soft power criticism. But American hard power criticism the Chinese pay attention to. When we tell Huawei, the most important Chinese tech company, their national champion, that we are going to blow them up in terms of 5G, the Chinese pay attention. Because they don’t have a semiconductor industry worth squat. And if they want to try and rebuild that they are 15 years behind. And if we tell our allies you better work with us and not with them they are largely going to listen.

In India, Modi has been fine with Trump, just fine. That’s included on issues like 5G, Tik Tok, Chinese apps many of which have been banned by your government. So, it’s not to say that America’s allies no longer care about the U.S. It’s not to say that people aren’t going to want to come to the U.S. to study, to invest, to be tourists - all of those things will continue to happen.

It’s simply the fact that when we talk about things like democracy and the future of political systems and even rule of law and economic order and capitalism and a social contract that is seen as functional for the average citizen, there the U.S. is very deeply flawed today and it does not appear to me that the new constellation of political actors that will come into power in 2021 are going to be in a position to address that very effectively.

In a piece in the Time magazine you’ve said the U.S. is increasingly moving away from being a true, functional representative democracy in the mold of a Canada or Germany...to a more hybrid political system, such as in Hungary and Turkey. That’s a disturbing comparison given where Hungary and Turkey are right now. What does this tell us about the next five years?

I want to make the point that there are so many people in the last few years that have made the argument that the U.S. is on the brink of revolution, that we are going to become a banana republic, we’re going to become an authoritarian state. That, if we had re-elected Trump it was all over. Those were staggeringly and breathtakingly stupid takes. That is not remotely happening.

But, the divisions in the U.S. and the erosion of political institutions which started well before Trump but which accelerated under Trump, and I’m talking about the media and I’m also talking about the electoral process, which Trump is doing his best, even now as he is about to lose, he’s still trying to damage, disrupt and de-legitimise. I’m talking about institutional corruption inside the civil service with political appointees that are effectively trying to self-regulate for special interests. I’m talking about the inability of the legislature to get legislation done. I’m talking about the President who increasingly governs by executive order. So, Trump gets rid of what Obama did and Biden gets rid of what Trump did but you don’t actually see forward-looking strategic governance. All of these things over the decades actually do manage to erode the U.S. political system.

If you want to think about the U.S. political system in a spectrum, where Canada’s on one side and China and Russia are on the other and Turkey’s in the middle, you would have to argue that U.S. is not in the same place as Canada today. It’s just not. It’s eroded, it’s slipped and it’s continuing to slip. I think that’s going to continue to happen over the coming years.

What does mean for countries like India? As it tries to fob of China in a border dispute while America looks weaker than anticipated under a Democrat win.

You spoke of the camaraderie that Prime Minister Modi shared with President Trump, will that change if Joe Biden were to become President?

India is in a better position vis-a-vis the U.S. than most because one of the very few policy areas that you have broad bipartisan agreement in the U.S. is that the U.S. should take a more assertive position vis-a-vis China. That makes India more attractive geopolitically. And, your own prime minister is very oriented towards that.

I do think that the efforts of the U.S. government to put together a Quad with security dynamics that is seen as a counter-balance to China, that’s going to continue under Biden. I also think that the election of the first vice president of South Asian descent, Kamala Harris, is something that will be very important for the Indian diaspora which has both political but also a great deal of economic influence in the U.S.

So, I think India’s one of the few countries in the world that’s actually stood in pretty good shape irrespective of what happened in the U.S. election.

But, more broadly, the idea that the U.S. is going to be the sheriff for the world militarily, provide security, that Americans are going to be the architect of global trade or somehow the cheerleader of global values - those things are really rearview mirror realities for now.
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