Historic Cleveland, Ohio, along Cuyahoga River in 2019 (Shutterstock/Jason Sponseller)
Watching American exceptionalism die in my Cleveland hometown

It is fitting that the first presidential debate which for so many symbolized a decline in our political discourse and America’s position in the world occurred in Cleveland. The city is a microcosm of much of the United States and growing up there I witnessed the unraveling of American exceptionalism. Now a divided United States finds itself collectively focused on the problems at home while an aloof Beltway still looks abroad. 

American exceptionalism takes on two forms. In places like Manhattan, San Francisco, and especially the halls of Congress, American exceptionalism is a self-evident truth that is observable. These bubbles within the greater country are in fact exceptional and it only stands to reason that they must be a reflection of the country rather than an exception. For the rest of the country, American exceptionalism is an accepted orthodoxy — a form of faith — without need of proof even though its church is crumbling.

Thus, it is no surprise that the first cracks in the widespread acceptance of American exceptionalism formed in the nation’s big cities with a focus on its failures at home. The rise of social media made it increasingly difficult for the idea of American exceptionalism to remain detached from the lived experiences of Americans. Stark inequality, a housing crisis, the livestreaming of shocking racial injustices, veteran suicides, and immigration policies that placed the parable of an “American Dream” into question made American exceptionalism a hazier truth to accept. 

Growing up in Cleveland is unexceptional and it teaches you to reconcile what could be with what is. Whereas most large cities occupy the county in which they sit, Cleveland shares Cuyahoga county with 58 other municipalities that encircle it. Starved of tax revenue and development, Cleveland welcomes commuters each morning and sports spectators on weekends but sits emptier at night. Urban decay is endemic in America’s large cities but Cleveland and Detroit fall into a category of their own. 

The silence is sometimes deafening on the city’s wide arterial avenues which were built for a metropolis of nearly a million in 1950, now home to under 400,000. Blocks of abandoned houses branch out from the avenues like veinlets on a dying leaf. Spray painted messages read “No Copper” on the plywood of the city’s boarded up houses. A friend’s father who worked as a contractor used to leave his work vans empty and unlocked each night so their windows would be spared. The 2008 financial crisis rocked an already depressed city which led the nation in poverty going into the crisis. This is not an indictment of my hometown which is a place that not only built America with its steel but is also home to sophisticated culture, art, food, and people. But it is far away from the coastal cities that serve as the post cards for American exceptionalism and even further from Capitol Hill. 

When I joined the Marine Corps I met recruits and later Marines from the other Ohio. Smaller towns like Mansfield, Norwalk, and Lima that were nearly two hours from the state’s larger cities. The military collected these small town Ohioans, mixed them up with other recruits, and sent them to places like North Carolina, California, Hawaii, and Japan, while some ultimately returned to reserve units in their hometown.

In fact, even those who served on active duty in faraway states eventually returned to Ohio and the towns where they grew up — something that felt unthinkable to me. I have lived in Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, Maryland, California, and New York. My moves are dictated by education and work choices. Like many of my peers, I maintain connections to several states, but what actually defines my life is a set of experiences and ideas loosely rooted in American progressivism and cosmopolitanism.

This mobility and attachment to ideas over places is an experience that has come to define the lives of America’s professional class and particularly the group pejoratively referred to as “coastal elites.” To understand last week’s debate, it is important to appreciate the  division between those whose lives are defined by the local versus those who pass ephemerally through cities in search of opportunities and usually land on the coast. 

Many divisions in the United States inform where the country finds itself today. These include socioeconomics, race, and geography. But the division between those living local lives defined by their role within their communities and those living transient ones defined by a more abstract sense of an American identity helps inform how the country could be so divided on the central issues of the first presidential debate of 2020.

Leaving the health risks of in-person voting aside, the necessity of mail-in ballots is apparent for a generation of young Americans that have temporarily returned home from cities hundreds or thousands of miles away. For those living local lives, the proposition that it is impracticable to go to the polling place down the street is outlandish and even conspiratorial.

The necessity to renounce White supremacy and address the role that racial privilege plays in public life is often obvious for those living in America’s metropolises which are diverse but deeply segregated and organized along racial and socioeconomic hierarchies. But for those living in largely homogenous towns in the heartland it becomes less clear what role racial privilege plays in their lives. This does not negate the experiences of rural African Americans or excuse the blatant racism that is weaponized to reject that White supremacy even exists. But it does explain why some parts of the country more readily accept or resist these ideas. 

Today a divided United States frustrated at its shared destiny with the other side finds itself collectively focused on the problems at home. What problems exist and how to remedy them is where the division is found. But the United States is looking inward at a crumbling infrastructure, debt-strapped and unhealthy population, violent police culture, and a dysfunctional political process. 

Yet in Washington, the biggest concern seems to be the place of the United States abroad and an almost comical assumption that the United States not only should lead the world but that the primary threat to its mantle of leadership is a refusal to extend its influence even further outside its borders.

By refusing to recognize the United States’s own limitations to dictate events in the world and instead focus on diplomacy abroad and development at home, Washington’s elite have permitted the chaos that is seen today to fill the vacuum. Calls for diplomacy-centered restraint abroad and a focus inward are disingenuously maligned as isolationism when the natural conclusion of the excesses of America’s adventurism abroad will be the rise of xenophobic isolationism at home.

There is an oft-repeated belief that American voters do not care about foreign policy. This is a half truth. Most American voters do not have deeply-held views about specific policy prescriptions for conflicts abroad, but polling reveals that voters across the political spectrum believe in less U.S. intervention abroad and more focus on issues at home.

This is difficult for Washington to accept as an institution because it undermines a convoluted sense of American exceptionalism. But that loss is already felt by most Americans and the only way to heal it is for Washington is to refocus its gaze onto America. 

More from