American Exceptionalism Was Our Preexisting ConditionHistorians in the News
America is sick. Still sick. The fever spikes, abates, returns. The shortness of breath lingers. America is waiting in virtual bread lines, listening to bad jazz, on hold with the unemployment office. America is strewn with the glass shards of Starbucks windows, busted by protesters, and bullied by unidentifiable agents of the government. America, barefoot and in Brooks Brothers, is defending its marble palazzo with an AR-15 rifle. America is spray-painted with the faces of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, on bollards and plywood and mailboxes. America is trying to keep the kids occupied, and fed, and learning, and sociable without socializing. America is in the middle of a public health wildfire, an economic sinkhole and an earthquake over racial injustice — and the president of the United States is having to reiterate that he took a cognitive exam and correctly answered that, yes, the drawing of the large animal is, in fact, an elephant.
“You can no longer pretend that ‘the American century’ isn’t over,” says Elizabeth Tandy Shermer, an associate professor of history at Loyola University Chicago. She views the years since 1968 as a cycle of recessions and widening inequality, debt and disenfranchisement that is only now becoming apparent to broader America — white America, moneyed America — because the pandemic and social media have made it impossible to ignore. Institutions have been deteriorating and failing us for generations, she says, but we rigged workarounds with our own social networks and mutual-aid groups. We made do. Then the pandemic scattered us, isolated us, exposed us for what we really are.
“All these years after the Civil War, are we still just a union of states — or have we become a nation of people?”
That’s the question Shermer will ask the students in her U.S. history survey course. She’s watched governors battle the president and states squabble over stocks of personal protective equipment. Meanwhile the movement of Black Lives Matter has behaved like a nation of people, demanding something more, something holistic, something that was promised centuries ago.
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