The political slant of the engineering staff at my current Bellevue, Washington, employer tacks leftward, which was a surprise to me, since my last industry job (at a large PC infrastructure and business application company that shall remain nameless) was a staunchly Republican shop. At last Tuesday’s beer o’clock at the chain brewpub across the street I was again struck by the political disposition of my coworkers, which ranges from liberal to libertarian. (Our one Republican hard-currency biz dev guy was absent and sorely missed, because he keeps us sharp.) Of course in comparison to the leftist standards set by my amiably stultifying previous life as a graduate student, my current coworkers are like Franco diehards or something, but I’m like whatever, because they’re closer to my own slant, and anyway isn’t celebrating Diversity what it’s all about?
That day my Brazilian coworker had an interesting insight about the political culture of the United States. His view is a standard one–he’s impressed by our dynamism and optimism, and dumbfounded by the strange places these qualities sometimes lead us. (“Nowhere else in the world is taxing the rich an unpopular idea.” ) But his take on the origin of this culture is unique. “You always think that things are going to work out because your revolution had a happy ending.”
He meant 1776 and all that, and none of the native-born Americans at the table had ever thought about this before. And it’s not for lack of thinking about the American revolution. I for one want to be a partisan for the colonists, both out of general patriotism, and because those wig-wearing Deists were onto something that still resonates today. The American revolution was the first big political move of the Enlightenment, explicitly republican and anti-monarchist. It was like the the French revolution, except it happened thirteen years earlier and didn’t end in dismal failure. No guillotines, Bonapartist autocracy, and eventual restoration of the crown. Neither did the adventure begun by Washington, Jefferson, et al. end in show trials, great leaps forward, or a vast internal gulag state. The bluecoats were the good guys, but then they had it easy. The enemy was an ocean away, not ensconced in a palace in the center of the country, so the basic infrastructure of the post-revolutionary state was already in place. As much as this sort of disentanglement is possible, the American revolution was solely about systems of governance, and didn’t mix in the seismic rifts of class and ethnicity that have torn apart other societies in times of upheaval. (Our own internal gulag state–administered by an army of craven apparatchiks and sadistic scum who would have done Stalin proud–only fell nearly a century later after a much bloodier war.) So there were structural reasons why things went as well as they did. But they nevertheless went well. And compared to Latin America and Africa, they went really well.
Revolution is like chemotherapy–sometimes it’s the right thing to do, but don’t expect to feel good afterwards. But here in America we did feel good afterwards, so I’m wondering if my Brazilian coworker may be on to something. My usual inclination is to dismiss American exceptionalism as just the local variety of dumbass jingoism, but the conditions of the American revolution really were exceptional. And these conditions enabled things to go so well for the United States right out of the gate that it was easy to ignore them and assume our success was all our own doing. As a nation, we were born on third and think we hit a triple. Which can be infuriating, but as I can assure you from other areas of life, it beats cynicism, because a little overestimation of one’s ability can go a long way.