At Home and Abroad: Restoring American Political Exceptionaliam

By Devine, Thomas A. | Harvard International Review, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

At Home and Abroad: Restoring American Political Exceptionaliam


Devine, Thomas A., Harvard International Review


The United States' preeminent position as the leading democracy in the world is threatened today by a breakdown in our politics that can be traced back to the 2000 election and the policy failures that occurred in the wake of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. I have seen this erosion in America's standing firsthand in my work abroad. For the last 17 years I have worked on campaigns outside of the United States as a political consultant. That work, regarding the wav in which American consultants run high-level political campaigns abroad, has been the subject of a study group that I led this fall at the Harvard Institute of Politics.

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While working on one of these campaigns abroad in 2001, I flew to Dublin, Ireland where I had consulted on the previous general election in 1997 and was working again for the leaders of Fianna Fail, the party of the government at that time. 1 was headed for a series of political meetings in preparation for the upcoming general election in 2002. Since I was working for a client on the West Coast of the United States, when 1 began my trip to Dublin, my journey took me through the Denver airport on the way to Chicago to catch a non-stop flight to Ireland.

In early October of 2001, the Dener airport - like many airports in America--could fairly be described as an armed camp. Throughout the spacious main terminal, troops with automatic weapons kept guard in the wake of the attacks on America by Al Qaeda terrorists. The reality of those terrorist attacks was palpable to every passenger that day, and as I saw firsthand when I worked for Senator John Kerry, the events of September 11, 2001, would shape the framework of our own American presidential campaign three years later.

After arriving in Ireland, I had a scheduled meeting with Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, the Irish Prime Minister, at his constituency office in the Drumcondra section of Dublin. The small and unpretentious office known as "St. Luke's" was a convenient hideaway for the Taoiseach where he would frequently meet with both his local constituents and national political advisors. As I stepped out of my taxi at St. Luke's, the Taoiseach was arriving as well and met me on the sidewalk in front of the building. As he approached, he said in the most sincere and somber tones, "Tad, I'm very sorry." At first, I did not quite understand the meaning of the Taoiseach's condolence, but then I quickly realized that his heartfelt sympathy, something that was later conveyed to me by so many people who I met in Dublin in the days I spent there during that 2001 trip, was a reference to the terrorist attacks on my own country during the previous month.

America's Falling Standing in the Post 9/11 World

The United States' standing in the world reached a highpoint in the wake of the events of September 11, 2001. It was reflected to me not just in the sincere expressions of condolence from a Prime Minister to an American citizen on a business trip, but also in the way that so many people all across Ireland and elsewhere around the world expressed their heartfelt support for the United States in the wake of the terrorist attacks. During my career, I have worked on 14 foreign campaigns, which have permitted me to travel extensively to work for candidates for president and prime minister. I have seen firsthand how foreign leaders and the people who run their campaigns and nations feel about the United States. The time spent abroad also allows me to consume foreign media, not from the remote vantage point of a laptop computer in the United States, but rather, while watching local television broadcasts in hotel rooms and at campaign headquarters, listening to the radio news, and reading the hard copy broadsheets (which still play an important role in framing public opinion in capitals around the world).

While there was much sympathy for the United States in the days after the attacks of September 11, 2001, America's standing in the wrorld fell precipitously in subsequent months and years. …

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