One of the charges being leveled against President Obama during the current Presidential election campaign is a lack of belief in American exceptionalism. I would argue that the choices we have made as a society, particularly in the last decade, put us in jeopardy of undoing the truly heroic role our country played on the world stage for most of the twentieth century.
I believe that the root cause of our current problems is less ideological and more nutsy-boltsy than one might think. In the United States, any degree of individual success brings about the desire for a large house and a large car. Those personal consumer choices have an enormous and indeed exponential ripple effect.
To give a concrete example, when in Switzerland six weeks ago, I visited a friend who was my host brother when I was an exchange student in Germany. He now lives in the German-speaking part of Switzerland, not too far from Zurich. I spent a couple nights as a guest in their lovely home. It had two bedrooms, one-and-a-half baths and a guest room, all on the one floor that served as the main living space. I am a small house fan, but it seemed borderline cramped.
As I learned twenty-plus years ago and was reminded in August, such close quarters inevitably bring about a different way of relating to people. Those who have been to Europe, or even quasi-European North American cities such as Boston or Toronto, might share my impression that the biggest difference is to see people walking the streets, just going about their everyday business. Behaving in a civil and civilized manner, I might add--not being a public nuisance like students in the UWM area or even just being boisterous bros going to a Brewer game, Water Street or the Lakefront Brewery tour.
Being able to behave in a way that fosters coexistence with others in a small space is an immense source of personal and public wealth. Imagine Milwaukee's Downtown and East Side being able to attract the relatively free-spending older adults who now increasingly stay out west for dining and nightlife. Though we Americans have always been a rowdy bunch, we used to have manners. Genteel Southern manners, after all, are some of the world's most famous. American exceptionalism requires exceptional American behavior--and that is down to each and every one of us.