"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, October 21, 2012

‘The Opiate Of Exceptionalism’

In article of this same title in the New York Times, Scott Shane writes about the bland platitudes, nostrums, and feel-good hymns to American greatness that are spewed forth from campaign rostrums.  Why, he asks, can’t politicians give the Americans the facts and the hard truth about their country? The problems of poverty, poor health, and social welfare are there right before our very eyes and crying out for solution, so why not address them?

What might this mythical candidate talk about on the stump? He might vow to turn around the dismal statistics on child poverty, declaring it an outrage that of the 35 most economically advanced countries, the United States ranks 34th, edging out only Romania. He might take on educational achievement, noting that this country comes in only 28th in the percentage of 4-year-olds enrolled in preschool, and at the other end of the scale, 14th in the percentage of 25-to-34-year-olds with a higher education. He might hammer on infant mortality, where the United States ranks worse than 48 other countries and territories, or point out that, contrary to fervent popular belief, the United States trails most of Europe, Australia and Canada in social mobility.

However, we don’t want to hear these grim reaper statistics.  For most of us America will always be the Land of Opportunity where the hard work, ingenuity, Puritan discipline, and creativity have and will always reign ascendant; and even if these problems exist, they won’t exist for long.

Ronald Reagan was the first president to have articulated this very American notion of feel-good pride in his ‘It’s morning again in America’ speech.  Derided by many for an artificial, Hollywood vision that had nothing to do with reality, Reagan did in fact know the country far better than his critics.  He understood that we are a people who don’t like to look back or even at the ground in front of us but to the mountaintops beyond.  We have a deep-seated, fundamental and at heart patriotic belief in our collective ability to overcome adversity.

As a result of this political fundamentalism, we don’t want to be bothered with the details.  The Republicans learned the Reagan lesson well, maintain their campaign strategy of Hollywood image, and reject the ratty, unpleasant vision of Democrats.  They know that most of Middle America does not want to peer into the tarpaper shacks of North Carolina, ignore the faces of the poor, and skip over articles on urban desperation and gloom. It is enough for Republicans to unfurl just a few bright, waving banners: Small Government, Lower Taxes, Freedom, Patriotism, God, and Family Values.  All are positive, resonant messages that correspond to core American beliefs.  They are icons for what we believe, and we trust the politicians who wave them. 

Those who espouse these fundamental beliefs are not ignorant or uninformed, for behind each icon is a subset of more practical actions.  When we salute the Freedom flag, we know it means a strong military to defend the rights of the oppressed; the ability for every American to pursue his own dreams, fulfill his potential, and achieve the wealth that is his by birthright.  God and Family Values are the bedrock of American life, and without them we would be a rudderless ship.  Religious principles have always guided our personal and social lives, and that a faith in God and the divine beneficence which we receive in return for our prayers and devotion is the real reason for our continued prosperity.

Shane gets it right when he says:

It is permissible, in the political major leagues, for candidates to talk about big national problems — but only if they promise solutions in the next sentence: Unemployment is too high, so I will create millions of jobs. It is impermissible to dwell on chronic, painful problems, or on statistics that challenge the notion that the United States leads the world.

“People in this country want the president to be a cheerleader, an optimist, the herald of better times ahead,” says Robert Dallek, the presidential historian. “It’s almost built into our DNA.”

However, he does not suggest why we are so idealistically and unrealistically disposed.  It is not because we are idealistic, unrealistic dreamers, it is because centuries-old American myths have become part of our collective psyche.  

Democrats will always be behind in popular appeal because they insist on facts, gritty reality, and finger-shaking sobriety.  They have not learned the lesson of Jimmy Carter – no one wants to be told to turn their heat down and that there is a malaise across the land.

There is a good reason why Democrats have no Rush Limbaughs, Sean Hannitys, or Glenn Becks.  They take life too seriously.  A Hollywood scenario can be played for drama or laughs, but constant Depression-era documentary reruns only depress and discourage.  ‘Progressives’ believe that focus on the ugly and warty side of America is the only right course of action. They hector, wheedle, whine, and pester us to pay attention to dying trees, festering, polluted waterways, drug-infested communities, medieval prisons, and the ever-present threat of nuclear holocaust.

Most people – except a few old-line liberals and legions of innocent, idealistic young people – ignore these doom-and-gloom scripts.  Who wouldn’t want to see a bright sun rising over the snowcapped Rockies?

The Democrats are only in the competitive position they are because of similar Democratic myths which are not popularized and expanding in reach, but aged and historic.  They harken back to the days of Saint FDR whose vision and heroic fight for the Little Man will never be forgotten and the only sunrise they see is that over Campobello. Black people have always voted Democratic, for it was LBJ who signed the Civil Rights Act, Bobby Kennedy who forced George Wallace to back down, and Bill Clinton to give the black community recognition and respect.  Poor families everywhere who have depended on government largesse for decades, continue to believe in some liberal miracle to finally raise them out of shit jobs and decrepit housing.

If there is any real division in the Democratic ranks this election it is not between liberals and conservatives, it is between an offer of hope and a dose of reality.  Obama is stuck between the slats of uneven fence.  If he resurrects the myths of the past, liberals will say he is not doubling down on the facts of poverty and desperation.  If he goes too far into the cluttered toolbox of policies and programs, he is dunned for being too wonky, too arrogant, and too far from the beating heart of the people.  At times Obama can rise to the occasion, blending both hope and reality. When he puts on his preacher hat he can excite people by appealing to their fundamental beliefs in equality, and then ask them for sacrifice.

I and my fellow East Coast intellectuals will study the New York Times and 50 other objective-leaning journals for the facts.  We will construct our own balance sheets, evaluate candidates’ statements, and parse every line of party platforms.  We listen to pundits, follow polls, and read political philosophy to glean trends and meaning.  But we are in the vast minority.  We haven’t gotten it yet.  America is an exceptional country, so get over it.

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