Winning the American Dream

It isn’t easy to be president when 40% of America thinks you might not even be American. Opportunities for subtlety are diminished. We’ve ended up with a president who is generating support for his policies by cajoling Americans to “Win the Future.”

He’s appealing to Americans’ reflexive pride, competitiveness and uncritical patriotism.

Politically, he has to. There’s no room for wishy-washiness given his goals and also the widespread discussion of his un-Americanism. The risk with this gambit is that the only metric for his success is an absolute victory, and one we may not achieve.

I grew up, like most of us, in the era of American mega superpower. It makes sense to me to be a global leader – beyond any other country in military might, economic production and moral standing – akin to Great Britain at the height of its colonial empire.

But we didn’t always hold this position, and Great Britain doesn’t hold this position in the world anymore. I imagine that the period of British decline was bleak, but they remain influential, symbolically and economically. They managed to hold a steady course, without a Rome-like collapse of the republic. That doesn’t seem so bad to me.

Let me be clear: I’m not suggesting we should happily accept 10% unemployment, failing educational systems and a growing and unacceptable wage gap. I’m separating the need for aggressive new economic policies from the language the president is using to sell them. We must do better, and creating a positive climate for small businesses is an important component of an economic recovery.

But the president’s language has no effect on me. I’m not inspired by competing or winning. I don’t believe that our country’s success and well-being is predicated on generating higher GDP than China. I’ll be just fine if we’re no longer the military or economic superpower that we are today. I’ll still believe that we’re a great country, founded on great principles and full of great people.

Maybe the “winning” language is necessary. A friend of mine argues that the language of competition is more than window dressing – that it’s a fundamental part of our culture. He argues that Americans have to feel like we’re winning and leading in order to believe in our future, and if we don’t believe in our futures, we won’t be brave, creative innovators.

During the Cold War, President Reagan bullied and bluffed the Soviet Union into its ultimate collapse by out-spending, out-investing and generally out-doing them. We want that kind of leadership and rhetoric from our leaders. The Chrysler Super Bowl commercial demonstrates how susceptible we are to manipulation of our faith in a larger idea of what America is.

I’m fine with being #2, but maybe that’s naive. Maybe this generation has to believe in the possibility of being the best in order to grow, make jobs and build an ever stronger union.


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