Home 2016 elections I Wish “We’re the Greatest!” Weren’t Such Good Politics

I Wish “We’re the Greatest!” Weren’t Such Good Politics

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Let me first try to make sure I’m not misunderstood.

I am not saying that I wish the Democrats had done anything different at the convention. As many observed, the Democrats were smart to occupy the upbeat, patriotic, American-exceptionalist, morning-in-America space that Trump’s GOP abandoned with its fear-mongering dark picture of the state of the nation. Those chants of “U.S.A! U.S.A.!” may help some Republicans and Independents, unhappy with Trump, feel comfortable turning to the Democratic Party for at least a temporary home. That’s good politics, and whatever is good politics for the Democrats this year is good for America.

And I am not criticizing expressions of love of country. Such love is probably a healthy thing for anyone in any country. But in particular, I am glad to say that I love America. The older I get, the more frequently I feel gratitude that my grandparents came to these shores. In part it is because I know that had they not, my ancestral line might have been cut short — years before my birth — in that ditch at Babi Yar, or some such place. And I’ve also come to appreciate my good fortune to have had the opportunities and comforts that being born in this country in these times has given me.

But feeling such love and gratitude for one’s country is one thing. Insisting on declaring our being superior to everyone else is quote another. While it may be good politics for speaker after speaker at the DNC to declare that we’re “the greatest nation on earth!” the nation would be greater if the American people had less need for this kind of collective narcissism.

It has been said (by a Swiss social thinker, Denis de Rougemont more than half a century ago) that patriotism is

egotism, but so broadened as to become a virtue… It is accepted that every form of pride, every form of vanity, and even the most stupid boastings are legitimate and honorable so long as they are attributed to the nation in which one has taken the trouble to get born. What nobody would dare to say of his me, he has the sacred duty of saying for his us.

The Republicans, of course, have just nominated someone who does dare to make such stupid boastings of his “me.” And many of us find it a turn-off. Do you suppose that our friends in other nations find it appealing how often we Americans shout about how our nation is greater than all the others?

People of psychological acumen understand that Donald Trump’s endless boasts are anything but a sign of a truly secure and healthy sense of self-worth. Can it be all that good a sign about the collective state of the American psyche that we are so eager to tell the world that “We’re # 1”?

Even if we are.

But are we indeed the greatest nation on earth? The matter is not so easily judged: there are so many dimensions to evaluate that scoring the matter would be more complex than calculating points for the decathalon.

We are indeed the greatest military power on earth– as well we should be, spending as we do more than the next many countries combined.

Our role in the world as a hegemonic power may be more benign — or perhaps one should say less malignant — than any of the previous dominant powers.

It remains true that this nation has the world’s dominant economy– though by some calculations the Chinese economy is now bigger in aggregate, and on a per capital basis there are some other nations richer than we.

Historically, the U.S. has indeed served as a beacon to the world, representing the values of liberty, and providing opportunities to those willing to work hard.

But we’re also number 1 of all the nations on earth in how many of our people are in prison; number 1 among the 20 major advanced nations in the rate of infant mortality; in income inequality; in the proportion of our people, especially our children, who live in poverty; in how much we spend per person on health care, while also having the most people who go without health care because of cost.

But even if our claims to be the greatest are valid, we would be greater still if we as a people did not have so powerful an appetite for the narcissistic gratification of asserting our greatness.

Our religious traditions teach us that a degree of humility is necessary for being able to receive some of the blessings of the spirit. Is there any reason to believe that to be less true for the collectivity of a nation than it is for us as individuals?

Narcissistic needs do not come out of a healthy place. And they do not foster healthy outcomes.

The Republican Party of recent years has combined two elements that might at first seem in contradiction to one another. On the one hand, the Republicans have been the ones to make a big issue out of “American exceptionalism,” which in their hands becomes a boast about our superiority to all others. On the other hand, they have acted — first under the Bush presidency and then in their obstructionist role as the disloyal opposition — as a wrecking crew upon the nation, degrading just about everything about America that has made it great.

Which all points to why I wish that “We’re the greatest!” weren’t such good politics: if we collectively were less attached to our being superior, we would be more capable — psychologically and spiritually — of making America still better.