Michael Kinsley on American Exceptionalism and the Meaning of the Elections

“The theory that Americans are better than everybody else is endorsed by an overwhelming majority of U.S. voters and approximately 100 percent of all U.S. politicians, although there is less and less evidence to support it. A recent Yahoo poll (and I resist the obvious joke here) found that 75 percent of Americans believe that the United States is “the greatest country in the world.” Does any other electorate demand such constant reassurance about how wonderful it is — and how wise?”

“Everybody will be talking in the next few days about the “message” of the elections. They mean, of course, the message from the voters. This is one of the treasured conventions of political journalism. Yesterday, the story was all about artifice and manipulation, the possible effect of the latest attack ad or absurd lie. Today, all that melts away. The election results are deemed to reflect grand historical trends. But my colleague Joe Scarborough got it right in these pages last week when he argued that the 2010 elections, for all their passion and vitriol, are basically irrelevant. Some people are voting Tuesday for calorie-free chocolate cake, and some are voting for fat-free ice cream. Neither option is actually available. Neither party’s candidates seriously addressed the national debt, except with proposals to make it even worse. Scarborough might have added that neither party’s candidates had much to say about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (except that they “support our troops,” a flabby formulation that leaves Americans killing and dying in faraway wars that politicians won’t defend explicitly). Politicians are silent on both these issues for the same reason: There is no solution that American voters will tolerate. Why can’t we have calorie-free chocolate cake? We’re Americans!”

Michael Kinsley

I’m not sure I entirely agree with Kinsley.  I think people for the most part vote either (1) party affiliation or (2) the economy as it effects them personally.  But I grant that, taking into account those two qualifications, voters can be pretty irrational.  But what do you think?

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38 thoughts on “Michael Kinsley on American Exceptionalism and the Meaning of the Elections

  1. In general I think there’s no message at all. When they don’t have a job or are in danger of losing their home, they vote against the party in power, end of story. I think there’s some point to this notion that people are voting for something that doesn’t exist too. It’s pretty clear that only a few partisans are really voting for particular policies, most people are voting for nebulous platitudes, not for concrete policies. There’s certainly no doubt that, as a whole, the electorate wants everything but doesn’t want to pay for any of it.

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  2. It has been noted in the past that we (the American Electorate) usually get the quality of government that we deserve. One can only hope that we have not finally achieved such a poor level that we will all end up in the dumper.

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  3. I especially think it is interesting that we feel the need to be constantly reassured that we’re the ‘greatest country in the world.’ As a collective, Americans seem to have poor self-esteem and simultaneously feel entitled. It’s like we’re perpetual teenagers.

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  4. I’ve taken a few Yahoo polls, and they’re pretty ridiculous. The serious issue questions seem to be written by Stephen Colbert, along the lines of “Barack Obama: Terrible President, or Worst President?” So, like Rasmussen, I tend to be skeptical of their results.

    I love my country, but pretty much every indicator (education, health care, poverty, infant mortality, corruption, etc) places the US outside of the Top 10, so it’s hard to back up “We’re #1!” with anything other than opinion.

    As for the results of the election… In addition to the ideas already mentioned, imagine if for the month of October there had been objective headlines such as “Strong GOP Turnout Looks to Decide Election” rather than the sensational leading headlines we were swamped with, projecting “Landslides” “Tidal Waves” “Blowouts” and so forth? If we had an objective media, rather than one seeking to depress progressive advances, I think we’d have had a much closer overall result that better expressed the country’s mood.

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  5. Sean G, I think you make an interesting point regarding the media. I wondered, as well, if it becomes a self-fulfiiling prophecy. The more people hear about this GOP landside, the more they decide there is no use fighting it – might as well vote along side the inevitable winners, or not vote at all.

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  6. That’s good to know about Yahoo polls, Sean.

    I’ve reluctantly come to the conclusion the mainstream media is opposed to what little there is of a genuine Left in this country. Thank goodness for Democracy Now! and a very few other media sources!

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  7. An alarming number of people who vote do so to “fulfill their civic duty” but they are woefully and willfully uninformed. They listen to Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and others who will tell them what to think. Too often American voters are lazy, entitled, and not realistic. Only a small percentage take the time and make the effort to do their own research, inform themselves about the issues and the candidates, then use their own brain cells to critically think about what makes sense. Everyone else is looking for an “expert” to do their thinking for them.

    In my state a large percentage of the population votes. It’s a source of state pride. Yet few are truly informed. Many many lloooove listening to Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity. Doesn’t that paint a pretty picture.

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  8. I do not see a lot of intellectual discipline in the electorate or even among the pundit class, CD. I’m not even sure most get the concept of “intellectual discipline” or think of it as a virtue.

    Yet, I’m pretty sure Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, and the others would loose some popularity if more people embraced logic and carefully weighed evidence when thinking — that is, if they were more disciplined.

    I think it’s funny that many folks can be so disciplined about, say, what beverages they drink, and yet be such slackers in their reasoning.

    But — here’s a thought for you — perhaps the popularity of those pundits is more a matter of taste than a matter of sloppy reasoning? Or, perhaps their popularity reflects people’s values more than it does their intellectual discipline?

    Or perhaps all of that factors together somehow. What do you think?

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  9. I think their popularity stems from the fact that they validate the values and beliefs of their listeners. I can tell you I am surrounded by people who refuse/cannot/? think critically about their fundamental beliefs. Those beliefs shape their perception of reality and their very identities. Consider this example: I had a conversation with a family member once when I explained I had learned some undisputed and well-documented facts that forced me to conclude our entire belief system was built on fraud. Her response: “Don’t tell me anything. I don’t want to know.”

    I’ve said it 100 times in just as many ways: When one’s goal is finding validation for one’s beliefs rather than learning truth, critical thinking is irrelevant.

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  10. CD, what you’ve said makes a lot of sense. I guess it’s a bit like having a favorite sports team. That is, it takes the fun out of things if you are too critical of them. You want to be surrounded by 50,000 cheering fans who share your enthusiasm and your love of the team, not 50,000 truth-tellers.

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  11. I suspect that we realize we are not “number one”… and that thought is disturbing to a country that once was on the cusp of being “the role-model for where other countries want to be”. Including our former rulers.

    Our history is built on the destruction of another empire, the looming fall of our own empire is disturbing on a deeply subconscious level. Especially when there is nothing we can do to stop it.

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  12. the looming fall of our own empire is disturbing on a deeply subconscious level. Especially when there is nothing we can do to stop it.

    Maybe something could be done at a school level. America is too isolationist, too focused on herself and lacking the big picture from a man-on-the-street point of view. America had /has surely something exceptional – one doesn’t become the first world power by chance. But the maintenance of such power implies, among the rest, that the people receive a good education. Having the best élite universities of the world is not enough.

    Seen from here American school is too practical and not formative enough. At its best it produces specialists who are a bit blind outside their profession. Which could be related to the fact that American pop culture seems – at least to me – too pervasive and that no high culture / pop culture distinction is felt any more. Visiting museums, watching operas or art are considered snobbish by an anti-elitist majority.

    Not that the average European is that better cultivated than the average American, but at least here being ‘cultured’ is a respected, non ridiculous, notion (the difference between Euro movies and US movies could be evidence of that a bit).

    What I mean is that part of a world supremacy is maintaining a cultural hegemony. I have been teaching at the UN for a while. The best students were almost always the Chinese and the Indian.

    Pls do not shoot me. I love America, as my blog attests.

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  13. Thank you so much for making the time to respond today, MoR! I know it’s a hectic day for you.

    I find your thesis fascinating. It strikes me that to emphasize the quality of a nation’s primary and secondary education as a key to national greatness is to indeed address the problem at its very roots — much as Confucius, for instance, recommended. Your approach makes sense, especially when placed in the context of cultural hegemony.

    By the way, Wolf, who you quote, plans on a career in teaching. And, if I’m any judge, she will make an exceptional teacher.

    One quibble though: In my opinion, the average European is indeed better cultivated — and better educated — than the average American. And, in an ideal world, I would love to live in a country where I did not have to listen to one reverse-snob or another describe as “elitist” an appreciation for, say, the fine arts, or a general knowledge of the sciences, or an interest in something more than just celebrities and sports.

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  14. One quibble though: In my opinion, the average European is indeed better cultivated — and better educated — than the average American.

    I don’t know. Possibly. But things are deteriorating fast due to the great influence of moronic television upon the young.

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  15. I cannot throw my TV Paul. Too many people over here would get upset. And I too like to watch debates, some movie and the news which I get from different parts of the world. Tv can be useful for mind trips in different languages / countries. Usually I watch movies and news / debates in all the languages I can, even those where I understand only a few words. A retirement hobby lol, no big deal, believe me. But I think there are alternative uses for everything, although this is not how most young Italians use television. Some of them though are learning, despite our PM Berlusconi, such an archaic and unpleasant old man.

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  16. Unlike you, MoR, I have always lacked the personal discipline to take from a television only what is good or useful to me. Instead, I have always found myself abusing it by spending endless hours indiscriminately watching whatever comes on, no matter how bad it is. Thus, in my case, it has been much better that I throw out the TV, than to keep it.

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  17. I used to take a lot of pride in having thrown out my television, almost eight years ago now. Recently I’ve realized that I spend a lot of time watching TV shows thanks to Hulu, Netflix, and the like. I am still proud of the fact that I am mostly without the influence of commercials and the overall brainwashing influence of TV, I still spend two or so hours a day entertaining myself. Sure, it’s quality entertainment like “Mad Men” or “30 Rock” or films, but is that really any different than owning a TV?

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  18. Thank you so much MoR! 😀

    I can’t wait to get back to it… I’m doing the full time mother gig, until my Wife finishes her Masters.

    Wa:do!

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  19. Also MoR, i don’t disagree with you, let alone want to shoot you! 😉

    I think Americans have long been battling themselves over isolationism… perhaps in part because we have been lucky enough to have abundant natural resources, and a desire to avoid imperialism.

    I think that the dynamics of American psychology are still very much rooted in the unanswered dualities from our founding. Federalism/anti-federalism, isolationism/expansionism and so on.

    I also agree that education seriously shorts our youth by not giving them enough time to explore culture and humanities… and the unfortunate lack of appreciation for our museums and galleries! We definitely struggle with anti-intellectualism.

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  20. I like being an American, I certainly think we have made some extremely good decisions as a people, and that we still do today. However, I do believe that we are also an amazingly provincial folk in many respects. That anti-intellectualism (found on both ends of the political spectrum in our nation, I might add) that is sometimes on embarrassing display is a manifestation of that provincialism.

    K. Capach’s thoughts are very worthy of discussion. In fact, I think a lot of us have been expressing aspects of these thought over at the MOR blog on topics like polymathy.

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  21. “Don’t get me started on television! I threw out my television some years ago. I have lived without one ever since. And I believe myself to be in all and every way better off because of it.”

    We gave up the TV ten years ago. We do have a box hooked to a VCR and I am working my way through Don Giovanni on VHS. The box is useful for films we rent, or buy, but we simply refuse to get television stations — it is money for nothing to us. For sports fans, a TV is critical, but we don’t follow major league ball, so we get our news from the print press, or the Net. We have never missed having TV around here.

    http://zeusiswatching.wordpress.com/2009/07/14/bread-and-circuses/

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  22. George Washington was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses by outspending his rival in hard cider and whiskey for votes. Politics has changed little since then. Politics and religion are so closely related that even the Constitutional prohibition of making “no law respecting an establishment of religion” is constantly being challenged. And both religion and politics depend on installing in the mind of the follower some fantasy that can be believed, usually based on culture and emotion. Facts are not important when one’s mind is made up. Pity.

    Peace.

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  23. Isolationism is influenced in my view by a de facto condition referred to as American insularity. I know many Americans resent this concept, but the first time I was in the U.S. I understood how huge, self-sufficient plus surrounded by oceans your country is, a bit like Russia, another big cultural island despite her being less isolated geographically. I had some interesting discussions on this topic with many Americans.

    By the way, Italy too is like a cultural island, not to mention France, even worse. Not the best way to address future challenges in a globalized world, that of looking at our shoes only as far as we are concerned, being so small – but as far as any nation is concerned I would add, no matter its size.

    I’m not here to promote my blog but Zeus is right. These themes (education, monomathy, polymathy, culture, anti-elitism etc.) have been discussed over at my blog among Americans, Canadians and Britons. My comment above owes a lot to those debates. I paste the links in case anyone here is interested. Hope WordPress won’t block this as spam.

    *Culture, Kultur, Paideia*
    *The Last Days of the Polymath*

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  24. That’s a fascinating association of religion and politics you are making there, Leguru! Especially your point that both involve encouraging fantasies in people.

    I believe I’ve seen that more than a little bit in recent years. That is, I didn’t pay real attention to politics until relatively recently — so it’s only been recently that I’ve noticed these things.

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  25. Thank you so much for the links, MoR! I look forward to reading the posts and conversations.

    Do you think the US can remain the dominant power in the world and still cultivate insularity? Those two things seem to me contradictory. But what do you think?

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  26. Excellent point! There are people here who advocate going back to an earlier time when we could be to a large extent psychologically insular and politically isolationist. But how possible is that in an age of globalization? Is sounds today like the most far out fantasy.

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