When foreign car companies started opening factories in the United States, back in the 1980s, it seemed like an act of obeisance. The plants didn't make economic sense - Americans had to be paid so much more - but this was a tactful bit of tribute to Empire Central. America wants auto plants? America gets auto plants.
Last week, BMW announced it was opening a plant in South Carolina. No special explanation was required. People were lined up for jobs paying $15 an hour. Equivalent jobs in Germany pay $30 an hour. We're now a bargain.
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? Having spent a month to a couple of years and many millions of dollars trying to snooker voters, politicians awaiting poll results Tuesday will declare that they put their faith in "the fundamental wisdom of the American people."
Not me. Democracy requires me to respect the results of the elections. It doesn't require me to agree with them or to admire the process by which voters made up their minds. In my view, anyone who voted for Barack Obama for president in 2008 and now is supporting some tea party madwoman for senator has a bit of explaining to do. But the general view is that the voters, who may be fools individually, are infallibly wise as a collective - that their "anger," their urgent desire, yet again, for "change," is self-validating.
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!
The important message of this election is not from the voters but to the voters. Maybe it can be heard above the din. It is: You're not so special.
The notion that America and Americans are special, among all the peoples of the earth, is sometimes called "American exceptionalism." Because of our long history of democracy and freedom, or because we have a special mission to spread these values (or at least to remain a shining example of them), or because of our wealth, or because of our military strength, our nuclear arsenal, our wide-open spaces, our pragmatism, our idealism, or just because, the rules don't apply to us. There are man-made rules like, "You can't start a war without the permission of the United Nations Security Council." We've gotten away with quite a bit of bending or breaking of that kind of rule. This may have given us the impression that we could ignore the other kind of rules -the ones that are imposed by reality and therefore are self-enforcing. These are rules such as, "You can't have good ice cream without fat" or "You can't borrow increasing amounts of money indefinitely and never pay it back, because people will eventually stop lending it to you." No country is special enough to escape these rules.
Obama was asked during the 2008 presidential campaign whether he believed in American exceptionalism. He said, "I believe in American exceptionalism just as I suspect the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism." Newt Gingrich's gloss: "In other words, everything we cherish about America, our president thinks is not so very special, not so very different from any other country. ... No longer, in the left's view, are we the Americans of the frontier, the sturdy, independent farmers." But the question isn't whether Americans can or should cherish our country, its culture and its values. Gingrich is saying that only Americans can do so. His message to the world is, "Hey, buddy, we'll do the cherishing around here." And the country he cherishes isn't 2010 America - it's some fantasyland populated by frontiersmen and "sturdy, independent farmers." Scarborough is right about him, too. Why do we pay any attention?
This conceit that we're the greatest country ever may be self-immolating. If people believe it's true, they won't do what's necessary to make it true. The Brits, who suffer no such delusion (and who, in fact, cherish the national myth of being people who smile through adversity), have just accepted cuts in government spending that no American politician - even a tea bagger - would dream of proposing. Maybe these cuts are a mistake or badly timed, but when the British voted for "change," they really got it.
Every time I strike this note, which I guess I do a lot, I hear from people calling me elitist or unpatriotic. Here is my answer: If you think a friend is talking nonsense or behaving in a way that damages both of your long-term interests, it is not elitist to say so. To the contrary, it is treating him or her like an adult and an equal. As for patriotism, if you think your country is in danger, how is it unpatriotic to say so?