Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.
--Daniel Patrick Moynihan

May 30, 2012

Obama and Romney Both Lose

By David K. Shipler

If you want to vote early, stop by Congdon’s Donuts in Wells, Maine and drop a coffee bean into the glass jar of your choice. You don’t have to be a professional bean counter to see the results so far. You can tell at a glance that Romney is trailing Obama, but not by much, and both are way behind the jar labeled “None of Em.”

Summarizing national moods is always risky, since a moody country such as ours has many emotions simultaneously. But the dark, shiny beans tell something about the level of alienation from political leaders, the cynicism about politicians, and the distaste for government that grow out of this period’s unusual fear of uncertainty and sense of personal vulnerability.

Chances are, if any of the folks who chose “None of Em” go to the polls, they’ll be voting not for the candidate they want but against the one they dislike more intensely. Frankly, that’s the way I’ve cast my ballots in most elections. It’s not principled, admittedly, but a purely pragmatic effort to do my small part in playing defense against the worse alternative.

Russians got to do this in a dramatic way during their first contested elections for their legislature under Mikhail Gorbachev. Using printed ballots, they had to cross out the names of the candidates they did not want. Imagine how satisfying it must have been, especially in several districts where some old-line apparatchiks, still running unopposed, saw their names deleted by so many voters that new elections had to be held.

In America, though, healthy skepticism is morphing into a political cynicism so ubiquitous that children breathe it in dangerously. Near the jars at the donut place, a little girl who looked about seven asked her mother to reach up and drop her bean for “President Obama.” Her mother must have made a face, because as she complied she felt it necessary to explain to her daughter that there are people who say that Obama hasn’t done what he said he would do and so was “not honest.” The mother used her own bean to vote for None of Em.

Now, you might say that the mother was just giving a lesson in reality, that no president has ever kept campaign promises. OK, fine, but dishonesty has a harsh ring in a seven-year-old’s ears, and it’s an unfair epithet besides, given Obama’s repeated warnings that the economy, for example, would not be healed quickly. I once heard a talk-show guest in Philadelphia make the point astutely that Obama had been trying to fix the economy “all by himself.”

In fact, the girl looked puzzled by her mother’s tart remark, and they left before I could offer the kid a short course on the Republican obstructionism that had lost the country its AAA credit rating, Obama’s beneficial health bill, his sensible concern for low-income families, his senseless continuance of Bush’s civil liberties violations, his deft foreign policy except for his Afghan war and his timid handling of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and other nuances and contradictions. Goodness knows what the mother would have done had I tried.

I wonder if the girl followed up with a question for her mother, or whether her mother bothered to be curious as to why her daughter preferred Obama, and what the child thought now that she had been informed that the president she admired did not have the quality of honesty, which is so important to kids of that age.

I also wonder whether belief itself is dying—secular belief, that is. If you accept the premise that a nation’s people need something larger than themselves, that they need a greater cause, then you have to be worried. Elsewhere, peoples searching for belief have found ugly missions that have forged loose hatreds into ultra-nationalist, genocidal movements.

We have not done that here, despite our diversity, in large measure because of our shared confidence and pride in the American enterprise, the conviction that our children’s lives would be better than our own, that their society would be more just, more decent, more prosperous, more knowing, and more rational. Polls show growing doubt on some of these points.

Belief in the American Dream is waning. Its mythological pretense that anyone who works hard will succeed has never been entirely accurate. Upward mobility came with industrialization, and most Americans in recent decades have been locked into the same relative positions as their parents. But at least the Dream performed a useful function: It set a high standard, and the gap between that standard and the reality was one the country sought to close. That commitment has declined with the erosion of the ground once known as the common good.

The country progresses and hurtles backward at the same time. We possess the most skilled scientists, who every year dominate the Nobel prizes, yet we suffer the world’s most organized anti-scientific movement, whose members regard global warming as a fraud. If this were 1492, they would be members of the Flat Earth Society.

Similarly, Americans are simultaneously enhancing and hardening their regard for the less powerful. More and more Americans endorse equal rights for gays, even as the demonization of immigrants is codified into law in state after state. The Occupy Wall Street movement spotlights enormous wealth gaps, even as corporate CEOs magnify their earnings and Republicans try to cut food stamps and other essential services to the poor. We pretend to have a “safety net” and then denounce it as a cause of laziness. We extol and undermine our constitutional rights in the name of national security. We abhor and romanticize war. Indeed, we wage wars now without paying for them—for the first time in our history—and then deplore our rising national debt.

What do we believe in today? Fiscal responsibility? Sharing the burden? Platitudes? Myths? Threats? Villains, abroad and at home? Are we fragmenting our parochial beliefs into denunciations? Is there a national community? Is there a higher purpose? Are there leaders who can lead by mobilizing conscience and playing to the best in us?

None of em? Wake up and smell the coffee.

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