Patriotism means trying to form a more perfect union

An excerpt from President Obama’s remarks in Selma, AL on the 50th Anniversary of the 1965 march:

Their faith was questioned. Their lives were threatened. Their patriotism was challenged. And yet, what could be more American than what happened in this place?

What could more profoundly vindicate the idea of America than plain and humble people – the unsung, the downtrodden, the dreamers not of high station, not born to wealth or privilege, not of one religious tradition but many – coming together to shape their country’s course?

What greater expression of faith in the American experiment than this; what greater form of patriotism is there; than the belief that America is not yet finished, that we are strong enough to be self-critical, that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals?

That’s why Selma is not some outlier in the American experience. That’s why it’s not a museum or static monument to behold from a distance. It is instead the manifestation of a creed written into our founding documents:

“We the People…in order to form a more perfect union.”

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

These are not just words. They are a living thing, a call to action, a roadmap for citizenship and an insistence in the capacity of free men and women to shape our own destiny.

The full speech has other excellent passages as well, but that one spoke most strongly to me right now in the current debates on the meaning of U.S. patriotism, American exceptionalism, and criticism of American policy at home or abroad.


America As Number Two — We’d Try Harder

In 1962, Avis Rent a Car adopted the slogan “We’re number two. We try harder.” The message of the ad campaign was clear: Avis was not the number one company in the rental car industry, but its underdog status made it better than the top dog, Hertz.

While Hertz was complacent at the top, Avis was trying to climb toward first place by outperforming its chief competitor with superior service. The corporate culture at Avis quickly evolved to match these heightened expectations, as employees did begin to “try harder.”

Fast forward nearly half a century. It is still a core part of the political lexicon of either party in the United States to praise America as “the greatest nation on earth.” President Obama did so in his 2011 State of the Union address, and senators and congressmen certainly are never bested in their reflexive laudatory stance. Amid all this over-the-top self-praise, it’s hard to step back and look critically at things we could do to make the country better.

In 2009 and early 2010, during the U.S. debate on healthcare reform, many reform opponents repeatedly said that America “has the best healthcare system in the world.” There are two problems with this statement.

First, it is not true by any objective standard, except perhaps with regard to specialty care. America spends a larger share of its GDP on health care than any other industrialized nation, yet on broad measures of health, such as life expectancies and mortality rates, the United States falls behind other large rich countries.

Second, even if it were true that the United States has the best healthcare system in the world, there would still be room for improvement. Declaring our healthcare system the world’s best does not tell us anything about whether it is the best it could be.

More broadly, the United States faces serious problems — including poverty, drug addiction, homelessness, undiagnosed and untreated mental illness, an increasing wealth gap, long-term underemployment and unemployment, an obesity epidemic and slipping literacy and numeracy proficiency.

Some of these problems are inter-related and show no signs of improving. Indeed, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office projects unemployment will remain high until at least 2016 if no further government action is taken (which is expected to be the case under the country’s divided Congress).

There is little motivation to solve these chronic societal problems, some of which have been on the back burner for decades now, if the country pats itself on the back in the face of all objective statistics showing an America that is drifting further and further away from first place.

Any constructive answer to this problem requires citizens and political leaders alike to accept that the United States is no longer the leader in many areas. Once the country has accepted this reality, it can take the “Avis approach” and try harder to solve its problems and regain first place on as many fronts as possible.

Most of these problems are not insurmountable or unaffordable, but political will is absent without the push to compete against other nations. Since so many U.S. political leaders in both parties are determined to insist that America is the greatest, most innovative, most productive country on earth right now, the country is not actively trying to compete to make these statements true again.

Democrats and Republicans have cited the economic and military rise of China to rally their bases to support various policies, but in other areas where China is actually ahead of the United States, like the manufacture of clean energy technology, there is generally silence.

It should be troubling to the “America is number one” crowd that China is a leader in solar panel construction and is financing, manufacturing and building wind farms in places like Texas — but the reaction has primarily been indifference.

When China finally surpassed the United States in greenhouse gas emissions, the Chinese government responded last year by announcing plans for a cap-and-trade system, even as plans for an American one stalled in a U.S. Senate committee.

Many political advisers would tell candidates, especially in the race for president, that campaigning on a “we’re number two” message spells automatic political disaster. However, a truly savvy candidate could acknowledge America’s slide from first as fact and propose an ambitious program to regain first place as a matter of restoring national prestige and regaining a competitive edge.

Consider John F. Kennedy’s successful 1960 presidential campaign, in which he claimed that the Soviet Union had surpassed American nuclear missile capacity, and that it was crucial to close “the missile gap” immediately. Not only was Kennedy stating that America had fallen behind, but his claim was, in fact, incorrect. At the time, American voters accepted the claim and elected the candidate who had pledged to put America back on top.

More broadly, during the early stages of the Cold War, fierce competition with the Soviet Union extended far beyond military capabilities and encouraged government investments into diverse civilian areas such as general education, math and science, NASA and even to physical fitness.

These investments paid off immensely over the long term, resulting in an even more economically powerful nation. Although the United States led the Soviet Union in most areas for many years, the fear of sliding backward into second place kept the nation’s leaders focused on national improvement.

Today, the United States lacks a struggle with an equal superpower to promote economic and social development that could alleviate many of America’s chronic problems. The solution in the post-Cold War era is to acknowledge that the country’s problems are real — and that it is not actually leading the world by many indicators.

Only then can the United States build political will to fix the problems. If being in first place is indeed a worthy goal, as the rhetoric would suggest, then Americans must accept that America is not number one — and start trying harder.

This piece first appeared at It was moved here in November 2013.

American Exceptionalism and the Torture Debate

Mark Thompson at the League of Ordinary Gentleman has what I think is an excellent post on how torture runs contrary to this idea that America is an exceptional country.

If you think the United States is just another country, or even just another Western country, then the moral issues of whether waterboarding is torture, or whether it was a war crime to drop the atomic bomb, can and perhaps should be either irrelevant or only of minor significance compared to whether those actions saved more lives than they cost. But if you are a true believer in American exceptionalism, then you must accept that maintaining that exceptionalism comes with costs, perhaps sometimes in human lives.

Shining cities don’t just appear and maintain their shine without sacrifice and risk-taking by their citizens. It does no one any good to pretend otherwise; nor does it do any good to secretly and gradually apply a bit of plaster and polish to a monument from which you have taken much gold restores the monument to its previous glow. Instead, that monument must be stripped of its plaster for all to see in its newly grotesque shape. Then, and only then, can the people properly evaluate whether the lost shine was worth the increase in safety.

He goes on to state in the post and in the comments that America is not and has often not been the right country or the most free. Instead, he bases his ideas of American exceptionalism on the founding documents of our nation, which laid out the premise that all men are created equal and endowed with certain natural rights. Since I’m in a historical minded mood (I should be studying instead of writing this…), I wondered about this.
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