America, In Present and Future Tense.

E. J. Dionne had a talk with Joe Biden on the subject of American superiority (Biden is strongly in favor), which brings up yet another way in which the right and the left are often talking past each other when they appear to be talking about the same thing.

Progressives tend to find conservative jingoism distasteful, which conservatives sometimes interpret to mean that progressives hate America and want it to fail (indeed, one out of four Republicans believes "Barack Obama wants the terrorists to win"). The problem is that the two groups think about the subject of America and its awesomeness in different ways. Conservatives are far more likely to think that loving your country means you should, as often as possible, proclaim how awesome it is. These proclamations can be general ("U.S.A.! U.S.A.!") or specific ("We have the best health-care system in the world!"). The latter can get you into trouble if it's factually wrong, not just because you look foolish but because it actively prevents you from solving problems. Why would we need to reform health care, if we have the best system in the world?

When President Obama said in his State of the Union address that "I do not accept second place for the United States of America," he wasn't talking about the present, he was talking about the future -- whether we will retain our economic position. Progressives are much more likely to see this future as uncertain. Twenty years from now we might still have the most vibrant economy on earth, or we might not. The decisions we make between now and then will determine what happens. But conservatives tend to react negatively to even the suggestion that America could wind up in second place. That's because their focus is on the present tense, which it is assumed will be true for all eternity -- America is great, so of course it always will be great. We don't have to worry too much about what we need to do to keep it that way (apart from not enacting socialist policies), so long as we keep telling ourselves that it's true.

Is the person who devises a plan to improve America's health-care system more or less patriotic than the person who just declares that America's health-care system is great? That depends on how much importance you put on feelings, words, and symbolic gestures. Whatever else you can say about the two parties, Republicans are the ones who are much more concerned about these things (think about how often they complain that Obama didn't use a particular word or phrase enough, or used a word or phrase too often).

Nevertheless, they always seem a little flummoxed when confronted with patriotic-sounding proclamations from Democrats, like the one Obama made in the State of the Union. They know they're supposed to think he hates America, so it doesn't quite make sense. It could just be insincere, of course. But it might be better for them to just appreciate that he's talking about the future, while their patriotism is about the present.

Even though today he would probably be a Democrat, Gerald Ford's 1976 campaign had a song that pretty much summed this up. As the lyrics say, "I'm feeling good about America, I'm feeling good about me!"

-- Paul Waldman

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