The Anti-Pandering Vote

Last Thanksgiving, I wrote something of a jeremiad about how Americans had become a nation of whiny brats, fussing and whining (and fighting) because they can’t have everything they want right now.

Like, Air Jordan sneakers.

In a similar, but coincidental, vein — we did not work together on either piece — my colleague Joan Johnson-Freese let fly over New Year’s with a bold call for the American people to step up to their responsibilities, and for politicians to stop pandering to the ones who won’t.

Joan’s piece, “‘Can Do’ Must Replace ‘Give Me’ In US Politics,” appeared on AOL Defense and am I reproducing it here as well. I don’t agree with all of it, but 99% is close enough. And I do have to point out that I can vouch for one factual issue in her article: the woman who was begging on the MTA really did exist, and told us her kids had iPods and Nikes, but that things were tight this week. (I have seen her on the T for a year, and it’s always a story about how fussy her kids are.)

Shortly after getting off the T in Harvard Square, we then passed a guy holding up a sign asking for help….while talking on an iPhone 4.  So it goes.

Anyway, here it is.

“Can Do” Must Replace “Give Me” In US Politics


Originally published: December 30, 2011

My vote in the 2012 presidential election will go to the candidate who most resists pandering to the American electorate. I say “most resist,” as all candidates pander, but hopefully at least one of the presidential candidates will believe and act as if there should be a limit.

Given the campaigns so far, perhaps there should a college-drinking-game-like requirement whereby every time a candidate uses the word “exceptional” or “exceptionalism” to describe America or US foreign policy, the nation should be required to watch a video of one Christmas-shopping American pepper-spraying another for 40% off an Xbox, an individual yelling out “let him die” in response to a Presidential-candidate debate question about helping another American without health insurance, and US leaders shaking hands with global despots when it serves American purposes. Increasingly, Americans are and America is, not so exceptionally, looking out after Number One.

Americans pride themselves on a history of being innovative, hard-working, caring individuals. Unfortunately, instances of actually demonstrating those attributes are becoming less and less frequent. As Andy Bacevich pointed out in his 2008 book, The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism, we are engorged in a crisis of our own making because “freedom” has come to mean a sense of entitlement for “more” ­ of whatever we want, individually and collectively.

Domestically, that means a recession where 47″ flat screen televisions are considered as essentials, and a woman holding an iPhone asks captive passengers on the Boston MTA for $40 to buy her kids pizza for dinner “because they won’t eat that crap the food bank gives out.”

Your best line as a beggar is: "My kids have iPods?" Really?

To quote Saturday Night Live’s Seth Meyers: “Really”?

In foreign policy it plays out as Republicans touting that the US can do whatever it wants to make sure that Americans get the “more” that they want; and Democrats
backing actions that result in much the same results, but then they require that we feel bad about it.

In defense, it means politicians rhetorically acknowledging that it is unsustainable for every global US interest to be seen as vital and every risk extreme, but then they don’t exhibit the political courage to follow through with a retrenchment plan that puts actions to rhetoric. For members of the military that will mean doing even more with even less; another unsustainable course. Some politicians even continue to see America’s role as that of global policeman while arguing for tax cuts. Meanwhile the Pentagon warns that every asset and weapon system are all that stands between Americans and “dire consequences.”

Worst of all are those who pander to the public with talk of American decline. Relative decline is unavoidable unless the rest of the world stands still economically and technologically; given that the US economy is tied to the world market, economic development abroad can be a boon for the US. The real decline America faces lies primarily in our ability to make good choices about our future.

Tough love, or tough to love?

It’s instructive to look at the disastrous results (falsely) attributed to President Jimmy Carter’s (falsely named) “malaise” speech in 1979. Carter’s poll numbers actually went up after the speech, and he never used the word “malaise,” ­ yet it is doubtful any candidate will ever be willing take a tough-love approach with the American public. That, however, is what is needed.

Every candidate is a parent, and every parent knows that while self-esteem is important for raising children –­ and yes, I’m saying Americans sometimes act like spoiled children — ­ rules and structure is important too. But nobody has any patience for rules and structure if it means they have to give up something. American pride is quickly mutating into an unflattering sense of entitlement.

Instead of addressing this, politicians exploit and feed this grandiose sense of entitlement and self-esteem. When President Obama stated at the November 2011 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference in Hawaii that Americans were “a bit lazy” about seeking foreign investment, Republican candidates went into a frenzy, translating that into “Americans are lazy” and then having a field day stroking voters’ ego. Democrats are no better, suddenly enamored with killing terrorists around the world; drowning out their past cries to close GITMO and playing to the crowd instead.

McCain in Ohio. The message wasn't popular.

In 2008, both candidate Obama and candidate McCain had the moral courage to tell voters in Ohio and Michigan that those jobs in the auto industry they were pining for weren’t coming back. That was a highpoint, as was John McCain telling a female supporter at one of his rallies that Barack Obama was not an Arab, as she claimed. The crowd rewarded his civility with boos.

The closest we’ve seen so far to a candidate willing to tell the American public to get a grip has been Newt Gingrich answering a question about federal student loans by suggesting that perhaps not everyone ought to go to college, ­ especially if they can’t do basic math and write a full paragraph — a taboo view if all Americans are as special as they think they are.

Your teenager not having one of these is not a good enough reason for saying you're "having trouble making it in this economy"

Unquestionably, many Americans have been hit hard by the recession. That means that iPhones and flat screen televisions may have to wait until after food and utility bills are paid. And the McMansions that were purchased after cashing out the equity in mom and dad’s house and buying far above their means because they wanted to believe some sordid mortgage broker — ­ those are gone too. Individuals and families who have been hit hard need help; and they need to get reasonable in their own expectations.

It also means that a tax hike is in order, maybe along the same order that Ronald Reagan raised taxes his second term. Cutting expenditures, military and discretionary, is in order, but the failure of the Super Committee proved that politics probably will trump reason when it comes to big cuts. There should be no free rides for anybody, rich or poor.

America is not in decline, as some people say it is, but it has lost its focus. Americans need to be driven by the same kind of transformational motivations that built infrastructures, a public education system, created jobs and invested in basic research to fuel innovation — rather than watching infrastructure crumble, public schools fail and grumbling about the Chinese taking manufacturing jobs from us. “Can do” must replace “give me.”

So it’s time to pull in the belt buckle and rebuild. But will any of the politicians have the courage to tell anybody that? I hope so.

Joan Johnson-Freese, a member of the AOL Board of Contributors, is an expert on US military space, Chinese space and the PLA. She is a professor at Naval War College and lecturer at Harvard University.


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  1. Bravo, Joan! I can’t endorse every word, but I can heartily endorse the spirit.

    America is simply not the country it once was – “electing a new people” has gone swimmingly since the 1960s – and many of our problems come from … well, one can’t call them a lumpenproletariat, since few of them have ever worked, or have any intention of ever doing so.

    And the Millennial sense of entitlement is shockingly real – and why wouldn’t it be, since every child has been “special” and “above average” every day since birth.

    Reality is different (and one might say a b*tch). I would love to see any politician level with the American people a bit, but count me skeptical. Gonna have to get a lot worse first.

    So just wait a bit since, if current trends continue, it will.

  2. [edited for space by TN] I liked your article a lot. There’s so much truth in what you say, although the old need that discussion in entitlements, and on taxes, somewhat those most able to pay them too, although they pay the most proportionately, and absolutely.
    The Pentagon… what can one do with the contractors? will be the big problem, that their gravy train is over, but, if they actually care about national security, they can’t just fire everyone, but realize that fish and rot is true, and that leadership means management makes the financial sacrifice first, since it can best afford it, if of course that’s usually not the case, since they feel the most entitled of all. To be fair, people get used to a living standard, and feel a sense of deep personal failure when what was once reasonable is no longer feasible.
    Veblen’s point per the woman on the MTA (and Mr. I-Phone) would I think be, yes, she’s(he) not living within a neoclassical budget constraint, and this is why more than likely. She and her family were used to what were little treats like that, a Friday Night Pizza, if we all know too often too, but it was when life wasn’t closer to the edge of survival in the food bank. Her children were used to that too, and one treat reminds them of who they were in the sense of social identity of not needing a food bank. Consumption is also addictive that way, and, since WWII, we have encouraged that as how we did things.
    When your lady on the MTA can’t do those things anymore, and that’s a metaphor for about a good 20 per cent of people now, that takes some mental fortitude actually to accept, as your friends and family will melt away in many cases, if, she almost certainly did make errors that Veblen also would predict, in terms of not realizing that her life was permanently reduced in circumstance, and making the necessary adjustments quickly enough before her attempt to keep up with what were but no longer are economically reasonable expectations made things a lot worse.
    That would to me argue that since the President appointed the Simpson-Bowles commission, he can’t reject it if its passed, if at a lower level of federal spending than was proposed as to the Ryan alternative. Split the difference is a reasonable bargaining tool historically speaking, say 18 per cent of GDP, which is 2/3 of Cains 999. As to the mega macro issue that is at stake, and it is one of literal survival at some point, all we have to do is get to a percentage of deficit to GDP that is equal to or less than over time to the long run rate of growth, so that Debt to GDP doesn’t become unbounded.

  3. The Washington Post is running a story today on the Ron Paul campaign’s strategy in Iowa, described as leaving the “rosy outlooks” and “campaign promises” to other candidates. We’ll know after tomorrow whether this message–and the messenger–have any legs.

    From the article: “But the Republican congressman from Texas is betting that the usual optimism and laundry list of promises — millions of jobs, bringing people together, changing the tone in Washington — is not what voters want to hear this year. The latest Iowa polls, which show Paul in a virtual tie for first place with Mitt Romney ahead of Tuesday’s caucuses, suggest that he has found an audience. “I want someone to give it to me straight. We aren’t getting a lot of fluff, and he isn’t offering us a prize or a present or something to make us feel good,” said Tom Icatar, 65, who saw Paul at a West Des Moines town hall. “I think he’s been consistent and honest. He is giving people the bitter medicine they need to have.”

    The comments section (now at 2400+) is quite interesting, of course one must sift through the posts but it suggests that some of the Paul wave is fueled precisely by the concerns that Joan and Tom have laid out.

    Even if Paul himself, because of his specific policy recommendations, ends up not going anywhere, the question is whether his version of the “straight talk express” will be embraced, either by the eventual GOP nominee or by the president, and whether Paul will be for U.S. politics in the 2012 cycle what Howard Dean was in 2004–the candidate who loses but ends up changing the cycle for the next time.

  4. Nick – I’d also question whether anyone thinks the “bitter medicine” is for them or for other people. The thing I find so striking, for example, about the mortgage crash (which is big with OWS, the Tea Party, and Ron Paul’s guys) is that everyone wants to blame Wall St. and Washington, but no one wants to blame the people who took out the bad loans in the first place. That’s what I’ll be waiting to see after tonight, but not in Iowa, whose GOP and Dem caucus-goers are just too crazy to draw conclusions from, in my opinion.

  5. Agreed–we will have to see beyond Iowa. I’d be interested to know whether Paul, for instance, has, in keeping with his libertarian/small government brand, been especially vociferous in coming out against the ethanol subsidy program–the rule of thumb in Iowa politics has always been that you don’t come out against that subsidy and win the state. So whether Paul’s caucus supporters–and again, we’ll see the numbers tomorrow–are supporting him in spite of his small-government stance, or, as you say, suggest that the “bitter medicine” is for other people to swallow–remains to be seen.

  6. So Iowa is done for another four years …

    Paul did respectably but not great; whether he would have done better in a ballot system is, and shall remain, an open question. He will stay in the race for no particular reason, per usual.

    Romney did ok, considering how little effort he put into Iowa, but he’s still got the same 25% he drew in ’08 – not the best sign.

    Santorum did respectably as the last-not-visibly-insane-person-who’s-not-Romney ticket, but it means nothing, as he staked everything on Iowa and has basically no cash on hand or organization anywhere. And did I mention that it’s … Rick Santorum?

    Upsides are that Bachmann, having bombed out in her home state, will now retreat to the Evangelical gay-cure cave whence she came, Perry is a dead man walking (if he had heart he’d go for broke in SC as the anti-Romney … but he’s never had heart in this campaign), and Newt can now go back to the book tour with Callista which was the whole point of the exercise anyway.

    The interesting thing is that Iowa shows that the Tea Party is dead, thoroughly co-opted by the GOP (thank you, Speaker Boehner): Romney is the anti-TP guy from head to toe, and Santorum isn’t much of a T-Partier either. Perry was the TP guy, and look how he fared. The Tea Party is sooo 2010 – already.

    Romney’s got it in the bag and may beat Obama handily. Note: may. His refusal to release his tax returns looks awful, as it reminds everyone that he’s “the guy who fired you” to the average GOP voter. He needs to get in the game and start cracking his 25% wall stat.

    And if he refuses to play hard-ball with Obama (eg Fast and Furious, Solyndra, the horrible AG Holder, et al) he will lose just like the last GOP cowardly lion who didn’t really want to win, the Senator from Coors … I mean Arizona.

  7. I agree about all of the other candidates, especially Gingrich, who seemed to take his short ride in the polls just a bit too seriously. (Calling someone a “liar” in national politics is a bad move.)

    I’ll predict here, however, that this is the last election in which Iowa has this kind of sway. One thing that this whole fracas proved is that the Iowa caucus-goers just aren’t serious people, and have gotten used to being pandered to every four years. It reminds me of the primary I saw living in New Hampshire in 1992, where every pipefitter from Nashua felt he had a right to give what-for to the next Leader of the Free World.

    The Iowans blew it, and bi-coastal elitism is back in vogue, which isn’t the worst thing. (When FOX News’s guys are sitting around in mid-town Manhattan and laughing about Iowa hicks, you know the Midwest has jumped the shark on politics.)