Tuesday, November 01, 2011

The Cassandra Syndrome – Part I

At least on the surface, it would appear that much of the American public is under the spell of what I term The Cassandra Syndrome. Here are a few synonyms for the word Cassandra: pessimist, doomsayer, kill-joy, prophet of doom, worrywart. That seems to describe the sentiment and mood of a vast segment of the population.

An op-ed piece in The New York Times a month and a half ago cited the following statistics from a series of Gallup polls that found record high dissatisfaction with government:
  • 81 percent of Americans said they were dissatisfied with the way the country is being governed.
  • Confidence in Congress reached a new low last month [September].
  • Americans’ confidence in the people who run for or serve in office is also at a new low
  • The 15 percent of Americans approving of Congress in the September poll is just 2 percentage points above the all-time low recorded twice in the past year.
  • At 43 percent, fewer Americans today than at any time in the past four decades said they have a great deal or fair amount of trust in the federal government to handle domestic problems.
  • Americans’ sense that the federal government poses an immediate threat to individuals’ rights and freedoms is also at a new high.
  • Americans are more than twice as likely to say President Obama and the current Congress are doing a poor job (67%) versus a good job (30%) of dealing with the nation’s most important problems. Most even believe that they’re doing worse than their predecessors.
In a recent op-ed piece in The New York Times, David Brooks wrote. “Seventy percent of Americans now say their country is in decline, according to various polls.” But it’s not only Americans who express a belief that we are in decline. A recent Pew poll found that in 15 of 22 countries surveyed, most people believe that China either will replace or has replaced America as “the world’s leading superpower.”

Dissatisfaction with government and governance is just another manifestation of the general public’s mood. As of this writing the newest phenomenon is the Occupy Wall Street protest. You don’t have to read about that here, since the media is covering that with great exuberance. But what you may not have read or seen are the several articles on the very disappointing start of what was supposed to be the second coming of TheAmerican Century. That’s what the 20 th century was called, based primarily on the efforts of what has been termed The Greatest Generation.

As described in Wikipedia, “This is a term coined by journalist Tom Brokaw to describe the generation who grew up in the United States during the deprivation of the Great Depression, and then went on to fight in World War II, as well as those whose productivity within the war's home front made a decisive material contribution to the war effort. The generation is sometimes referred to as the G.I. Generation.” It goes on to state,” The core of the Greatest Generation consists of those born in 1914-1924, with 1925-1927 forming a bridge to the Silent Generation.” Brokaw wrote in his 1998 book The Greatest Generation, “It is, I believe, the greatest generation any society has ever produced.” He argued that these men and women fought not for fame and recognition, but because it was the right thing to do. When they came back they rebuilt America into a superpower.” [My emphasis]

Intrinsic to the country’s rise to top all other nations, especially in the last half of the 20th century, is the precept known as American Exceptionalism. “…the idea of American exceptionalism does have real intellectual grounding. As used by scholars, it refers to the ways the United States has differed historically from the older countries of Europe: the fact that it was founded on a set of ideas; that it lacked a hierarchical social order with a hereditary aristocracy at the top; that the Europeans who settled North America did so in a huge, sparsely populated territory; and that it attracted immigrants from all over the world. In American politics, the term has come to have a celebratory as well as an analytical meaning. It refers to what makes America special: its wealth, its power, the economic opportunity it has provided for its citizens, and the expansive role it has played in the world, including the example of liberty and prosperity that it has set.”

The above quotes are an adaptation from a new book by Thomas L. Friedman, a three times Pulitzer Prize winner, and foreign-affairs columnist for the New York Times. His co-author is Michael Mandelbaum, Christian A. Herter professor of American foreign policy at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. Their book is “That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back.” An essay by the authors contains the essence of the book and can be found here. I would urge all however––especially every one of our politicians––to read the entire book.

The book (as does the essay) explains how and why, as the 20 th century ended, the unthinkable seems to have occurred. Conventional wisdom has coalesced around the proposition that the 21 st century will not be dominated by the United States. If so, the appellation, “The American Century” will certainly not apply. It also seems the concept of American Exceptionalism has been severely weakened.

Friedman writes, “The fuss over exceptionalism represents, in one sense, politics as usual in the United States, with one side accusing the other of being out of touch with the country's deepest values. It also, however, taps into the national current of unease about the country and its future, an unease that is, alas, all too justified. No American politician will publicly question his or her country's exceptional status, but it is worth asking whether America really is still exceptional, especially because so many Americans are beginning to worry privately -- and some publicly -- that it is not.”

Interestingly, exactly one month ago, Gideon Rachman, chief foreign affairs commentator for the Financial Times (not known for its Liberal views) wrote an article headlined America Must Manage its Decline. He wrote, “Those who refuse to entertain any discussion of decline actually risk accelerating the process. A realistic acknowledgement that America’s position in the world is under threat should be a spur to determined action on everything from educational reform to the budget deficit. The endless politicking in Washington reflects a certain complacency – a belief that America’s position as number one is so impregnable that it can afford self-indulgent episodes such as the summer’s near-debt default.”

He then expressed this caveat, “The failure to have a proper discussion of relative decline also risks leaving American public opinion unprepared for a new era. As a result, the public reaction to setbacks at home and abroad is less likely to be calm and determined and more likely to be angry and irrational – feeding what the historian Richard Hofstadter famously called “the paranoid style in American politics.”

About a month ago, the Financial Times seemed to confirm its role of Cassandra. In a review of the Friedman book it wrote, “If America’s loss of economic primacy is simply the logic of globalization in action, the speed of America’s decline is a result of political failure – not least the failure to deal with debt. The last-minute cosmetic agreement on the deficit ceiling may well go down as the moment when the world began to suspect that America’s political class is incapable of addressing the country’s problems. Friedman and Mandelbaum are fully aware of the deficiencies of the American political system. They wrote, ‘The two parties are so sharply polarized that they are incapable of arriving at the deep, ideologically painful compromises that major initiatives, of the kind required to meet the major challenges America faces, will require.’”

Next month’s article will examine the Friedman book in more detail to determine if the Cassandra Syndrome dominates.


At 3:37 AM, Anonymous Howard Spindel said...

Interesting timing having this blog post appear the same day that the budget deficit supercommittee, charged with addressing some of America's most pressing problems, gave up in the face of partisan politics.

I believe that America has the resources and know-how to maintain a position of dominance in the world. What we lack are politicians willing to put aside partisanship and work for the greater good of all. I do not find it surprising that confidence in Congress is at an all-time low. If we lose our position of dominance, it will be due to a failure of leadership, not of any intrinsic lack within our country. And you can count me among those who (having recently witnessed the deficit debacles) that lack of confidence in Congress is fully justified.

We have met the enemy, and he is us. - Pogo

At 12:01 PM, Anonymous Joe Dellorto said...

Howard hits the nail on the head when he cites "failure of leadership." I, too, am disappointed with Congress, but I believe what we are witnessing is not typical partisan politics. Quite simply, the Republicans in Congress, and I would venture to say some Democrats as well, have zero respect for President Obama as a leader. Obama is arrogant, he publicly scolds and places blame, he bullies instead of leads. Who wants to work for or with someone like that? Certainly most of us would not. I personally believe Congress, as elected officials, should be mature enough to put aside their dislike of Obama for the betterment of the country, but it is human nature and understandable that they are not.

The importance of good leadership cannot be underestimated. This country needs a new leader, be it Democrat or Republican, who will be respected and will be able to foster compromise. Otherwise, we are looking at 4 more years of super-committees and "kicking the can down the road" while China continues to gain on us.


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