Robert Winer, M.D.

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G.W. & Hillary: America Agonistes

Reading an article by Patrick Lang in Foreign Policy, “What Iraq tells Us About Ourselves”, I reflected on concerns I have about America.

While friends of mine were upset by the thought that the Republicans have stolen the last two presidential elections from the Democrats, I was troubled that half my fellow countrymen (more or less) wanted to elect George Bush, even in 2004, even after all that had happened. His current approval rating has fallen to 29% -- but from another point of view, it is compelling to think that almost a third of America approves of the job he’s doing. The argument can be made that this third is simply the “religious right,” who believe that he is committed to their values, and that trumps every other consideration for them.

But I think something more is involved. At this point Hillary Clinton is substantially leading in the polls over her rival contenders. She and Bush are strikingly similar in style. Both have a Master of the Universe persona: seeming total self-confidence, arrogance, a take-no-prisoners bullying approach. Neither is inclined to seriously consider the points of view of people outside his or her immediate circle (legislators, citizens, etc.), except insofar as they can use such information to advance their own agendas (e.g., Hillary uses her focus groups for election tactics). So what is it about us that we find this appealing?

Certainly since 9/11 we have been willing to sacrifice a great deal for the sake of strong, decisive leadership; the current administration has counted on our anxiety and exploited it. The most effective complaint they made about John Kerry was that he “flip-flopped,” and that struck enough of a responsive chord in America that Bush was narrowly reelected, despite his failure in Iraq and the unmitigated terrorist threat. Jimmy Carter seemed too undefined in his presidency, too preoccupied with parsing shades of gray. After the Iran hostage crisis, we wanted a reassuringly forceful president and we elected Reagan, a patriarch, and we haven’t turned back since. On the contrary, we’ve been so desperate for authority that we’ve chosen style over substance.

Faced with the reality that globalization and the evolving power of the excluded now make us more vulnerable than ever, no longer protected by our geographical isolation (two buffering oceans), we try to push these realities aside and we respond with a thoroughly defensive grandiosity. We decide that everyone should want to be like us, and we set out on the mission of converting the nations of the world to American-style democracy. Patrick Lang sees this development as “brewed from such [American cultural] elements as enlightenment, optimism, Puritan utopianism, a Calvinist tendency to forgive sinners, and the settler’s lack of respect for the weak and ‘native’ peoples of the world.”

I would go beyond that, and add that all these qualities have been dramatically heightened, in a defensive way, as a response precisely to our current sense of being endangered. That might be why we decided to take on Iraq, rather than terrorism, in the years after 9/11. That war seemed more winnable – in fact, we had Bush’s triumphal moment on the carrier – although it has turned out that we were wrong about that. (Since Vietnam we’ve been looking for winnable wars.)

Europe seems more familiar with sorrow. While there are various strains of national pride there, we don’t sense the kind of triumphal spirit we find in America. 9/11 was remarkably humiliating for us, and we haven’t recovered. On the contrary, we’re responding by trying to sustain a fantasy of indestructibility. I think this is why the Bushes and Clintons, and their circles of friends, appeal to us. Much as we might dislike Dick Cheney, his overt denial of difficulty resonates with our deep wish to be reassured.

And now, Hillary. We’re in trouble.