Expectations play a large role in our judgment of any experience. Ever pick up a cup thinking it was Sprite but when you took a sip, it was Coke? Gross, right? Coke tastes good but it was the expectation and the harsh difference that made it taste so bad.
Okay, not a great example but it applies to anything, most notably entertainment. Hyped movies rarely live up to it, rollercoasters aren’t nearly as fun when you had to wait 3 hours to ride it, etc.
I think this applies to most people’s expectation for our country too.
The oldest Americans today are 90-100 years old, and they probably didn’t come into political consciousness until their mid teens. So the collective memory of American’s is about 1915-2017. Hey, that’s a pretty good time period for America. Look at what happened in that time:
- We won a World War
- The advent of the Automobile
- The advent of the Airplane
- The Roaring Twenties
- We won a second World War
- We won the Space Race
- We won the Cold War
- The advent of the internet
Basically, the 20th Century belonged to the US. We came out on top of every major conflict and were the birthplace of some of the most important inventions in history (with maybe the notable exception of the TV). Of course, there were some disastrous happenings, the wars themselves, Vietnam, Watergate, and more.
On the whole, however, we did a lot of winning and then took advantage of that to do some more. Post WWII, the other large economic powers had to tend to too many wounds to compete with us. The one exception being the USSR, and our fierce cultural, economic and military battle with them fueled a lot of productivity and innovation.
Then, around the mid-80s, we began to pull away and no-one could hold a candle to the US as a world power. Around the same time, emerging economies such as those in Latin America and Asia provided cheap labor and cheap goods flooded the American marketplace. Then the internet brought new innovation and efficiency. Man, 1980-2000 was a good time to be an American.
This gave birth to the notion of “American Exceptionalism”, the idea that there was something explicitly ‘special’ about America. That it was just destiny that we would come to take our rightful place as world leaders. More notably, the brand of American Exceptionalism pushed by Reagan and other neoconservatives that it was American culture that allowed us to dominate.
This American century ended abruptly with 9/11.
Now, we were fighting an asymmetrical war, and then another one, and we’re not good at these. (Think Vietnam, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, ISIL) Meanwhile, European economies have fully recovered and large economies in Asia are starting to become more competitive.
What did Trump insist early and often during his campaign? We don’t win anymore. This message clearly resonated with millions of people. It makes sense. For most of his voting bloc, they lived in a time when all we did was go from strength-to-strength. If their understanding was that American culture was responsible for the Ws, then it must be the changing of American culture that is responsible for the Ls. “When America was whiter, had more ‘traditional family values’, more religious, whatever, the country was more successful. We won wars when we ‘bombed the shit out of them’ and rolled in with tanks and troops. Let’s go back to that.”
This explanation is far too simple and just wrong.
Yes, we won 3 wars. Yet, we showed up late to the first two and had the benefit of the two largest oceans and friendly/weak neighbor countries surrounding us. That’s just luck. No idea or invention is made on its own but is built upon a long line of succeeding innovations and improvements. The bombs that won us WWII and the rockets that put us on the moon were made largely in part from the work expatriated European scientists.
Look, American ideals – liberty, opportunity, fairness – definitely play a role in attracting talent and facilitating the developments that put us on our trajectory. Besides, it’s not like we’re the only ones who can claim them.
Empires rise and fall, everybody knows this, and America is no different. This is because what works in one era doesn’t necessarily work in another, they collapse under their own weight, infighting, etc.
For the first time in a long time, we aren’t able to use our outsized influence to get our way in international affairs, and we’re not handling it well. This was inevitable, it’s not like we could pick fights with every emerging economy to ensure we never had a competitor. Also, it benefits us when other countries develop as well. They can buy our goods, they’re more stable, rising tide, all that.
We need to get comfortable with the idea that we’re not going to be able to set the rules and agenda of the world in our favor much longer. We had a great ride and deserved much of our success, we were spoiled.
We now have a choice. We can commit the same mistakes of history by desperately trying to hold onto power, forsaking our future by trying to hold onto the recent past, and blame each other for the downfall instead of seeing the bigger picture. Or, we can use the considerable soft power we’ve built over the past 100 years in conjunction with our remaining hard power to position ourselves into a more realistic role in the world. One where we are one of the many leaders and participants in global initiatives, not the bully in the room.
I’m fearful, because I think we’re probably going to choose the former, and other countries will remember how aggressive we were for so long. I’m not necessarily spelling doom for the US. We’re always going to be a top 5 nation, we’ve built up enough advantages for that, but the days of being numbers 1, 2, and 3 are over.
Changing the attitude of millions of Americans is not easy, but if we keep acting like the world is ours to mold into a shape we like, and continue to make flailing attempts like electing a man like Trump to keep it that way, we’re in for a lot more hurt.