American Exceptionalism, Cognitive Dissonance & the Divisions in America

I’ve been thinking a great deal about the divisions of our country. Specifically, I’ve been wondering how divided our country has become? Is it really more divided than ever? I think the internet would tell us that it is. And I think if you look at the right (wrong?) measures you might rightly conclude that it is, but I’m still not sure. My interest in essence of those divisions was piqued when I happened on a podcast about American Exceptionalism. The guest, Mugambi Jouet of Stanford University, pointed out that many people (most notably large numbers of the republican party) are confused by the phrase’s use of the word exceptional. He has written a book about it: Exceptional America: What Divides Americans from the World and from Each Other (University of California Press).

By the way, it’s not only the clueless-right that miss the true meaning of the phrase. This afternoon on The Daily I heard New York Times White House reporter Maggie Haberman use the phrase incorrectly while talking about Donald Trump’s stated willingness talk to strongmen like Kim Jong Un and Rodrigo Duterte. Haberman said, “The United States has long been an idealistic nation; it’s essentially this concept of American Exceptionalism. While it’s been pretty maligned, it’s basically about something being aspirational and the idea of values of freedom of constitutional democracy, and that those are the types of values that this country hopes other countries will aspire to.”

Uh, no, that is not what American Exceptionalism is about.

As I said it’s clear that the phrase can and will continue to cause confusion for people of all political walks of life. The word exceptional is typically used as a synonym for outstanding. But, when Alexis de Tocqueville coined the phrase he used it to identify this country as an exception to other western countries.

de Tocqueville found it exceptional that the very same country that had established so many colleges and universities in such a short time should have such an anti-intellectual propensity. All of the exceptions are interesting, but there’s one that I’m not sure de Tocqueville thought of:

The US is the first country to strive for a government of, for and by the people. Still, most people don’t trust the government. Moreover, I would hazard that the percentage of Americans who don’t trust the government is at an all-time high. If this is true, it could mean that people are more likely to trust a government like Vladimir Putin’s than a government like ours. Is this worrisome? Maybe.

Then again, perhaps there’s a special psychological justification for mistrusting a government of peers. Perhaps knowing with assurance that the people in government think and are motivated just the way we are is enough to give us pause. Also, could the fact that our government occasionally comes clean about its misdeeds lead some to a greater mistrust rather than confidence? We all witness the militarization of urban police forces but for some that makes it easy to harken back to the FBI sending helicopters and snipers after Randy Weaver and his family, killing his son and wife (by being shot in the back of the head) and so a correlation is solidified. Some see good (if fallible) government at work and others see an increasingly emboldened and heavy-handed state.

There’s another even simpler reason for why people find it easy to distrust the government of the United States. We’ve simply done more totally wild shit than any other country. Like what, you say? How about having a functional democracy predicated on a three hundred year old document? How about sending a man to the moon? How about driving countries like Japan and Germany to their knees only to help them become economic powers just a few decades after the end of WWII. Did I mention that we’ve dropped two nuclear bombs on populated cities?

That kind of tension, that cognitive dissonance, is largely OK. I tend to look at all evidence of the work of government as falling in one direction or the other. If a bit of work is apt to make a high percentage of people lose faith in the work of government (like the Fullerton Police’s killing of Kelly Thomas), I see it as bad. If a bit of work (like convicting ex-Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca of corruption) makes a high percentage of people gain faith in government, I’m all for it.

I realize that some folks grabbed the popcorn and were rooting for the Fullerton cops sitting on Kelly Thomas’ back while crushing the life out of him. I’m also aware that some folks thought kindly old Lee Baca must have been entrapped by the evildoers from the FBI. Again, that’s just cognitive dissonance playing out on a mass scale. Still, I stand by the work of government that increases faith in government and condemn the acts that undermine that faith.

What about proponents of  gun rights? The guest on the podcast stated that for many American gun owners the primary purpose of their guns was to protect against the government rather than against threats from other citizens. I actually had to play that part of the podcast a second time to make sure I heard him correctly; I had. Now I have to admit that the idea that you better have a 15-shot 9mm on hand because the government is going to come get you is a fairly astounding fear. But, I think fear is the key word. I think the average Trump voter was and is a pretty fearful person, one who felt as though he had been disadvantaged by pretty much everyone and had been rendered helpless by forces both seen and unseen. Not only did they feel disadvantaged by people but those who lived in rural parts of the country even felt disadvantaged by mere geography. It is easy to imagine a group of people who felt a kind of generalized fear of everything and everyone finding solace in guns, and lots of them.

Let’s think about the anti-intellectual leanings that got de Tocqueville’s attention. I think most anti-intellectual sentiment is pointed at groups of intellectuals who seemingly do no work. I think a classic moniker of the past is apt here; eggheads. These are the guys studying whatever it is you’ve never heard of or anything you don’t understand. Even the most anti-intellectual slack-jawed-yokel is inclined to see a doctor if he gets sick. He may attest to a distrust of the medical profession as a whole, maybe he thinks they’ve even secretly cured cancer, but old Cletus is still very likely to tell you that his own doctor is top-notch. That’s more of a selective anti-intellectual sentiment, one that readily finds an exception in specific people, rather than a blanket distrust of learning itself.

The internet, as always, stands ready to undermine confidence and create doubt, in those who believe differently than you do. And, this applies to both sides of a debate. The internet makes it all too easy to stay in our echo chambers and therefore encourage our divisions. But are we really all that divided? I don’t think so. The divisions we read and hear so much about divisions are largely overstated and driven by the media and the shortsightedness of both of our major political parties. Get actual people, rather than groups answering polls or being fed sound bytes or video clips, into a room and watch the divisions fade. Everyone wants to work, everyone wants to being able to afford health care and everyone wants to attain the educations they believe their chosen lifestyle demands. It’s OK to disagree about the processes and mechanism we use to achieve our goals. It’s not OK to use a politically motivated belief that the divisions are so profound that even dialogue is undesirable.

America is both an exception and exceptional and those very qualities give me the greatest hope for its future. Rather than fret over those exceptions we should celebrate them as badges of honor reflecting our diversity of thought and perspective.

American Exceptionalism, Cognitive Dissonance & the Divisions in America

Tiger Woods, Barbara Boxer, the Rules of Golf and the Electoral College

Bear with me for a minute.

Let’s say it’s 2000 and Tiger Woods is charging toward the 72nd hole of the Masters. Were he to win, it would give Woods all four major professional majors in 2000. We’re not talking about some feeble Tiger Slam. No, I’m talking about all four majors in the same calendar year.

Wow. What happened?

On the 72nd, hole, the legendary par-4 finishing hole at Augusta National Tiger Woods smashed a perfect drive, just right of the fairway bunkers. But, as it bounced to a stop it skipped into a fairway divot. The announcers and Woods moaned in near-poetic unison.

Pure injustice…


Woods glowered at the ball and the divot. He cursed the golf gods. He cursed the player who created that horrid divot. He cursed his bad luck. But, more than anything he cursed the rule of golf that prevented him from taking relief from a tiny bit of missing turf in the middle of the fairway. Clearly, this was an area of the golf course that was damaged and according to the rules, ground under repair. But it wasn’t…So Woods played the ball as it sat; made bogey and missed winning the 2000 Masters by a single stroke.

Then. again in my alternate time, just a few months ago at the 2016 PGA Championship, Woods stood over a putt that would have won him  his 15th major championship. Halfway to the hole was a nasty spike mark, dead in Woods’ line. Again, he stared at the mark and cursed the universe and the USGA rule that prohibits the repair  of such marks. He settled over his putt and made the perfect stroke.

The ball rolled end over end, destined for the hole, right until the moment that it hit that single unrepairable spike mark.

Tiger Woods was denied another major and the legions of golf fans felt denied. Through no fault of his own, the arbitrary, senseless rules of golf had seemingly conspired to the deny the best player of our era a deserved win.

Also in this fantasy world, imagine this:

Tiger Woods saw fit to use his immense wealth and fame to coerce the USGA and the R&A to correct the silly, foolish rules that upset his path to history. The golf world would have turned against him instantly. This would not be the actions of another athlete who cheated on his wife and children. No, these would be the actions of a man who found himself at odds with the very same rules he had played under his entire professional and amateur career. His motives would be clear to everyone and so his legend would be destroyed. The same fans who could forgive his foolish and inexplicable banging of strippers and Perkins’ waitresses could never accept his effort to change the rules for the sake of his own record. Woods’ fans could accept any weakness but a surrender to the same rules that everyone plays by.

This is exactly the mistake Barbara Boxer has made in the aftermath of the hotly contested 2016 presidential election. She has seen her party and platform stung by the effect of the electoral college for the second time in less than a generation and she’s not going to stand still for it. But, the problem is that her motivation is too clearly in the interest of her party rather than her country. I think there’s a simple test to prove my belief. Boxer has been a US senator since 1992. In that time, there have been seven presidential elections but the only other time she has devoted any energy to the electoral college was in 2005 when she challenged Ohio’s electors in a futile effort to delay the re-election of George W. Bush, who had just won the popular vote over John Kerry by more than 3 million votes.

Me? I’m on the fence about the electoral college. However, I do firmly believe that Rule 16-1c (the rule that prohibits repairing a spike mark on the green) is fundamentally unfair.

At the same time, I think the rule that disallows taking relief from a fairway divot should stand. The text of Rule 13 is simple.

Play the ball as it lies.

I wonder if Barbara Boxer plays golf?


Tiger Woods, Barbara Boxer, the Rules of Golf and the Electoral College

What’s Really Bothering Everyone About Trump Being Elected?

I spent the morning researching what it takes to move to Canada; I’m serious.

I’m so fuckin’depressed.

What gets me is that 60,000,00 people were stupid enough to elect him.

What about the supreme court?

Me? I’m not depressed, but I am disappointed. I’m disappointed that a 70 year old rich guy learned to use the internet to greater advantage than the republican and democratic parties combined. Worse, I’m disappointed that Trump’s use of the internet exploits its worst quality; that being the ability for a person to write something really shitty about someone who’s in no position to mount a contemporaneous defense.

I’m also disappointed that many of the people who supported Donald Trump don’t realize how lucky Trump is that the constitution (that old musty document they’ve never read) provided for the electoral college and that it alone circumvented the will of the people to elect Hillary Clinton, just like it did to Al Gore.

Of course, I’m also disappointed that many people are having a problem simply hoping that Trump will do a better job governing than they think he’ll do. Isn’t hope what you have left when your candidate doesn’t carry the day? Didn’t we hope back in 2008 and 2012 that those who did not support Obama could at least hope for his success, for the sake of everyone, for the sake of the country? President Obama’s efforts to do exactly that, now that the election is over, make me very proud indeed.

Pessimism serves us no better now than it ever has. At the same time, there’s nothing wrong with speaking up. As John McCain said regarding some of Trump’s early appointments, “Be very vigilant, America.”

Now let’s talk about lies and the people who tell them.

For some reason, the people who elected Trump don’t seem to care that Trump doesn’t care when he lies. They like the lie that Apple will bring its jobs back to the US from China because Trump tells them to. They like the lie that Trump will deport millions by fiat and that Mexico is busy getting ready to take out its check book to pay for the wall, I mean the fence, or whatever Trump says he’s building today. They loved the idea that the election was rigged, at least when they thought their man was about to go down in defeat. They love that Trump keeps telling them that he won big, that his victory is some kind of mandate. But, surely their favorite lie is the one that holds that sometime in the not-so-distant past an uneducated doofus was guaranteed a good job at a fair wage for doing something that didn’t require a lot of knowledge or skill. As if that day ever existed.

The best of our politicians act with what is called enlightened self interest (don’t blame me; this is a term from political science. That’s right, I said science. Sorry.). This explains why a guy like Trump (and Mitt Romney back in 2012) ran on the promise of lower taxes for the rich people of this country.

Bummer. I guess that was a bad example. Lower taxes for the rich pretty much only rang the bell for the idea of self interest. I guess enlightenment is a tougher nut for politicians.

Surely Hillary Clinton was all about enlightened self interest. I mean, she likes minorities and women, doesn’t she? Crash. There went the highest glass ceiling of all. I ask one question and one question only. Had Clinton been any other State Department employee do you think she would have dodged prosecution by the justification that carrying an extra cell phone constituted an undue burden?

Not a chance.

Hillary Clinton has nearly as poor a record on the enlightenment test as Trump. She was as tone deaf to the genuinely progressive chords struck by Bernie Sanders as she was to the non-xenophobic aspects of the populism that Trump campaigned on.

Free college tuition? Sanders’ idea. Take a hard look at trade deals? Trump’s idea.

What was Hillary Clinton’s idea? To ride into the White House on the heels of Barack Obama’s 51% approval rating under the clever campaign slogan: “You like this guy? I’m just like him. Except I’m not. By the way, please ignore the way I savaged him in the 2008 primary contest. I really like him; he’s a cool dude!”

You really have to wonder what really makes Hillary Clinton tick.

So, we are now left to face the results of our living democracy. The country has elected a man who will likely enjoy being called Mr. President far more than he will like actually being our president. He spent his first interview with 60 Minutes walking back much of the feature points of his campaign. Big surprise. This is not a man who has a problem with revision. As time passes, the people who elected Trump will come face to face with a man without a single concern for their plight. Who knows? They may finally learn the difference between the truth and a lie.

What’s Really Bothering Everyone About Trump Being Elected?

A Lesson from the Past: Trump & Schwarzenegger

While I was watching the election results it came to me: Donald Trump is to the United States as Arnold Schwarzenegger was to California. Arnold became governor after the citizens of California voted to recall Gray Davis way back in 2003. This left a choice between Cruz Bustamante and Schwarzenegger. If you’re unfamiliar with Bustamante just imagine Hillary Clinton as a paunchy latino who was never a first lady but was the 45th Lieutenant Governor of California. Schwarzenegger had money and a dazzling level of name recognition. But, more than this, he had answers to everything wrong with California. He promised to, “pump up Sacramento.” He said that Gray Davis had terminated hope and that it was now time to terminate Gray Davis. The Governator won the election by 1.3 million votes.

Then reality crashed down on him.

Schwarzenegger had difficulty passing a budget which led to him likening California legislators to kindergarteners who needed a time out. His most memorable line was branding those same legislators as girlie men. A couple years later, after watching his popularity tumble further, he changed his tone. The very same unions Arnold had earlier dismissed so readily showed why they have been such longstanding houses of power in this state.

In the end, it turned out that Arnold’s fame and money didn’t mean he had the answers to everything that was wrong with California.

And now there’s Donald Trump…

He has money, but no one’s quite sure how much. He has experience in business, but he also had a $200,000,000 head start. And, like Arnold, Trump says he has the answers to everything that will help make our country great again. Yet, he never told the electorate when exactly the country was previously great and what had robbed its greatness.

Like Arnold, he’s adept at identifying enemies but not so quick to identify allies or to show an interest in building consensus. For that matter, he has done and said little to indicate that he thinks consensus is even something of value.

Say what you want about Schwarzenegger. He was born with nothing and built his fortune by capitalizing on his gifts. In the end, he learned some hard lessons in his time as governor. The longer he held office, the less bombastic he sounded.

We will have to wait to find out whether Donal Trump the president will be a different man than Trump the candidate. I suspect he won’t like the job. He won’t be able to free himself from the relentless schedule. There will be no reality TV shows, no openings of hotels and golf courses just the constant pull in all directions that have plagued every president since Washington.

Then, there’s his age. He’ll be the same age when he’s inaugurated as Reagan was when he took office. Trump displayed great energy throughout the campaign. But a campaign is, by its nature, founded on rhetoric. That’s Trump’s strength. Being president is a grind of details that is not something Trump would seem to enjoy, just as Reagan did not. I’m not even going to talk about the beating Trump’s golf handicap is bound to take.

Then there’s his money and his business. Even though the Trump family seemed blissfully unfamiliar with the concept of a blind trust during the campaign they will surely know all about them by the time Trump takes office. Trump’s term in office will mean he won’t be able to trade stocks or be anything like the head of his own empire that he’s been for decades.

Instead, Trump will be like Eisenhower, giving orders that no one follows.

I also think Trump will find that TV time is a lot more difficult to get when you’re president than when you’re running for president. This is man who needs attention like most men need oxygen. He’ll get plenty, but I’m quite sure it won’t be the kind he likes. His ideas, such as they are, will have to turn into actions at some point. And, when they do, they will be questioned by the press corp, the democrats, the people and inevitably by members of his own party.

Donald Trump doesn’t like being questioned but presidents are questioned endlessly.

I wish Trump luck in renegotiating trade deals, which may have been made without the interests of American workers’ jobs or wages taken into account. I wish him luck in dealing with our county’s immigration issues, but I know that his is the party of cheap labor and I know that minimal control of immigration helps to preserve low wages. I wish him luck dealing with foreign powers though I think he’ll soon learn that Vladimir Putin’s interests don’t align with Trump’s interests, or America’s interests, quite as often as he hopes they will. I wish him luck in lowering taxes but know that doing such constitutes a path this country has gone down before, and that it’s a path that led to massive debt and budget shortfalls. I wish him luck in battling our country’s foes. He has said he can defeat them all easily yet the forty-four presidents who came before him tried to do the same over the last two hundred and twenty seven years. Still, America has never seen a sunrise without a host of new enemies to replace our many vanquished foes.

Still, I don’t need to have faith in any one man to maintain my faith in our republic.

It will long endure beyond the time of Trump and me.


A Lesson from the Past: Trump & Schwarzenegger