You’re probably familiar with the phrase, “The perfect is the enemy of the good,” meaning that the desire for an ideal outcome often makes a merely adequate outcome seem unacceptable. It’s a concept that comes up a lot in clashes between the netroots and the Democratic party establishment. (I personally would describe that dynamic as more like “The good is the enemy of the half-assed,” but that’s a whole ‘nother conversation.)
However, it may come as no surprise to you that the good has many enemies. One of the biggest (besides the GOP) is the Imaginary. I am speaking of the Imaginary America that Republicans want us to believe we inhabit, an America where everything is perfect and the best of all possible worlds and we can do no wrong because we are God’s Chosen Nation. (Of course, this does not apply to stuff they don’t like, such as gays and immigrants.)
This morning, I read an NYT editorial about how Americans are not nearly as upwardly mobile as citizens of most other industrial nations, and it’s a perfect example of what I’m talking about. The American people largely go along with the Republicans’ insanely pro-wealth, pro-business policies because they either believe that they themselves are wealthy, or that they will be (PDF).
This optimism is because we all “know” that America is the Land Of Opportunity, where anyone can make it big if they just have enough savvy and gumption. (Or, in Dubya’s case, Forrest Gumption.) So there’s no need to reform the tax system, or the educational system (which is the best in the world because it’s American!), or the economic system, because it’s a level playing field and everyone fancies him/herself a Winner. Why give up any of your future share of capitalism’s rich bounty just so some lazy deadbeat can eat?
Worse yet, the belief in America The Shining Beacon Of Democracy has made too many citizens unable or unwilling to see the rot that has eaten away at that democracy. Most people can’t believe that this country could turn into an authoritarian dictatorship because America is synonymous with Democracy – surely everything will return to normal after the Bush cohort leaves office. Anyone who suggests that our democratic institutions themselves are fundamentally broken must be a tinfoil-wearing crackpot!
Similarly, the belief in America The Just And Decent helped paved the way for the invasion of Iraq. Most Americans believed that we had good reasons to invade, simply because America isn’t the sort of country that attacks and brutalizes other countries just to inflate corporate coffers and presidential egos. Thankfully, only the die-hards still believe that now (or pretend to), but it would have been a much harder sell in the first place if more Americans recognized their country’s ability to commit great wrongs (See: Slavery, Jim Crow, internment camps, etc.). Even now, there are still far too many people who believe that America would never spy on someone without a warrant, or lock them up indefinitely and torture them without a trial, unless they were a Very Grave And Serious Threat.
What I am inartfully trying to say is that the reflexive “America #1!” mindset has led America to a state of complacency, hubris and denial, where the most obvious injustices and blatant government criminality can be waved away like outlying data points. We as a nation have become, or have always been, so blinded by the radiance of Imaginary America that we cannot see the many flaws of Real America. But to ignore flaws is to fail to correct them. America is not a beautiful house right now, but it’s a fixer-upper with great potential. Unfortunately, we in the liberal blogosphere are often in the unpopular position of trying to explain this to the proud homeowners who think they live in the bestest house on the block.
The depressing irony is that the more fiercely we believe America to be the greatest country on Earth, the less true it will be.