I rarely write about my experiences as a political consultant, largely because I’m loathe to throw the people who pay my bills under, say, a large black campaign tour bus, but I’d like you to indulge me just this once. I returned this month from a job running a national campaign in a country associated with mangoes and destination weddings. I arrived to a tropical paradise, full of sunburns and over-priced Caesar salads. But when I looked beyond the all-inclusive resorts, I found a very real country, complete with its own political issues, crises and imbroglios.
What struck me most as I set out to take the pulse of the voters was — well, first it was the mosquitoes — but then it was the combination of abject poverty and a level of entitlement I have never encountered. Seas bursting with fish surround villagers, yet they demand fisheries. Villagers can pluck meals from the trees in their yards, yet they demand food stamps and government aid to shop at grocery stores.
While I was running a town hall, a local campaign manager approached me and said, “We need to explain to these people that it’s not the administration’s fault they’re unhappy. Our country’s economic problems exist because America is broke.”
I won’t disgust you with the graphic details of my cranial explosion, nor attempt to recount the tenderly pedantic lecture I gave the guy, but it boiled down to this: You do not get to blame anyone else for your own constituents’ woes when you are the incumbent. You are in control; you get to make the rules so that you may revel in the triumphs, but you must also absorb the failures. All of them. No excuses. The blame game is for losers.
So imagine my surprise last week as I watched my own president, Barack Obama, in speech after TV appearance after town hall, saying that the United States’s problems should be blamed on three things: the Arab Spring, the “situation” in Europe and the Japanese tsunami. In that order. He also managed to pepper his speeches with moans about how Congress just won’t let him do anything he wants. And now he’s gone, exasperated, on vacation.
Excuse me, Mr. President, but that is not the attitude of the America to which my family immigrated, nor is it the attitude of the America I want to live in. Where is our national pride and independence? Is it any wonder that 89% of Americans are dissatisfied with the way things are going in our country?
Sure, the stated reasons for Americans’ anxiety are the usual suspects: the economy, health care, dissatisfaction with politicians. I can’t help but wonder, though, if the real cause of our agita is the decline of American standards, the growing knowledge that we are becoming a nation of underachievers, coddled by our growing nanny state, forgiven for our crimes and taxed for our achievements. Why have we let the meritocracy and free spirit that used to define us become so watered down?
I think our decline began around the time children’s softball games started going un-scored — when we stopped declaring winners, we all became de facto losers. Lowered expectations mirrored lower institutional standards. We froze when we found out that our kids were scoring much worse on math tests than kids in Asian countries, understanding the implication but unable to correct for the disparity. When President Bush established “No Child Left Behind,” union teachers, unable to adequately teach, started helping their students cheat on basic skills tests so that their students would do well and they would keep getting promoted.
It has gotten so bad that there is a movement afoot to promote academic mediocrity by abolishing standardized tests altogether. Some colleges already have “SAT optional” admissions policies. That way, if you can’t compete, you can just blame the test and get away with not even trying.
Really, fellow Americans? We’re going to put limits on how much homework teachers can assign and jettison merit-based testing, but we have the audacity to complain about outsourcing and blame our problems on natural disasters and the global economy? That combination of condescension and blame is an attitude that I have seen in my work around the world, but only in the most backward of nations. I never expected to see it in my beloved USA, and certainly not from my president.
I left the tropical “paradise” where I was working with — wait for it — a case of dengue fever and a vow to never leave American terra firma again. Now, to my disbelief, America is looking more and more like that country — entitled locals, complacent teachers, lazy politicians and overcooked tuna steaks.
Natasha Mayer is a political consultant in Washington, D.C. Her Twitter handle is @natashamayer