Like 4.5 billion people around the world, I’ve been watching the Olympics. I enjoy the vistas, the contests, the human-interest stories.
It’s also fun to see so much nationalism on display: the Americans and Chinese slugging it out for most medals (and most gold medals), our British hosts savoring unexpected success, the Grenadians jumping for joy when their nation won its first-ever Olympic medal.
Despite a few potshots about some athlete’s arrogance, hair or poor sportsmanship, we Americans seem unusually unified during these two weeks of athletic competition. U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!
But beyond the sports arenas, the United States and some who live here seem increasingly divided and divisive.
Oh sure, we put our hands over our hearts and pledge allegiance to “one nation under God, indivisible.” We ballyhoo our Bill of Rights. We declare the “self-evident” truth that all are created equal.
But then some American shoots and kills worshippers at an American Sikh temple.
Some American boasts of bias against gay Americans and thousands wait in line to say, “Right on.”
Some American torches an American mosque.
Some American says we should deport American-born children of foreign immigrants.
Some American burns a cross on an American lawn.
Some American says American women don’t deserve equal pay for equal work.
Some Americans say an African-American couple can’t marry in their American church.
Some Americans teach a child to sing “ain’t no homo gonna make it to heaven” and post it on the Internet.
Some American politician says poverty in America is “a black thing.”
United we stand?
Yet despite the propensity among some Americans to segment and silo on the basis of age, race, religion, gender, national origin, sexual orientation, economic background, education level and more, politicians love to invoke the alleged will of the American people to justify their actions or inaction.
“The American people are with me on this,” President Obama said last month. Consequently, he said, Congress should extend Bush-era tax cuts to all but upper-income wage earners.
“The American people are not concerned about tax returns,” Gov. Mitt Romney told NBC Nightly News. Therefore, he said, he should not have to release more than two years’ worth in his quest for the presidency.
“The better candidates that potentially could’ve run understand that President Obama is popular, that the American people support him,” said Democratic National Committee Chairwoman and U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Consequently, she said, Republicans had to settle for a weak field of primary contenders.
The undisputed king of purported public unanimity is U.S. House Speaker John Boehner.
“The American people probably aren’t going to fall in love with Mitt Romney,” Boehner said last month.
“I’ve been in 100 cities in America this year. It doesn’t make any difference—big towns, small towns, East Coast, West Coast—the American people are outraged at what Washington is doing,” Boehner told Fox News in October 2010.
“The American people don’t want us to raise taxes,” Boehner said at a June 2011 news conference.
“The American people do not want to go down this path,” Boehner said when the Supreme Court ruled the Affordable Care Act (aka ObamaCare) constitutional.
Health insurance reform inspired a veritable chorus of the “American people.”
“The American people have spoken,” said the Heritage Foundation in a video response to the Supreme Court decision. “They don’t support ObamaCare and fear its consequences more every day.”
“The American people didn’t want it in 2010,” said Romney.
Except, of course, millions of Americans did.
This presumption of national unanimity and homogeneity is nothing new, of course.
Presidential candidate Jimmy Carter envisioned a “government that is as good and honest and decent and competent and compassionate and as filled with love as are the American people.”
He (and/or we) didn’t deliver on those qualities.
President Ronald Reagan said the greatest success of his presidency was “making the American people believe in themselves again.”
Some of the people some of the time, perhaps.
In the wake of the Monica Lewinsky, oral-sex-in-the-Oval-Office scandal, President Clinton refused to resign, saying, “I think the American people know two or three things about me now … and I think they know I’ve worked very, very hard for them.”
Well, perhaps, but some among the American people didn’t like the two or three things they knew about him at that point, or what he was working on.
At his last cabinet meeting, President George W. Bush said, “This administration has relied upon the great compassion of the American people.”
Except that those who were unemployed and those opposed to concurrent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan weren’t feeling very compassionate.
“Nothing is more fatuous and misleading in American politics than … politicians claiming that they are doing ‘the will of the American people,’” wrote Anthony L. Hall in The iPINIONS Journal last month.
The American people agree—on this one, at least.•
Hetrick is an Indianapolis-based writer, speaker and public relations consultant. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.