Deficiencies and Slights

A co-worker pointed out to me the following quote from Joe Klein of TIME magazine: “. . . [the Democratic Party has] a problem that has hurt [it] since the Vietnam era, a fixation on the (often spectacular) deficiencies of superpower governance while slighting this nation’s incredible strengths.” This struck me, and it made some pieces fall into place that have been floating around in my head of late.

What Klein is criticizing the Democratic Party for is pointing out the country’s problems, while failing to recognize its greatness. Besides the fact that I think he’s slightly wrong, he does expose a rather large flaw in modern conservative thinking.

First he criticized the Dems for pointing out “deficiencies of superpower government.” In business there is a common analytical tool called a SWOT analysis; it is meant to be a tool for a broad and deep search of a company’s Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. The problem is that a lot of companies prefer a SO analysis, focusing on strengths and opportunities, while conveniently ignoring weaknesses and threats. These companies fail. Many governments fall into the same trap. The U.S. military has a system called the Red Team—they are basically hole-pokers, devil’s advocates, no-men whose job it is to find all the faults with the idea before them, in order to solidify the idea. If the nation doesn’t have a Red Team analysis, it won’t plan effectively.

Dems/liberals/progressives are too often the nation’s Red Team regarding the effective use of America’s superpower super powers because 1) we have not used them to lead as much as to exploit, and 2) we have missed out on so many great opportunities. We have been so concerned with favorable economic terms and military supremacy that we have treated the other nations of the world as though they were recalcitrant children or playground rivals rather than fellow problem solvers. According to the DoD’s 2007 Base Structure Report, we have 823 military “installations” in 39 foreign countries throughout the world (and that’s without counting Iraq or Afghanistan!). This is what we’ve been doing for too long—missile launch sites, banana republics, and puppet regimes.

We have been negligent in our stewardship. We are the servant given one talent—we’ve been so concerned about preserving our economic and military superiority (an illusion of security), we haven’t bothered to invest our resources in productive endeavors. I guess that’s what “conservative” means. It is only a matter of time before the master returns, takes an accounting, and give our one talent to another who will do something with it.

The second part of Klein’s quote is also important: “slighting the nation’s incredible strengths.” Let me go through the infinitive verbs in the Preamble to the Constitution: form, establish, insure, provide, promote, and secure. Nowhere in there does it refer to cheerleading or patting ourselves on the back. Government is all about action toward a future result, not looking back at the fine work we’ve done. If I downplay America’s strengths, it’s because I see a lot of wasted potential. America has been the Tony Mandarich of the 20th century. If I fail to laud our track record, it’s because I keep hearing the words inscribed on the pedestal of Ozymandias.

I like to think I love this country as much as anyone. I love much of what it has done and is, but it has fallen far short of its unfathomable potential. The job of government is not to congratulate itself on the good it has done but rather to find new ways to do good and to do better.


Reluctant says:

I agree with you that we have missed many opportunities to lead rather than govern the world. I also agree with you that throughout our history there have been plenty of missteps and downright failures in judgment.

But I completely disagree with you that the government doesn’t have a responsibility to highlight our accomplishments. You mention the SWOT and criticized those that only concentrate on on the SO. But your comments imply that you are *ignoring* the SO.

There needs to be a good balance. And although I don’t know Klein at all, I would assume that he was talking about the fact that the Dems very seldom highlight the good things this country has accomplished. Even if you believe those accomplishments are few, they still need to be highlighted. Any good leader knows if you only talk about the negatives, you kill morale.

I’m not saying that the Cons do a good job of this either. They seem to want to ignore the problems. But a good leader needs to be aware of both sides and talk evenly about them.

As always, a balance must be achieved. And in my opinion, it will never happen with our current two-party system. The need to create separation from the other candidate doesn’t allow for proper balance.

Centrist says:

I don’t think a government needs to market itself or its past deeds. The people can see and feel the effectiveness of the government. The problem has been that while the Cons are marketing America’s greatness and leadership, its own citizens and the rest of the world SEE and FEEL something different.

I don’t think I implied that I am ignoring the SO. I said that we have “super powers” (strengths) and “unfathomable potential” (opportunities). But you don’t tell you’re football team they’re shoelaces are tied nicely when they’re losing by 40 points.

I think everyone recognizes the strengths and opportunities of America. That is why it is such a travesty that we don’t do more with them.

You don’t have to worry about getting the positives highlighted–that’s how people get re-elected. I don’t think we need to encourage that (although I agree it’s important for morale). In order to get the balance you seek, there needs to be a LOT more honest assessment of weaknesses, threats (not just regarding security), and failures.

Mike W. says:

There are some very interesting books out by a group called the Arbinger Institute, a group that advises businesses about organizational behavior. The main book is entitled “Leadership and Self-Deception.” The main ideas of this institute are that if a leader sees a problem within the company, often times that problems is with the way the leader is doing things. However, most leaders persist in blaming others for the problems, deceiving themselves as to the cause of the problems. They work to change others within the company (which in reality they cannot do) instead of changing themselves (which is the only change they actually can make if they are willing to stop deceiving themselves as to where the problem lies).

I think the point that Dave makes is powerful. Until the U.S. can overcome it’s self-deception, it will fail to be the powerful leader that it was fore-ordained to be. As Lincoln stated when discussing freeing the slaves: “We–even we here–hold the power, and bear the responsibility. In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free–honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.”

If conservatives truly believe that America is the “last best hope” they need to recognize, and focus on, the profound problems we have. Self-deception necessitates failure. And unless the U.S. owns up to the problems it has and the problems it causes and has caused in the world, our foreign policy will continue to fail.

Reluctant says:

My point is that even if the people KNOW the accomplishments of the nation, the Dems are viewed as being very negative towards it. All I’m saying is that it wouldn’t hurt them one bit to highlight the positives as well. Unless they are playing on the fears of the people, they shouldn’t be afraid to talk about all the good that happens in this country and the good that is accomplished by the government.

Mike W. says:

Viewed as being negative by whom? By those who only want to pretend there are no problems. Carter’s “Crisis of Confidence” speech is a great example of this whole concept. If the U.S. (or conservatives specifically) had listened and applied, our situation would be dramatically different. Instead, Reagan and his advisers made fun of the speech, calling it the “malaise” speech, implying that what we needed to do was not think about the problems, only think about what made us great, and the problems would magically fix themselves. 30 years later we are in a worse situation the the same people want us to again not talk about the problems??? It just doesn’t make any sense to me at all. Read the “Crisis of Confidence” speech, Reluctant, and see what you think. I think that you’ll find that these issues absolutely need to be highlighted, not the continued “France would be speaking German if it weren’t for us” diatribe.

Reluctant says:

I’m not saying that the criticism isn’t real and good. I’m saying that the Dems (and the Cons) need to have a balance. When you talk to a person that only gives you criticism and no praise, you get really tired of talking to that person. And when you talk to someone who only talks about the positives, you learn to not listen.

Balance is all I’m talking about.

Centrist says:

Is that why people don’t listen to me anymore? Because I’m just too positive? 😉

Reluctant says:

OK, so I didn’t really finish my thought there. They learn to stop listening to someone who is always talking positives because they realize that they aren’t getting honest feedback/commentary.

I had a co-worker that was always complimenting me on my work/code and never once gave any constructive criticism or disagreement. I promptly ignored him because I realized that none of it was honest. He later turned out to be a compulsive liar who stole a bunch of our code and created a competing product. 😉

Mike W. says:


Sounds like you’ve made Dave’s point against all the stuff coming out of the White House and right-wing talk radio. Folks that are blowing sunshine up the nation’s collective whazoo are those most likely trying to deceive you (convince you about a bad war) and take something from you (like your civil liberties).

I do agree that constant, unremitting criticism is also unlistenable. However, most of what we hear from folks like Carter, Obama, etc. is not unremitting. It is hopeful and necessary. We must listen or we will continue in our current state. If we don’t like the messenger, we can dismiss that person. But we ought not dismiss the message.

Reluctant says:

I agree. I’m not saying that the Cons have it right. Go back and read my comments. All I’m saying is that the Dems focus on the negative and the Cons focus on the positive. And both are self-serving.

And that’s why everyone hates politicians.

Reminds me of Last Action Hero when Slater is brought into the “normal” world. The theater owner mentions all the evils of the world including earthquakes, tornadoes, murderers. He mentions politicians twice, which Slater points out. To which he response, “I know. That’s because they are the worst part of this world.”

Centrist says:

Last Action Hero – Best Schwartznegger (sp?) movie ever. Funny how Slater didn’t listen and became the governator.

Speaking of the SWOT analysis–or in this case, the SO analysis–it looks like America’s Big Three auto makers didn’t see the bottom falling out of the big truck/SUV market. Who saw it coming? Better question: who didn’t see it coming? The entire continents of Asia and Europe saw it. I really think we Americans are sometimes so Americo-centric that we think things will turn out how we want just because we’re Americans.

[…] Wow… talk about overreaction as well as bad patriotism.  This is the negativity that The Centrist mentioned in this article. […]

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