This Super Bowl Sunday, General Motors Co. aired an advertisement for their new electric vehicle battery, the Ultium. This comes in the wake of GM announcing that they will stop producing gas-powered vehicles by 2035. This was my favorite advertisement of Super Bowl LV and I would recommend giving it a quick watch for context. The ad starred Will Ferrell, Awkwafina and Kenan Thompson. The plot is that America is being trounced by Norway when it comes to electric vehicle implementation, and Ferrell and his compatriots are on a mission to change that. This ad, released on one of the most competitive days on the American calendar, supplies a blueprint for using the American competitive spirit as a vehicle for positive change. 

There is an incredible pool of competitive energy in the United States. I’m sure you have seen the reports of rampant partying and disorder in Tampa, Fla., after this Super Bowl Sunday, and that’s just energy from one American team beating another. For a view of how competitive we can get with other countries just look to the Olympics. 

Does anyone care about curling any non-Olympic years? No! But when it is framed as a competition where America needs to take its rightful place on the winner’s podium, heads from Seattle to Sarasota, Fla., pop up, and the competitive fuse is lit.

The precise language of competing with other countries has possibly turned sour in the ears of many left-leaning people throughout the last few years. This is because former President Donald Trump was an avid user of winner-take-all rhetoric in U.S. foreign policy. Specifically, Trump’s America First policies explicitly relied on a competitive and even confrontational lens to interpret the rest of the world. However, competitive rhetoric can be employed in a responsible and positive way, like Ferrell confidently talking about his desire to “crush those lugers” to engender a passion for a more sustainable transportation system. 

For an example of how this competitive spirit has been harnessed to pull political goals along, look no further than the Space Race. In 1962, former President John F. Kennedy gave his famous address at Rice University. Kennedy called on Americans to keep their eye on the ball: “For while we cannot guarantee that we shall one day be first, we can guarantee that any failure to make this effort will make us last.” 

Kennedy and Ferrell share a strategy to motivate Americans. Not only do they want us to covet winning, but they also want us to loathe losing. Kennedy was demonstrably successful in using this strategy, as his competitive rhetoric ensured robust space program funding, which resulted in an eventual victory in 1969 when Americans were the first to set foot on the moon.

We have established that this is a strategy, but what could it best be used for today? Gov. Gretchen Whitmer may have an idea. 

Whitmer ran on a platform focused on fixing Michigan’s roads. Currently, the U.S. gets a D+ in infrastructure from the American Society of Civil Engineers. Our national infrastructure would be a perfect target for a competitive strategy. After all, the interstate highway system was born out of a competitive spirit. Former President Dwight D. Eisenhower noticed that Germany had a fantastic highway system and decided the U.S. wouldn’t be relegated to second-tier infrastructure — thus the Interstate highway system was born.

Kyle Kulinski, a co-founder of the progressive organization Justice Democrats, recently tweeted a prescient policy prescription: “The US should do a multi trillion dollar infrastructure deal with the expressed goal of being #1 in the world on that front. … It’s a unifying national project with countless upsides.” 

This is exactly the type of strategy we should be employing to move the national conversation toward significant infrastructure spending. The innate pride in being American and wanting to be number one in the world is conditioned into someone from an early age, and I feel it strongly as I write this. Understanding and harnessing this competitive spirit will be vital in cutting through the cacophonous noise of the modern political climate.

Of course, infrastructure is not the only area where this strategy could be effective. There are several areas where the U.S. has fallen behind, and many Americans might not even realize it. Take our democracy for example. Its weaknesses have already been well explored by thinkers much more in tune with the processes than I, so I will simply say that cracks are starting to show in institutions that many Americans formerly perceived as robust. Democracy isn’t something that we think of competitively, but we absolutely should — many countries do elections better (and tastier) than we do. One such country is Australia. 

Elections in Australia are held on Saturdays, as opposed to Tuesdays as in the U.S. Australia has a compulsory voting system, and you can get fined about $15 for not doing your civic duty. Voting is seen as a responsibility and not just as a right, so about 96% of Australians vote in each election, compared to just 66.7% of Americans who voted in the last election

Finally, and most important to my palate, at many Australian polling places there will be a prominent showing of democracy sausages — basically a hot dog which voters can purchase when they turn up to the polls. Overall, voting is seen as more of a block party than an errand. Both the institutions and the culture around voting in Australia are something that I expect many Americans to both enjoy and benefit from. But I don’t think we should adopt their system and culture because we need to do better. We need to beat them — we need to be number one — but only in a way that fits the spirit of our nation.

Electric cars, democracy, infrastructure and innovation. All things that we as a nation should strive to do better at, not just for our own sake, but for our national sense of pride. Will Ferrell, Kennedy and Trump aren’t the most similar people, but they all struck a fundamental chord of what it means to be an American. Americans like to win, and when issues are framed as either winning or losing to the rest of the world, a lot can get done. 

Julian Barnard can be reached at

The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown challenges at all of us — including The Michigan Daily — but that hasn’t stopped our staff. We’re committed to reporting on the issues that matter most to the community where we live, learn and work. Your donations keep our journalism free and independent. You can support our work here.

For a weekly roundup of the best stories from The Michigan Daily, sign up for our newsletter here.