A funny thing happened in the in the wake our last election. Even as the chaos unfolded in Florida, scarcely a day went by where one couldn”t read yet another commentator marveling, yet again, at what a great place the United States is. “The election dispute just shows how strong we are,” everyone said. “Most other countries would have seen violence if confronted with the kind of election debacle that took place here.” And besides, “we”ve got the money, the power, the respect,” as so many opined. “Sure everyone snipes at us, but it”s all just jealousy.”

Paul Wong
Peter Cunniffe<br><br>Lost in the Game

While it was particularly loud then, this isn”t just a messy election phenomenon. You still hear the self-congratulating all the time.

And why not? There”s no denying that America really is unique in the world today. As the preeminent economic, political and cultural power, more influential in the world than any nation in human history, why should we ever tire of the endless compliments we are so fond of paying ourselves?

Maybe because that”s the trap everyone who ends up on top eventually falls into. Successful nations usually become quite enamored of the way things are. Why change when you”re doing well? But this means throwing off the dynamism that makes for successful societies in the first place and rabidly guarding the status quo even as it becomes progressively less beneficial to do so. Thorstein Veblen called it “the penalty of taking the lead.” You become dependent on obsolete practices because that”s what”s always worked before.

Think Chrysler, the Soviet Union and hair bands in the “80s. Megalithic entities that stood tall in their respective fields, looked invulnerable and fell from glory with startling swiftness.

Chrysler didn”t respond to changing consumer preferences, ran an outdated manufacturing operation and still exists only because of a government bailout. The Soviet Union”s moribund governmental structures and unworkable command economy were so hopelessly stagnant, a superpower vanished before anyone knew what was happening. And Motley Crue and Poison were rocking along without a care in the world when those Seattle upstarts with their flannel shirts and songs with plots stole away America”s heart.

Capitalist, communist or vapid musical hacks, institutions that don”t change, that get too attached to their usual way of doing things, don”t last.

Which brings us back to the United States, currently the center of the world, unchallengeable, our commercial, cultural and military might inexorably reshaping humanity in our image. But despite what some say, there is no end to history. The United States is not eternal and cracks in the Pax Americana are already beginning to show.

Most notable is the aforementioned “election.” When it didn”t turn out clean and simple like we”re used to, we panicked. Well, not everyone. In fact, almost no one. But the political class of this country, the politicians, special interest groups and media that run our nation compensated for everyone else”s calm with an apoplectic six-week orgy of hysteria and fear. “How could there not be a winner!?” they exclaimed. “By God, that”s not how this works!” Incredulous at the horrifying irregularity of the whole situation, a sickening drumbeat arose from politicians and the media, self-proclaimed protectors of the public, that this had to end. We needed to move on, to get back to normal.

And move on we did. We accepted finality over counting votes. We turned our democracy over to an unelected president. And we may have started paying that penalty.

It”s not this particular event that”s the real problem, it”s the precedent we”ve set. That having elections is secondary to having leaders. That we respond to disenfranchisement with a shrug. That it”s not the will of the people that matters, but the will of James Baker and Chris Matthews. (It”s unlikely the Supreme Court would have had the balls to stop votes from being counted if Jim and Chris and their ilk hadn”t hectored the public into believing it was inevitable and right).

A strength of the United States has always been an emphasis on ideals over tradition. We”ve made our own future, unlike European countries and most other nations that have their eyes ever fixed on the past, the centuries and millennia of wars, royal feuds and ethnic strife an omnipresent burden of inescapable tradition.

People in the Balkans just can”t seem to stop killing each other over old grudges.

Canada”s head of state is appointed by the queen of England.

The French have laws restricting the names of children to keep out anything “non-French.”

Sound absurd? Well, here”s another one.

In the United States, having any president-elect now is preferred to waiting to see who really won.

Like other countries, we are sacrificing what is right to what has always been. Choosing not to find the best solution, only the easiest one. We came to believe, correctly, that this is a great country and we were talked into believing, incorrectly, that convention is more important than justice.

France used to be a great nation too.

Peter Cunniffe”s column runs every other Friday. He can be reached via email at pcunniff@umich.edu

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