MAUREEN DOWD: Who do we think we are?

July 7, 2014 

America's infatuation with the World Cup came at the perfect moment, illuminating the principle that you can lose and still advance.

Once our nation saw itself as the undefeatable cowboy John Wayne. Now we bask in the prowess of the unstoppable goalie Tim Howard, a biracial kid from New Jersey with Tourette's syndrome.

With our swaggering and sanguine image deflated by epic unforced errors, Americans are playing defense, struggling to come to grips with a world where we can no longer dictate all the terms, win all the wars and lead all the charges.

"The Fourth of July was always a celebration of American exceptionalism," said Republican pollster Frank Luntz. "Now it's a commiseration of American disappointment."

From Katrina to Fallujah, we're less the Shining City Upon a Hill than the House of Broken Toys.

For the first time perhaps, hope is not as much a characteristic of American feelings.

Are we winners who have been through a rough patch? Or losers who have soured our sturdy and spiritual DNA with too much food, too much greed, too much narcissism, too many lies, too many spies, too many fat-cat bonuses, too many cat videos on the evening news, too many Buzzfeed listicles like "33 Photos Of Corgi Butts," and too much mindless and malevolent online chatter?

Are we still the biggest and baddest? Or are we forever smaller, stingier, dumber, less ambitious and more cynical? Have we lost control of our not-so-manifest destiny?

We're a little bit scared of our own shadow. And, sadly, we see ourselves as a people who can never understand one another. We've given up on the notion that we can cohere, even though the founders forged America by holding together people with deep differences.

A nation of immigrants watched over by the Statue of Liberty -- with a government unable to pass immigration reform despite majority support -- sees protesters take to the streets to keep Hispanic children trying to cross the border from being housed in their communities.

Andrew Kohut, who has polled for Gallup and the Pew Research Center for over four decades, calls the mood "chronic disillusionment." He said that in this century we have had only three brief moments when a majority of Americans said they were satisfied with the way things were going: the month W. took office, right after the 9/11 attacks and the month we invaded Iraq.

The old verities seem quaint. If you work hard and play by the rules, you'll lose out to those guys who can wire computers to make bets on Wall Street faster than the next guy to become instant multimillionaires. Our quiet traditional virtues bow to our noisy visceral divisions, while churning technology is swiftly remolding the national character in ways that are still a blur. Boldness is often chased away by distraction, confusion, hesitation and fragmentation.

Barack Obama vowed to make government cool again, but young people, put off by the dysfunction in our political, financial, military and social institutions, are eschewing government jobs. Idealism is swamped by special interests.

The middle class is learning to do more with less. The president, sort of the opposite.

Nathaniel Philbrick, the author of "Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution," which depicts the Patriots, warts and all, warns against gilding the past. "They weren't better than us back then; they were trying to figure things out and justify their behavior, kind of like we are now," he said. "From the beginning to the end, the Revolution was a messy work in progress. The people we hold up as paragons did not always act nobly but would then later be portrayed as always acting nobly. It reminds you of the dysfunction we're in the middle of now.

"The more we can realize that we're all making it up as we go along and somehow muddling through making ugly mistakes, the better. We're not destined for greatness. We have to earn that greatness. What George Washington did right was to realize how much of what he thought was right was wrong."

Maureen Dowd is a columnist for The New York Times, 620 Eighth Ave., New York, NY 10018.

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