Beyond that boilerplate, Friedman and Mandelbaum do offer a hands-on suggestion in That Used to Be Us: the call for an implacably moderate third-party presidential candidate whose views, if not persona, seem indistinguishable from Obama’s. This scheme proved DOA in the real world; the Friedman-promoted third-party vehicle called Americans Elect capsized ignominiously. But the idea was another telling manifestation of nostalgia for that ostensible postwar golden age, when high-minded folk, too high-minded to dirty themselves in the two-party system, could still set the agenda. If only more people like “us” could be put in charge—more conclaves of experts like those convened by the Rockefellers in the fifties, more commissions like the recent and impotent Simpson-Bowles deficit panel, more self-appointed centrist groups like the current No Labels (still being flogged on Morning Joe by the former George W. Bush flack Mark McKinnon), America might be just the way it used to be. All those bullet-point wish lists generated by editorial boards, think-tank symposia, and declinist books would magically take hold in the body politic regardless of what the great unwashed electorate might have to say about it.
One self-appointed citizen leader who has risen to this bait is Howard Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks, who has been preaching the virtues of the American Dream in full-page newspaper advertisements that often sound like retreads of old American Way campaigns. In one recent ad—“We all know there is something wrong” and that “real solutions” are needed, he intoned—he offered “to spark the conversation” of civic self-improvement by giving customers a “free tall hot brewed coffee on the Fourth of July.” He implored Americans to use Instagram to “post a photo of the America we all need to see” and to spread their ideas on Twitter with the hashtag “Indivisible.” But if you tracked #Indivisible shortly thereafter, you’d have found that Starbucks was doing its part by tweeting about its new Blonde Roast: “Great over ice! Have you tried it yet?”
Nonetheless, David Brooks has pushed this patronizing concept of immaculate, above-the-fray leadership to another level lately by arguing in the Times that Americans need to be schooled in the manners of “followership.” Whom they’re supposed to follow isn’t named, but presumably it’s a clubbable, middle-aged stalwart of either the Aspen Ideas Festival or Davos. “Today’s elite lacks the self-conscious leadership ethos that the racist, sexist, and anti-Semitic old boys’ network did possess,” Brooks wrote, arguing that America could benefit from the “stewardship mentality” of “the best of the Wasp elites.” He’s not alone. During the years since Obama had the audacity to change the complexion of the most elite office in the land, there’s been an unexpected outbreak of nostalgia for Dwight Eisenhower and George H.W. Bush, the Waspiest of Wasp presidents in memory. By all rights, Romney should be the beneficiary of this yearning in 2012. Not for nothing do his political supporters use the loaded phrase “historic opportunity” to describe the prospect of taking out Obama. Not by accident do they wish aloud, as the former Bush 41 chief of staff John Sununu did last week, that “this president” would overcome his exotic childhood in Hawaii and Indonesia and “learn how to be an American.” If Romney fails to capitalize on his opportunity to be the last hurrah of this demographically doomed old guard, it will not be just because he is a parody of elitist noblesse oblige but because his own Americanism has been compromised by the outsourcing of his money to the Cayman Islands, Bermuda, Switzerland, and who knows what other exotic places that most Americans have never been to.
Samuel Huntington wrote in 1988 that declinist waves “may be better indications of American psychology than of American power,” and that “decline, in short, may be in the eye of the beholder.” That certainly applies now. However serious America’s problems, the declinist panic has been fed psychologically by the advent of Obama: He was vilified for negating American exceptionalism months before he was even inaugurated and had the chance to take any official action that affected the country’s fortunes one way or the other. That Establishment pundits would be fellow travelers in this animus, yearning for an Obama who is not Obama, or for a great white daddy who would bring back the good old days, is a bipartisan indicator of a larger resistance to the onrushing ethnic, social, and cultural change in America of which Obama is only the avatar. It’s a kinder, gentler, and more respectable form of Palinism.
Lost in all our declinist panic is the fact that the election of an African-American president is in itself an instance of American exceptionalism—an unexpected triumph for a country that has struggled for its entire history with the stain of slavery. “Only in America is my story even possible,” Obama is understandably fond of saying, knowing full well that as recently as the year of his birth, 1961, he would not have been welcome in Mayberry, let alone the White House. That his unlikely rise has somehow been twisted into a synonym for America’s supposed collapse over the past four years may be the most disturbing and intractable evidence of our decline of all. This story appeared in the July, 30, 2012 issue of New York Magazine.