We’re happy being in the USA

This week I read news accounts of China’s initiation into the international club of standardized testing of students in reading, math and science. “Oh, brother!” I thought when reading the headline, “here we go again.” Wouldn’t you know it? The kids in Shanghai bested much of the competition from the 60 or so countries participating. Next year, local schools will want me to test messaging that urges more funding in order to keep up with the Chinese. Please.

Perhaps because we don’t have wars anymore, the Olympics aren’t held often enough, and Americans can’t seem to win at World Cup soccer, some of us are looking for new venues for competition. Let’s have the best test scores, the longest school year, the cleanest air, the strongest currency, the most accessible healthcare system and so forth. That explains some of the advocates’ motivation. Unfortunately, other advocates want us to be like others because of self-loathing. They are the haters who believe America is screwed up. Mainstream Americans recognize this and don’t go along. “U-S-A, U-S-A, U-S-A,” they chant to the chagrin of the haters.

A touch of isolationism also underlies our disinterest in competition advocacy. Only 8 percent of voters in the November election exit polls said that a foreign policy issue influenced their voting. Other nationwide polls on the most important issue or problem generally find that only one in 10 Americans considers any foreign policy issue to be of greatest importance. 

Factual confusion is also deluding us as to who’s winning. While the advocates almost always argue that China is grabbing the lead, many don’t see it. A recent Pew survey found that by a narrow 49-46 percent margin, Americans reject the proposition that China will “overtake the U.S. as the world’s main superpower.” And I bet that even those who see the Chinese ascending won’t necessarily want to be like them. 

There is also an increasingly visible strain of advocacy that urges us to be more competitive with emerging nations like Korea, Brazil and India. That’s going to be a very tough sell. Yes, I am sure there is something that New England Patriot signal caller Tom Brady could learn from a top, up-and-coming collegiate quarterback like Auburn’s Cam Newton, but don’t expect Brady to stay by the phone waiting for the call and Newton’s insights on the game. So don’t expect Americans to anxiously seek economic counsel from Mumbai.

For those trying to figure all this out, I suspect that shallow public polls are not ever going to uncover and reveal the deeper bedrock attitudes underlying these opinions. It may actually be that Americans silently recognize that other nations are catching up and even surpassing us in some form or fashion. But would you expect us to necessarily acknowledge that? It’s not human nature to openly admit loss and defeat. Sometimes we can’t even admit loss to ourselves internally, loss that our brains know about. Our heart wins. So we hide loss somewhere deep.

Advocates who want us to compete better with other nations need to couch their arguments at a competitive level that doesn’t imply defeat. It’s not helpful to say we’re behind a second-tier opponent and it’s the fourth quarter. We’re never going to grant that. Michigan never loses to Appalachian State, and Virginia Tech never loses to George Mason. Never.

David Hill has been a Republican pollster since 1984. This cycle he is polling for gubernatorial campaigns in four states.