Americans have a strong affection for rankings and for being number one in everything. Whether the subject is collegiate sports (in which "our" team has to be number one), politics (our party has to be ), or international affairs (our country has to be ) we seem to be obsessed with outdoing everyone and everything.
Have we instilled into ourselves and our children and grandchildren a fiercely competitive spirit that does not tolerate anything but being number one? If so, isn't this a recipe for disaster? Realistically, no one individual or country can always be number one. Further, what price should one pay for striving for this dubious goal?
The potential problem with this attitude is displayed in the way contemporary parents raise their children. I hear today's parents telling their children "good job" for everything they do — like catching a baseball or going down a slide. How does this parental style exist next to the will to be the best, to succeed in everything? Can you tell your children that everything they do is terrific while also emphasizing the need to be number one in all of their activities?
This seemingly contradictory approach to child-raising can only plant doubts in children's minds. Which is it? Do I always have to succeed or is trying my best all that is required? Will I be praised no matter what the outcome is (as long as I've tried) or will parents only reward me if I excel and beat out everyone else?
When the demand for number-one status is applied to domestic politics and to international relations the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of this attitude become even clearer. The current stalemate in Congress has, at least as one of its causes, the need for each of the two political parties to best the other one. Neither side wants to give the other a victory. Within this framework, it is inconceivable for both sides to win — though surely it is easy to see how both sides lose.
Being number one may not be achievable in the legislative arena because neither party has a sufficient number of votes to dominate. Hence, you have a Catch-22 situation: since any and all actions require a compromise, and in this environment (where the political race only rewards total victory), the Republicans view compromise as failure thus resulting in a deadlock.
By turning everything into a competitive contest for supremacy, legislators become athletes competing for the title. They are no longer representatives of the people. By considering winning narrowly to mean winning votes for your respective party, or your legislative bill, the larger consideration — the needs of the American people — is ignored.
In foreign affairs, being the number-one military power in the world evokes pride in some Americans' hearts while it evokes fear in others. The larger question, however, is the meaning of that ranking. Does it mean we have to police the world? Does it mean we have to continue to invent bigger and better ways to destroy the planet? Does it mean we make ourselves into a visible target for other ambitious countries yearning to be number one?
Our economic might, and we are still the number-one economic power in the world by far, is also cast as a race in which challengers are catching up, most notably China. Surely it is reasonable to wish to preserve our excellence in technology and to improve our educational system for the sake of our citizens. But economic numbers alone do not measure the quality of life in our country. Reduction of the shockingly high infant mortality rate, for example, should be a high priority.
Further, using the competitive spirit to provide quality education and health care for all of our citizens is a worthy goal. Where we spend our precious resources reveals a great deal about our priorities and values. Some aspects of our culture can properly be measured and ranked; but many cannot. Portraying all dimensions of our lives in terms of rankings distorts the aims and the means of remaining an impressive country.
In order to truly be number one, in our citizens' eyes, and the eyes of the world, everyone has to feel that they have an equal opportunity to live the American dream; when the many, not just the few, benefit from America's riches, then and only then, will the race be won.
June Sochen is professor emerita of history from Northeastern Illinois University and winters in Naples.