Do you remember when it felt good to be an American? When the always sunny-side-up Ronald Reagan proclaimed that every day was “Morning in America”? The best day ever in America was always that day, and tomorrow would be even better.
Traditionally, the essence of the American spirit lies in one basic proposition: that the United States of America is the best place in the world to become all you can be—to realize your dreams. If you were born here, you were damn lucky. And, if you weren’t you would do what you could to get here. The shining city on the hill beckoned all as the escalator to unmatched human fulfillment where each successive generation would reach new heights of achievement. That spirit was indomitable in American life for more than fifty years—from the late 1940s until the early 2000s. Then, we turned against ourselves.
Today, Americans are exhausted. Many feel as though they have been living on the edge of disaster—mentally, physically, and financially—since before the Great Recession, now more than a decade past. Then, the pandemic threw us all in a pressure cooker threatening our very existence. It has taken an extraordinary toll that has proven very stubborn to resolve. The sad fact is that Americans are killing each other at rates not seen since the Civil War, and committing suicide at rates never seen—ever. (Let those facts sit with you for a moment.) Since the early 2000s, we have fallen so dramatically into divided camps of hate-filled animus the prospect of redemption seems impossible to summon.
After fifty years of extraordinary achievements and prosperity, made possible by the sacrifice and toil of six-plus generations of Americans who preceded us, we slipped into the trap of judgment and condemnation, heaping shame on each other at every opportunity. Shame that kindles humiliation, which results in depression, anger, and violence.
The invocation of shame started with the religious right, but today finds its greatest animated vigor on the woke left. “Family values,” espoused by the religious right was always a contrivance to bind true believers together (for the benefit of the church and/or televangelists), and to condemn those who did not join and conform to the money-machine bondage of institutionalized mysticism. Their pro-life movement is perhaps the most enduring shame-based construct of all time. All well-packaged doctrines, but nonetheless hypocritical and knavish.
More recently, the many shame-based movements of the woke left (MeToo, BLM, Defund the Police, Occupy Wall Street) target men, Whites, cops, and the wealthy with a firehose of shame. Do those targets deserve ridicule? Yes, some do. Will it change behavior—solve the problem? Absolutely not. Finally, right when we need everyone on board to solve the many effects of climate change, and to persuade the unvaccinated to get in line for a jab, the principal pathway of persuasion is, you guessed it, shame. We humiliate people and then wonder why they flip us off rather than do what we need them to do, for us and for themselves.
The message is always the same, notwithstanding subtle modifications to fit different targets: you are immoral; you are unworthy; you are deplorable; you are stupid. Like middle school bullies, we put each other down to build ourselves up. In fear of being displaced from our position in American socio-economic hierarchies and/or enduring the effects of a widening gap between the haves and have-nots, or simply satisfying our elitist impulses, we defaulted to putting one foot on our fellow Americans’ necks and a knee on their backs to assure our own status and success. It is little wonder why we live in a toxic cauldron of ire that is destroying our humanity and our country.
This dire assessment aside, there is an enormous opportunity for those in all elements of society—business, political, and social—who are astute enough to provide the foundation of redemption to save us from ourselves and, yes, thrive. Make Americans Feel Good Again (MAFGA) is a simple and powerfully persuasive proposition. Lifting people up has always proven more powerful than putting them down. “Your success makes mine possible” is a tried-and-true leadership axiom. The elegance of this proposition lies in its return on investment inasmuch as the investment—the cost of adopting this approach—is $0.
The use of the term ‘good’ in MAFGA is intentional. Not happy, or great, or special; good. As my high school expository writing teacher often reminded me: “good is a moral term.” Moreover, ‘good’ is the essence of feeling worthy, which is essential to every human being’s sense of self that enables them to succeed in their pursuit of their particular purpose—of their dreams. Evisceration of the goodness in our fellow Americans—what shaming does—is a surefire pathway to societal collapse.
Today, MAFGA can be applied to any aspect of life that requires persuasion. Business, public health, politics, education, law enforcement—wherever you need people to make a preferred decision or adopt better behaviors, making them feel good about themselves for having done so is by orders of magnitude more effective than dropping the anvil of shame upon their heads. Shaming and the humiliation it evokes must stop, now.
Finally, since many of you follow this post for my political observations, to my Democrat readers, it appears the Republicans have figured this out first. While Democrats are busy criticizing each other in Congress, and shaming people who are unsupportive of their policies (from fiscal stimulus packages to climate change to vaccinations), Governor-elect Youngkin in Virginia was making parents of schoolchildren feel good about themselves again and won the statehouse. Even Republican senator Josh Hawley, a Trumpy firebrand, who made some rather visceral remarks about the state of manhood in America last week, is onto something: he was attempting (wittingly or not) to make men feel good again.
In the presidential election of 1980, Mr. Sunshine, Ronald Reagan, defeated the jeremiad-driven Jimmy Carter by granting Americans absolution from their sins. He intoned: you (Americans) are not the problem, government is. You Americans are good. The question for Democrats today: is Biden, Carter? Republicans may not even need history, redistricting, or voter suppression to assure their next wins if they embrace MAFGA-based strategies. The midterm elections of 2022 and presidential election in 2024 may well turn on the simple measurement of who made Americans feel good again. In the emerging post-crisis era, how could making Americans feel good again ever fail? (Wake up Dems, you may not be as ‘woke’ as you think.)
MAFGA, people. MAFGA.