There’s been a lot of talk about the participation trophy in recent years – you know, that prize we hand out to every member of our children’s intramural sports team at the end of each season, regardless of how well they play. Many people believe it’s become a cultural symbol of how politically-correct we’ve become as a society. Our fear of hurt feelings has shamed us into rewarding mere participation instead of what we used to reward: Standout achievement.
We do it, of course, because of the affection we have for our children. We want them to be happy. We don’t want them to feel bad if their friends receive trophies and they don’t. So, our answer is to reward them based on how well we wish they performed, and not how they actually performed.
Sure, we know that rewarding mediocre and lackluster efforts isn’t good for our kids. It sends them the message that success really isn’t all that important, and that underachievement is okay. Yet, it’s hard to put a price-tag on a child’s smile, so we give in.
I have to wonder if a chunk of the American electorate is approaching the presidential election with a similar mindset.
After all, we’ve reached a point in the national polls where President Obama no longer seems to be adversely affected by the increasingly poor state of the country. As the economic news gets worse, more Americans leave the workforce, and chaos sweeps across the Middle East, support for his re-election bid hangs tight and even grows a little. It’s really quite bizarre. Sure, Obama has a tremendous advantage in an adoring and protective news media at his disposal. It’s an advantage that can never be underestimated. But I do think there’s something else at play… I think there’s a significant portion of the electorate that feels inclined to award the president with a participation trophy known as ‘re-election’.
Voters have always liked the idea of President Obama. From a presentation standpoint, he plays the part quite well. Voters like him personally. They find him friendly, charming, and endearing. He’s good at portraying empathy for the common American. There’s pride in his historic significance as the first black president. Voters want him to be recognized for greatness. The problem is that he hasn’t earned greatness. By any reasonable analysis of the trouble our country is in, he hasn’t even earned an honorable mention.
But that’s not what the participation trophy is about. Again, it’s about rewarding someone for how we wish they performed.
We saw an early example of this back in 2009, when President Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Despite not having done anything tangible to achieve peace in his first ten months in the oval office, the Nobel Committee gave him a prestigious award for essentially wanting peace (which makes him no different than any other sane person). They were, in effect, rewarding a desire instead of achievement.
Unfortunately for Mitt Romney, the electorate doesn’t feel the same affection for him that they feel for the president. They don’t have that emotional connection with him. In Romney, many of them see someone who has already won enough trophies in life. He’s an over-achiever who is responsible for great successes, for which he’s reaped the benefits. When you think about it, he’s exactly the kind of person that the participation trophy was created to marginalize.
Just like President Obama expressed in his infamous “You didn’t build that” speech, there’s a tendency by some people to want to downplay the importance of exceptional individuals in order to feel better about themselves. Obama has certainly tapped into that animosity with his class warfare strategy, in order to attract votes. One has to wonder if he’s also using it to build a case for why his unexceptional first term shouldn’t be held against him in this election.
I’m confident that most Americans, deep down, know that the Obama presidency has not been good for this country, just like most parents know that participation trophies aren’t good for their children. A lot of Americans may be uninformed, but they’re not blind. But at this point in time, most seem to feel good about awarding Obama simply for being Obama. The question is whether or not that nagging knowledge that he doesn’t deserve that award will compel them to change their minds before election day.
After all, this isn’t a children’s sports league, it’s the fate of our country.