The other day, a colleague did a quick search on Google Trends and drifted into my office, grinning, the results in hand.
The search engine will tell you the 20 hottest topics being sought on the internet on any given day by, in this case, its gigantic American audience. It's not a bad little tool to measure what's grabbing a nation's attention.
More about that in a minute. But, first, here's a synopsis of what the newspapers here were reporting that day:
- Washington's debt now equals the country's entire annual economic output.
The debt in fact is mushrooming and, as America heads toward the debt wall, its political leaders are basically shouting foolishness at one another.
No one in a position of serious responsibility is saying what must be said and the vacuousness of the conversation is actually undermining global confidence in the dollar and hurting the American economy further. Yet it continues.
- The so-called recovery in the U.S. is stalling, badly. Unemployment is stuck, job creation figures are anemic, consumer confidence is sliding again, the markets are tanking and housing prices keep falling.
Clearly, penance for the gluttony of the past two decades continues and seems likely to do so for a long time yet.
- Greece seems about to default again despite a huge bailout last year. Its debt is now rated at junk status. Ireland and Portugal aren't far behind. A Euro crisis, and a Euro-recession, is a distinct possibility.
The unarguable reality: Across the Atlantic, the European Union stands at the edge of a deep, ugly pit.
- Osama Bin Laden is dead, as is just about every other leader of al-Qaeda, or at least that's what we read. Yet the wars grind on.
The so-called Arab Spring uprisings seem to have frightened, rather than encouraged, the West. As the slaughters continue in Syria, Washington and its allies mumble about "diplomatic pressure" and "balancing interests against principles."
- The FBI, it turns out, has been investigating and carrying out raids on trade union members, peace activists and other vocal critics of U.S. foreign policy. Subpoenas have been issued to a mostly non-Muslim group of leftists, including teachers, activists, clerical workers, and lesbian couples, all of whom are suspected of abetting terrorism.
In the U.S. these days, supporting any cause, wittingly or unwittingly, that might even indirectly benefit extremists overseas, evidently constitutes a form of terror itself.
This country is a harsher, riskier place than the idealized version that still exists in the imagination.
And now for something completely different
So, back to the Google Trends.
On Tuesday, June 14, as all that dark news accumulated, the number one search item in America was "flag day." (Tuesday was indeed flag day, a day on which Americans reflect about their flag.)
Search item number three was Fran Drescher, the nasally actress who played a nanny on some TV sitcom years ago. Number four was former KISS front man Gene Simmons, the guy with the really long tongue. Item 11 was heiress and reality TV star Tori Spelling. And so on.
Search item number 20 was "how to kiss."
Granted, items two and eight were about the remarkably dull Republican presidential nomination contest, but most searches were for fluff.
Can it be that the population of the richest, most powerful, most incredibly dynamic nation in history is actually that clueless? That unplugged from what is going on in their own world?
Yes, says Norman Ornstein, a scholar at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute.
He points to the greatest paradox in American politics at the moment: Voters who angrily demand that the debt be reduced — as long as the solution doesn't involve taxes or cuts to any program that benefits them.
"Most Americans think that foreign aid is 25 per cent of the federal budget, and they would like to slash it," Ornstein told me outside a conference on what to do about the debt. "It's one per cent.
"The real money is in the big entitlement programs, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, that almost everyone in America, including the Tea Party conservatives, don't want to cut significantly at all."
Cause and effect
Ornstein neatly states the reason for what many here lament: The lack of leadership in a country that has lived too large for far too long.
President Barack Obama mouths concern about the insanely ballooning debt, but refuses to endorse any real action to correct the mess. He wants to win re-election next year.
Liberal Democrats cling to the notion that their beloved social entitlements can survive untouched, and maybe even be expanded. Even the Europeans don't think that way anymore.
Meanwhile, Conservatives on the far right are spouting the sort of idiocies their base wants to believe: that the solution is tax cuts, together with some unspecified spending cuts that they'd rather not get into at the moment.
Even Tim Pawlenty, a moderate front-runner for the Republican nomination who has actually governed a state, is proposing an economic plan that envisions growth of five per cent annually for 10 straight years, something that has never happened. Ever.
He also says the president bears responsibility for today's high gasoline prices.
This is all cloud cuckoo stuff, but it's better than the truth if you want to win here.
It's as though the American political rule has become: Tell the plebs what they want to believe, let them keep Googling Gene Simmons and kick the debt can down the road again. Somebody else can deal with it.
It's what happens when a two-year election cycle guarantees a perpetual campaign. At least in a parliamentary democracy, a party that wins a majority has a year or two to do what actually has to be done.
In America, though, the assumption is more vox populi. Problem is, vox populi can too often be vox puerilis.
An earlier version of this story said that on Wednesday, June 14, the number one search item in America was "flag day." In fact, it was on Tuesday, June 14.Jun 16, 2011 12:30 PM ET