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By Graham Earnshaw

WASHINGTON, Oct 21, Reuter – Americans like to be told they are number one, and seeing the flag makes them feel better too.

That seems to be a central message of the U.S. presidential campaign.

The election has in some ways become a battle over who can most convincingly declare the United States to be better than any other country, and some analysts say the flag-waving is spurred by the perception that U.S. power is in decline.

Republican candidate George Bush and Democratic contender Michael Dukakis compete with declarations of how great America is while surrounded by Stars and Stripes.

“The fact that patriotism is an issue is a sign of the decline of America,” said Washington analyst Bruces Stokes. “You protest patriotism when you feel threatened.”

“The wave of patriotism in the 1950s came at a time when people felt very insecure, with a commie under every bed,” he added. “Now we have super-patriotism because there’s a Toyota in every driveway.”

The Republican campaign has leaned particularly heavily on national symbols and Dukakis has accused his opponent more than once of questioning his patriotism, a charge Bush denies.

“This is a time when Americans could use a little reassurance,” said Ralph Whitehead, professor of journalism at the University of Massachusetts. “What the Republicans are doing is using symbols to generate a sense of reassurance.”

President Reagan, who defeated President Jimmy Carter in 1980 amid the Iran hostage crisis that many Americans regarded as humiliation for their nation, has made “standing tall” and national pride key themes during his administration.

The idea that the United States is God’s own country – the so-called Doctrine of American Exceptionalism – is obviously very important to many Americans.

And there is some evidence backing up the idea of an America in decline. It is not as economically dominant as it was, it no longer has a commanding technological lead. Its athletes finished third in the medal count at the Seoul olympics, behind the Russians and the East Germans.

In the eyes of many people in the West, it no longer even has a clear moral lead over the Soviet Union.

“A lot of Americans refuse the premise (of decline), but they are so deeply aware of the premise that they are worried about it,” Whitehead said.

Bush’s attacks on Dukakis during the campaign over the pledge of allegiance, a patriotic catechism recited by many American schoolchildren, are effective because of the almost religious nature of American patriotism, said Whitehead.

As governor of Massachusetts, Dukakis vetoed a bill that would have required teachers to lead students in reciting the pledge of allegiance. He said his state Supreme Court had advised him that the law would be unconstitutional.

“The pledge of allegiance is interesting because it can be accurately described as a secular prayer,” said Whitehead.

“Americans tend to be particularly responsive to national leaders who seem to come up with an attractive fusion of religious and secular sensibilities,” he added. “Reagan is an ideal example – one foot in the Bible Belt, the other foot in Sunset Strip.”

The outpouring of emotion over the recent space shuttle flight, which put the United States back in space after a break of nearly three years following the Challenger tragedy, has implications beyond the space race, according to Whitehead.

“America’s return to an active role in space can be seen as a metaphor for America’s ability to revive its dominant role in the world,” he said.

But some analysts say the use of the flag and other symbols in the election has nothing to do with decline and is simply an appeal to Americans’ deep-seated patriotism.

Others deny the theory that the United States is in decline at all and stress the country’s remarkable resilience.

“It has not experienced an absolute decline, and relative decline is in large part an artifact of the extraordinary base line of the 1950s,” says Harvard University political scientist Joseph Nye.

“The United States is not being challenged by a rising military power. Nor are external commitments sapping America’s internal strength. And, with certain domestic reforms, the U.S. will be better placed than most societies to adapt to the new dimensions of power in the information age,” he said.

Michelle McCollister, a political science student at Ohio State University in Columbus, said the flag and the pledge of allegiance were campaign issues basically because for most people, the real policy questions are obscure.

“Most Americans are not that concerned with the substance of the issues because they’re not that informed about them,” she said.

“But when they hear that Michael Dukakis is against the pledge of allegiance, it’s like Dukakis is against America.” REUTER JLK CC NNNN

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