An Interview with Diana Sheets: “Superheroes or Supervillains: What’s at stake in the 2012 Presidential Election?

Nov 2, 2012 by

Diane Sheets Ph.D. in Modern European History from Columbia University with honors in Literature and Politics

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1) Diana, first of all, I hear that you are now “blogging” for a major outlet, or perhaps you prefer the term “writing” or “reporting” or “commenting”. Tell us about this?

Yes, I’m now blogging for “Huffington Post”.  My first “HuffPost”, “Our Superheroes Romney and Ryan: Why You Should Hope Republicans Win the Presidential Election”, can be read online.

Here’s the link,

It received (thus far) 620 comments, 154 likes, 35 shares, 13 tweets, and 9 e-mails.  The emotional gist of those comments is OUTRAGE.  A number of the respondents are labeled “SUPER USERS”.

From my perspective what is interesting is that almost all the respondents did not reply to my opinion essay with a counter argument.  That is, they made no attempt to engage in critical thinking or logical argument.  Virtually all the responses were rants and insults directed personally against me, rather than a dispassionate counter-analysis to my argument.  I’ve been told that many progressives react this way when conservatives engage with them on the Web.

Two fellow conservatives—an influential academic and a prominent radio host—contacted me after my post appeared.  Both told me they experienced the same vilification when their opinions were expressed in liberal forums.  Both were shocked at the derisive nature of the attacks directed personally against them and noted that the responses to my post were very similar to what they had experienced.  While my literary criticism and political commentary posted on my website,, have occasionally been attacked by the left, those responses were nothing compared with the onslaught of “readers” at “HuffPo”.

Apparently, progressives aren’t exposed to different points of view on their “news sites” and that may account for their extreme reaction.  I think it’s very unfortunately given the political polarization happening in society today that there can’t be a civil and informed disagreement between opposing sides.

2) Diana , you have a web site, Literary Gulag, that addresses a good many issues.  How did this get started and what are you currently commenting on and writing about?

I’ve been posting essays on literature and politics—with some excerpts from my fiction—since 2007.  I began writing my blog after having problems getting my fiction published.  My first novel, “The Cusp of Dreams”, was represented by a Boston agent.  My second novel, “American Suite”, was represented by a New York agent.  Both men generally represented nonfiction, but were very moved by my novels.

What prompted me to begin writing about literary criticism and political commentary was my conviction that the challenges I experienced in getting my fiction published were due to far more than just the decline in the literary quality of novels and the loss of literate readers.  Fiction, I concluded, had become feminized, politically correct, and no longer engaged with the world.  Consequently, writers today aren’t even trying to write the “Great American Novel”, which requires realism in order to present our authentic story.

Instead, novels these days are saturated with interiority and false virtue.  Women—rather than men who have mostly abandoned fiction for nonfiction, video games, and the Internet—long to read stories that validate their emotional needs.  Conversely, they refuse to read fiction that presents a panoramic vista of American society in crisis.  Except occasionally in the genres of crime and horror, although generally these novels are so formulaic that readers aren’t offended by terrifying depictions of realism.  In short, the literary novel is feminized and has turned its back on reality.  Yet, oddly enough, it’s when a civilization is in crisis  that fiction is most effective in revealing breadth and depth of our dysfunction.  Of all the artistic mediums, only a novel has that marvelous capability to convey with sufficient complexity a turbulent society in microcosm.

But to accomplish this, the writer and the reader must be willing to confront uncomfortable realities.  That hasn’t been happening in American fiction since the 1980s (with the exception of a few writers, notably Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe, and Philip Roth).  Sadly, no woman writer has been acclaimed for her riveting depictions of corrosive reality.  She can write “chick lit” (“Sex and the City”), “Mommy Porn” (“Fifty Shades of Grey”), and vampire romance (“Twilight”), but she dare not write in the literary tradition of  “Death of a Salesman” and “Glengarry Glen Ross”.

Substance—and the literary acclaim that comes with it—remains almost exclusively the preserve of men.  And, I would argue, that when women do receive awards, their writing is feminized or emotionally palpable to their female audience.  I wanted to consider why this was the case, so I began writing essays and archiving them on my website,  I also started covering presidential elections in 2008 because they increasingly focused on “narrative”.  Who better to write about political narrative than someone trained as a political historian/literary critic who also happens to writes fiction?

3) Okay, the election is only days away, and at least in my opinion, this country is somewhat divided. Your phrase “Superheroes or Supervillains” kind of describes what seems to be occurring. The incumbents are being blamed for the economy, and to the rescue comes the “Comeback Team”—The Last Best Chance for America”.  Is this all drama or histrionics?

I’ve been covering the 2012 Presidential Election on my website, Literary Gulag.  My essay “Righteous Battles: The Foundations of Political Warfare in the 2012 Presidential Election” analyzes why our politics has been so polarized,  You and I also had an interesting discussion about this back in early September,  More recently my essays on Literary Gulag have examined Barack Obama’s reliance on memoir to present his “narrative”,,  versus Mitt Romney’s focus on history and policy,

Now, let me respond more directly to your question.  My “HuffPost”, in which I characterize Romney and Ryan as “our superheroes”, is an opinion piece.  My argument may be summarized as follows.  America is engaged in a civil war between two very different visions for America, the outcome of which will be decided in this election.  I make the case that Romney is a proponent of American exceptionalism—namely, that the Founders approach to representative democracy was uniquely inspired and continues to be—while Barack Obama is a cultural relativist whose postcolonial perspective fundamentally threatens American interests.  I argue that Obama’s secular and multicultural worldview has hurt America.  I suggest that the liberal press has tried to marginalize Mitt Romney and that their attack ads have failed, particularly after Americans encountered the real Mitt Romney during the debates.

Finally, I conclude that Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan’s focus on rejuvenating business and our economic prosperity while substantially reducing our debt represents the very essence of superheroes determined to save America—our Metropolis!—from ruin.  Yes, my opinion piece is rendered in primary colors.  After all, aren’t we talking about superheroes?

So drama? Yes.  Histrionics? Perhaps.  But what’s at stake in this election is a fundamental choice between a welfare state that is failing and a chance to rescue America before it’s too late.  I’m sure some of your readers will disagree.  But our future may indeed depend upon our Superheroes Romney and Ryan making superhuman efforts to rebuild the American economy and restore America’s stature as a superpower.

Yes, the current administration is being held accountable for the economy just as George W. Bush was held accountable four years ago.  But the problem is deeper than that.  Barack Obama has not addressed the biggest issue facing America today.  Manufacturing jobs have gone offshore.  Most of these won’t be coming home.  Therefore, how will we build economic opportunities for America’s unskilled and semi-skilled workers?  The challenges of today’s economy are different.  They require new skill sets for a new marketplace.

The government won’t be able to solve this through stimulus.  We need a new approach to ensure that Americans have the training, skills, and jobs to jumpstart their future in this new economy.  The Obama administration won’t admit this to voters, nor will they acknowledge that they don’t have a viable plan.  What Obama has done is to allocate billions and billions for stimulus jobs that haven’t created the new infrastructure or provided the foundations for a technically savvy workforce to compete in the global marketplace.  Obama’s approach isn’t working.  If we continue along this path, we’ll go bankrupt.  In short, we must reinvent the economy and find ways of encouraging Americans to develop the necessary skills to excel in this new marketplace.  All the welfare programs in the country won’t get us where we need to go.  Our future depends on adapting to and excelling in the new global marketplace.

And if we don’t?  Are we prepared to accept 1 in 6 Americans in poverty?  What about 46.7 million Americans now on Food Stamps (doubling the cost to a staggering 75.7 billion)?  Is it acceptable that 23 million Americans are looking for full-time jobs?  Do we want child poverty to continue to hover at 22 percent?  Is $5 trillion in new debt over the past four years acceptable?  Can we afford another four years of massive stimulus with no guarantee of return?  Actions have consequences.  Unless we take a different course, I don’t think Americans can imagine how difficult things will soon be.

4) Some people think that the President can simply flip a switch and the economy will improve—but no president has control over the weather, foreign wars, tornadoes, hurricanes etc.  Are we expecting too much from a SUPER President?

Here’s where I think we can agree.  This problem has been years in the making.  Barack Obama inherited a difficult situation.  But then we get into the murky area of politics.  Did Obama’s financial policies and stimulus programs prevent a complete economic breakdown?  No one really knows for sure.  Were the stimulus funds used effectively?  I think not. I wish funds had been devoted to infrastructure improvements that would enable us to compete successfully in the new economy.

I don’t believe Obama understands what is required of a president who must represent the interests of a superpower.  He hasn’t convinced Americans that he has an economic plan that will revive business opportunities and stimulate millions of new jobs, so that we can compete and win in the global marketplace.  Obama appears to offer four more years of governmental stimulus and gridlock while failing to bolster our anemic economy.  We sit helplessly watching as our influence around the world declines and our debt escalates exponentially.  Bottom line, if we don’t have a “Big Change” in administration soon, there will be no money available for anything but paying interest on the debt.

5) One issue seems to actually be quite clear—dependence on the government—or self-reliance and independence.  Is there any history to this or when did this seem to begin? With F.D.R.?

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, Franklin Delaware Roosevelt introduced the “New Deal,” which introduced economic stimulus to revitalize the economy. By 1937-38 it was unclear whether these economic and social interventions were working.  Some historians have argued that only our entry into World War II succeeded in revitalizing the economy.  Certainly under Democratic administrations, whether John F. Kennedy’s “New Frontier” or Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society”, the government increased spending in an effort improve social programs that would benefit many Americans.

However, if you really want to understand what’s at stake, if you don’t vote for our “Superheroes Romney and Ryan” and why fiscal responsibility has become the paramount moral issue of our times, I urge you to look at George Will’s recent column “Mugging our descendants” published in the “Washington Post” on October 26, 2012,

Will’s analysis is based upon Nicholas Eberstadt’s book “A Nation of Takers: America’s Entitlement Epidemic”, which was just published by Templeton Press.  What Eberstadt shows is that if the fifty years between 1960 and 2010, our entitlement spending grew exponentially from 28 to 66 percent of all federal expenditures.  What does this suggest?  By 2010, more than $2.2 trillion in “money, goods and services” was transferred from the government to Americans.

This amounted to a staggering $7,200 per person and, in the case of a family of four, nearly $29,000.  That same year more than one third of all households “were receiving ‘means-tested’ benefits”.  Nor were entitlement increases occurring only under Democratic administrations.  Republican presidents, on average, spent 8 percent more than Democrats, and these entitlement expenditures were particularly significant under Republican Presidents Nixon, Ford, and G. W. Bush.  In 2010, 73 American ”industrial workers” were on disability for every 100 that were actually employed.  Today, a staggering 27 percent of all adult men “do not consider themselves part of the workforce”.

These figures should frighten every American.  If we don’t find a way back to solvency soon, then our circumstances could resemble that of a developing nation.  Think Americans are in pain now? We haven’t begun to imagine how bad things will get.

6) As a woman, do either of the candidates address your issues and concerns?

As a woman, I am concerned for America’s future.  Her well-being affects the lives of every one of us.  If America doesn’t find a way to “reinvent” the new economy and put our fiscal house in order, all the other issues—whether reproductive, educational, housing, and everything else—effectively become irrelevant.  I want Americans to be employed.  I want opportunities for the young women and men who are graduating.  I don’t feel it’s fair for today’s young people to assume the burden of debt incurred by older Americans.

7) Now, education.  I can only offer four words about Obama’s “Race to the Top”.  But has it REALLY helped education?

Let’s assume that President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan are sincere in their desire to improve education, which I believe they are.  The problem is that if children are born in broken families or raised by one parent, the chances are far greater that they will drop out of school and never attend, let alone graduate from, college.  Charles Murray’s “Coming Apart: The State of White America” points out that mothers who fail to graduate from high school are responsible for almost 60 percent of all nonmarital children born alive in the United States.

Unfortunately, these children are at high risk for failure years later.  We keep addressing the symptoms of our malaise with massive amounts of government money—dollars that we can no longer obtain without borrowing from abroad—while refusing to address the root cause of the problem.  Children succeed when they are raised in families in which their parents are married to one another, live together, and are passionately committed to their children’s educational future.

If the family is restored as our strongest social institution and if parents are committed to their children’s education while demanding academic excellence—including significant training in mathematics and the sciences—then, many of our current difficulties become solvable.  We can devote our economic resources to providing incentives for businesses to succeed in the global economy; we can assist and encourage workers to develop the skills and capabilities to succeed in the marketplace, and we aren’t forced to devote our increasingly scarce resources to servicing an exponential debt.  But without the robust commitment of strong, intact families dedicated to advancing their children’s educational and job prospects, all the federal, state, and local resources in our country will not ensure the success of our children or our nation.

8) Balancing a budget, balancing a checkbook—does it take a SUPERHERO?  Or just compromise and negotiation?

We’re running out of time.  America, as Romney noted in a recent debate, is perilously close to spending 42 percent of all its revenue on government expenditures.  This, of course, is Spain’s situation right now.  We have only to look at the current crises unfolding in a number of other countries in Europe—including Greece, Italy, and Portugal—in order to anticipate what will happen to us if we don’t become fiscally responsible.

These days, democracies are reluctant to impose fiscal austerity until catastrophe befalls them.  Yes, compromise and negotiation are necessary.  But gradual reform won’t accomplish a fundamental realignment in worldview that is critical for our recovery.  Even if we want government to meet most of our needs, it isn’t possible.  The numbers simply don’t add up.  While both parties have contributed to the problem, only Republicans have a foundational worldview that places the onus of responsibility on the individual and the family.  The progressive perspective is that society—“it takes a village”—must care for its citizens.  But the reality is, it can’t.  For this reason, we must look to our Superheroes, Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, to restore our fiscal health.  I hope Americans will consider voting for Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan.  Our future depends upon electing them on November 6th.

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