Wednesday, July 04, 2012

July 4 Thoughts on American Exceptionalism

“intense love of country defines Americans and, compared to many, sets us apart[: a] National Opinion Research Center [study] ranked the United States first in national pride. . . But on this July Fourth, we face a disturbing paradox: Our love of country increasingly divides us.”

--Robert Samuelson, Washington Post

In the beginning, we had no standing army. We needed soldiers. We did have a cause and 3,200 miles of ocean separation from England.

The history of the world is one of elite control over the masses. Political control backed by money, brains, and weapons. Athens had democracy, yes, but with 20 slaves to each freeman. Every nation we deal with today had in its past a king, emperor, caliph, or pope, along with some form of nobility. Civilization has always been top-down, elite over uneducated masses.

The American Revolution was the first to put into practice (imperfectly at first, we had slaves, women couldn’t vote) the principle that “all men are created equal” with rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” This clear, simple, profound idea, the product of European enlightenment, helped rally an army of free farmers to overthrow a distant king.

We didn’t trust authority; we had fought and died for liberty. The result was a constitution of divided power, a limited state, and a guaranteed bill of rights. It was up to the individual to make of his freedom whatever he and his family could. It worked for a vast, underpopulated country blessed with rich farmland, natural resources, and protective oceans. The Protestant faith, with its emphasis on individual responsibility—people reading their own Bibles, acting on their own beliefs—underpinned this American liberty.

The industrial revolution pressed against our farm-based population, pulling people into urban areas and into dependency on government to offset raw corporate power. By 1920, half the population lived in cities. Then, at the same time, farm prices collapsed with the end of World War I price supports, sending the farm states into depression well before the Great Depression that engulfed the rest of the economy in 1929.

Industry brought back prosperity with World War II and its aftermath, and big business shared power with big labor under Democratic political control in the Blue Model era. As people prospered, families moved to suburbs in an imitation return to the rural life, enjoying the individual freedoms Americans had earlier valued.

It was 1962, John Kennedy was president, the U.S. in the Cuban Missile Crisis had defeated its chief Cold War rival and brought Americans increased security. Prosperity without inflation was unfolding, with California, now America’s largest state, leading the way.

Here’s a brief summary of what, as a result of government action, then went wrong with the American experiment:

➢ The Vietnam War slaughtered 58,000 Americans for no strategic purpose (Vietnam is a current U.S. trading partner), tore the Democratic Party apart, and triggered inflation at home.

➢ An underfunded (see: "Vietnam, costs") Great Society failed to end poverty or pacify Blacks, but did, through busing and forced housing integration, alienate working class Democrats from their limousine liberal superiors.

➢ The opposition Republicans ruined their subsequent opportunity to govern due to Richard Nixon’s corruption and his implementation of price controls that when terminated, unleashed a furious inflation followed by deep recession.

➢ Jimmy Carter made things even worse, leaving the nation humiliated in Iran and with an all-time high “misery index” of inflation + unemployment; his term was the fourth failed presidency in succession.

Ronald Reagan turned America around, lowered taxes, and checked government growth. He also helped America emerge victorious from the Cold War. American industry was riding high during 1981-2000, creating 42 million jobs, and perhaps benefiting from having a mere two years (1993-95) of united (mis)rule under a single party. Bill Clinton proclaimed “the era of big government is over,” worked closely with industry, and compromised with Republicans.

Bipartisan cooperation unraveled during Clinton’s second term when the president’s unacceptable personal behavior came to light, and Clinton, relying heavily on the Democratic left wing, responded by digging in rather than resigning. The nation split sharply along ideological and cultural lines.

That split hardened further when Bush 43 lost the popular vote to Al Gore in 2000, then barely won the electoral vote only after a 5-4, conservative-liberal Supreme Court decision awarded Bush the needed margin. To Democrats, Bush 43 was an illegitimate president, and Bush completely lost the liberal elite after taking the country into Iraq in 2003, a war that went very badly through 2006. By then, Bush faced a hostile Democratic congress that gave him no quarter.

When Republicans govern poorly, Democrats—the party of government—counter with their most ambitious big government solutions. So it was with Franklin Roosevelt in 1933, and so it was with Barack Obama in 2009, following the September 2008 worst U.S. economic collapse since the Great Depression. With his top adviser proclaiming, “you never want a serious crisis to go to waste,” Obama set about growing the federal government as never before, moving America farther than ever away from our small government, individual responsibility roots, moving instead toward a European-style, top-down social welfare state.

So we have arrived at the point where Robert Samuelson (quoted above) believes American national debates have become -- in the minds of each side – -
a climactic struggle for the nature and soul of America. One side is allegedly bent on inserting government into every aspect of our lives and suffocating individual responsibility and effort. The other is supposedly beholden to the rich, committed to "survival of the fittest" and indifferent to everyone else.
Samuelson traces the backdrop of this struggle to, as Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, Americans’ veneration of both liberty and equality. De Tocqueville argued Americans would ultimately favor equality over freedom, because its material benefits are more immediate and tangible.

Samuelson does cite evidence from a recent Pew poll (reported here) that asked people to pick between "freedom to pursue life's goals without state interference" and the "state guarantees nobody is in need." Americans selected freedom 58% to 35%, while Germans picked state guarantees 62% to 36%.  But though Americans believe that "success in life" is determined by individual effort not by outside forces, Samuelson thinks that in their voting habits, Americans often prefer security.

Samuelson concludes that because both sides fear their version of America is threatened, love of country now divides us where it should unite.

Yet isn’t division basic to democracy? Nobody has a corner on the truth; we compete in the free market of ideas, under guarantees offered by an exceptional constitution.

No comments: