I grew up immersed in locally based politics. Most often this was expressed as us versus them in regard to people who showed any signs of being politically progressive. We felt that our group had a franchise on moral truth.
The key word here is felt. We weren’t doing a very good job of thinking. Our intentions may have been noble, but our views were skewed locally and our antagonistic posture imposed a greater emotional tax on us than it did on the ones we opposed. Unfortunately this ethos is still pervasive in America.
Over the years, I’ve learned that digging deep beneath conventional textbook history is the best chance we have to create enough dissonance in our minds to rethink antisocial political attitudes that are based entirely on feelings. When we do that, it becomes clear that mainstream Americans celebrate a past that didn’t happen as is commonly believed, a West that never was, and an economy that doesn’t work as promoted. After all, much of what we believe about ourselves is based upon what we’ve been told happened historically.
In the early days of radio and television, limited transmission focused public attention and gave everyone something in common to talk about. Today, people use technology to switch between gadget-driven isolation and ideological echo chambers.
In a little over a century, we have gone from a strong ethos of self-restraint to one of self-indulgence and instant gratification. Even so, the nineteenth-century Emersonian idea of self-reliance remains a very important part of our folklore. Self-reliance is an individual aspiration to be encouraged because, when it is genuine and not hype, it is the communal grease of authentic guidance that can make the wheels of cooperation turn without squeaking bitterness and resentment.
That said, the Horatio Alger notion of widespread success being mostly due to rugged individualism is a myth. The American frontier did indeed include lots of hard-working individuals, but by today’s standards, this epoch was far more socialistic than is portrayed in popular culture, especially by Tea Party conservatives.
Socialism in America in the nineteenth and early twentieth century was a movement fueled by despair and by people like writer Jack London, who sought to stop the savage exploitation of the working poor. The term socialist was always treated as pejorative, but it didn’t become radioactive until the Cold War. As a result, it still evokes an irrational and overly emotional response, regardless of the context.
The phrase “We the people” in our Constitution is socialistically aspirational because the implication is that we are all in this thing called America together. The Cold War, however, overtly prejudiced us against those things we depend on collectively by associating them with an enemy considered diabolical. The experience rendered millions of our citizens incapable of stilling their emotions long enough to reason with any sense of objectivity about anything that appears to be tainted by association with our former nemesis.
And yet, those things that make our lives both possible and worthwhile—like our military, Social Security, Medicare, the Veterans Administration, and our legal, regulatory, transportation, and postal systems—are overt acts of social cooperation. Giving a community control over aspects of the production of things that affect their daily lives is not an evil act. Moreover, our military makes it clear that a sense of patriotism more powerful than self-interest is commonplace in public institutions.
Federal funding was the real pay-dirt of the American frontier, as sociologist Stephanie Coontz points out in The Way We Never Were. Frontier settlers owed their very existence to huge federal land grants, railroad expansion, and many other government actions taken to seed prosperity.
Settlers could get a 160-acre homestead for as little as ten dollars. Sharing work and tools with neighbors was a predominant way of life. Even volunteers for civic projects expected to be compensated by the government. Most of the families that were isolated and truly alone ended their adventure in failure.
In 1945, another massive expansion of government spending combined with high taxes made it possible for record numbers of people to enter the middle class. Rural electrification, construction of the Interstate Highway System, the GI Bill, the FHA, and many other programs like them made America the envy of the world. For lack of a better term, let’s call these historical occurrences facts.
It is also indisputable that some of our highest rates of economic growth occurred during a period of high taxes. And yet, no matter how many times these historical occurrences are mentioned, those who would rather not believe it choose not to.
When an ethos of self-indulgence overrides self-restraint, the goodwill necessary to continue the cooperation that made this country a place of envy disintegrates. When you add the ethnocentric impulse to believe that one’s group is special and that most others are undeserving, the result is an us-versus-them mentality by an opposition so emotionally enraged that they would rather shut down the government than cooperate.
Some of our most successful corporations reward their permanent employees with wages so low that they expect taxpayers to subsidize them with welfare and food stamps. This is not an exercise of freedom; it’s more feudalistic than capitalistic, and the practice must stop. Any business that relies on social contempt so that the public will turn a blind eye to the institutionalization of poverty doesn’t deserve to survive.
Our social relations are problematic because we are a tribal species. The cooperation necessary to function successfully as a sovereign nation depends upon how big and how diverse a tribe our citizens are willing to accept. That’s what a civic education in American idealism is supposed to achieve. In a nutshell, our ideals are supposed to trump our genes and tribalistic selfishness. Our common allegiance is supposed to supersede our local differences.
If social relations were software, core American ideals would be a virus patch for the ethnocentric tribal bug most commonly expressed thoughtlessly as them. That was the hope and the promise of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and it’s the affirming value of the Pledge of Allegiance.
Allowing ruthless politicians to provoke us emotionally so that we view those with opposing political opinions as the embodiment of evil is egregiously self-destructive. Both conservative and liberal values are crucial for attaining and sustaining democracy. Cooperation is just as important as self-interest, and in many cases much more so.
“We the people” is the founding principle of the American tribe. It is nothing to be ashamed of or squeamish about. If it’s not a social aspiration, what is? If not “we the people,” then who or what is more important? Politicians who forget the people they are supposed to represent and citizens who are easily distracted by divisive politics and fail to hold their representatives accountable pose the greatest threat to America’s future.