Friday, June 19, 2009
Where Rugged Individualism Fails
With the slight dip in President Obama's approval rating, I can't help but lament the nature of public opinion. The only sure-fire way to boost Presidential Approval is to declare war, win decisive victories, or make a grand show of seeming powerful and in charge after a national tragedy. By contrast, even proposing desperately-needed reform while advancing peaceful good intentions leads to the steady eroding of political capital and public opinion. This should reflect squarely upon us rather than our elected officials. It is our fickle nature and demand for instantaneous results which are at fault here. It doesn't have to be this way. If we reformed ourselves and our attitudes, the conduct of those we elected would change. Indeed, their success or failure depends on our opinions. If out of step with what we believe, they are voted out of office. If in step, they are allowed to return to Capitol Hill.
When it comes down to health care reform, a bailout of the banking system, government control of American automakers, and the other reforms the Obama Administration have either proposed or enacted, much of the popular skepticism stems from our collective mindset. The irony is that even though our mindset is collectively held, it is also individually focused. Though we might think alike, we do not often think with a singular purpose or with any real desire to work together, particular with total strangers, and especially not as exists between individuals in other countries and other cultures in the world. Therein lies the problem and it is a serious one.
Or, to put it another way, Americans don't like to think communally. We're still a clannish, insular people whose first priorities are our nuclear family and close personal friends. This is a mentality that stems from our ancestors, who were proud, hardy pioneers bravely exploring an unknown, harsh land. When, some years later, colonies were established up and down the Atlantic seaboard, each had its own unique identity, ethnicity of residents, governing style, and local flavor. Indeed, despite a diaspora of difference, it was only with the existence of a common enemy that the first thirteen soon-to-be states banded together to fight the American Revolution. But even a common enemy and a common cause was not enough to put aside old ways.
What many forget is that the original governing document of the United States was the Articles of Confederation. In them, this country was little more than a loose grouping of highly autonomous states who held most of the power. The few responsibilities delegated to the central government, then based in Philadelphia, were often hamstrung and prone to stalemate because many crucial powers needed the approval of a majority of states to be actualized. Since these states rarely saw eye to eye on anything, within ten years it became evident to everyone that rugged individualism and regionalism, no matter how attractive a concept in theory it might be, simply wasn't feasible in reality. This is the backdrop upon which the Constitution was formed, which has, at last count, lasted over two hundred years and has required a relatively minor number of amendments added to its original form.
We have always held an extreme skepticism of centralized control of our affairs and a libertarian view of the role of government in our daily lives. This goes as far back as the Anti-Federalist arguments advanced in the 1780's when the Founding Fathers made their case for the enactment of the Constitution. Though conservatives hold the most extreme interpretation of this brand of rugged individualism, many liberals adhere to this mindset as well. In short, Americans don't trust Washington, DC, and we are more inclined to trust our state, regional, or city government with the key decisions that pertain to us and those trusted few with whom we identify most strongly. In this country, where our primary allegiance is to our birthplace instead of our nation, this kind of behavior is rare. Irregardless, it must cease. Conservatives fetishize State's Rights and the Tenth Amendment, refusing to recognize that state and local government are often more dysfunctional, wasteful, and cursed with cronyism than Washington, DC, ever has been. They believe that the private sector alone will be the salvation of every problem, when its excesses are what contributed to our current woes. They continue to perpetuate the bootstrap myth when hard work, sacrifice, and ingenuity alone are no guarantee of success, wealth, or social uplift. If it were, then the deep recession which has had a stranglehold over our country for the past year and a half would already have concluded. Centralized government reform is the only solution, but it will not be a success unless first people believe in it and believe it can work.
Right now, we cannot afford to cling to rugged individualism. It was an attitude which failed us during the Great Depression and it will fail us now for the same reasons. The private sector and private individuals are rendered collectively hopeless when tough economic times arrive. We must learn to think more, not less, communally. Making sure that every American has health care coverage, fair credit card lending rates, decent roads, a sound currency, fuel efficient cars, and all the rest is a concern for every American. Not just the Americans who live in our region of the country, state, city, or town. Not just the Americans who we lived next to, gave birth to, or grew up with as children. Every American must be, for lack of a better word, our comrade, else our suspicions and our fears will defeat each and every reform measure proposed to level the playing field and establish fairness for everyone. The population of this country and, for that matter, the world continues to grow, not to shrink. Soon we won't have any option but to open up our hearts and our minds to every human being. Sooner than later, we will recognize that we can live collectively or perish individually.
We are our brother's keeper. We are our sister's keeper. We have no other choice.