November 4th, 2020
It is sad and more than a bit embittering to be living through the end of any illusions of American exceptionalism.
I will leave it to the unwritten future to decide if American power and influence has already had a similar demise, but make no mistake, we are witnessing the same fate as every single empire in history. Every one of them ultimately failed, and most failed for very similar reasons: hubris and belief in their own uniqueness and exceptionalism.
As this is written, the results of this terrible, divisive, and cruel election season are not yet fully known. But the lessons are there no matter which candidate is ultimately the victor. That half of Americans have endorsed a candidacy and a term of office that has committed itself to deny civil liberties, and constitutionally guaranteed rights, and the integrity of the separation of powers, and basic human decency is loss enough. Never before has an administration been so hell-bent on destroying what is meant by Americanism.
This is not a romantic elegy to a perfect American past, one that never existed. Endemic racism, economic inequity, xenophobic tendencies, religious bigotries, and more are cancers within the body politic and infect the purity of that history. Political leaders have long manipulated the system for personal gain and political power. But for much of our history, there was at least a cosmetic belief in the integrity of the system – even when pushed to the edge. As far as I know, never has a POTUS so disregarded the system so boldly, have sycophants been willing to be so flagrant about their self-interest, or have such a large percentage of the populace been willing to avert their eyes when presented with demonstrated dishonesty – even to their own detriment.
Many others have written with far more expertise than I on the psychopathology of the fake presidency of the last 4 years, and of the millions of those who choose to follow him. This piece will focus on a different issue – the distortion of the American experiment.
Any who have taken seminars with me or attended conferences where I have spoken on the history of American philanthropy have heard me contrast the underlying concept of the US and most of the rest of the world. In the US, rights OF individuals are primary; in the Napoleonic concept of society, the responsibility TO citizens is primary. We see this in very stark terms when we explore why the US does not guarantee health care, etc., nor make higher education affordable. At the same time, as observers as early as de Tocqueville noted, the US evolved a system of voluntarism to provide what government didn’t or wouldn’t. In other words, the underlying ethos was not that Americans didn’t care about their fellow citizens, only how they would be cared for. [For the purpose of this essay, I will not offer an in-depth analysis of what works, what doesn’t work, and the limits of the capacity of each system. I am restricting my thoughts only to the underlying concepts.]
To say this again: most Americans historically understood that there was a tradeoff for individual liberties; that is voluntary compliance and civic participation. They implicitly understood the “compact” that one without the other is neither viable nor moral.
The change didn’t happen suddenly in 2016. It has been brewing for years. Robert Putnam’s “Bowling Alone” popularized what had already become a prevailing reality. Americans lived atomized existence, were expected to fend for themselves in saving for retirement after the end of defined benefit plans, and were further expected to go into debt to pay for the education credential increasingly required to sustain any middle class standard of living. As much as distorted tax policy created the unconscionable concentration of wealth, the fact that the middle class has to incur so much personal obligation essentially served to give them a competitive leg “down” in adulthood. Is it any wonder that middle class comparative standards of living have been declining for over a generation?
If the “society” – writ large – didn’t care enough, why should individuals care enough to support others. That doesn’t mean that no one was charitable or philanthropic or generous. It did mean that there was an erosion in the idea that government was on their side. And, after all, that is what people have heard since the time of Reagan. Politicians swore to cut taxes – as if taxes are an inherently bad thing – regardless of the costs to livelihoods and wellbeing. Let the private sector or the voluntary sector take care of people – and too bad for those who can’t make it.
It is no accident that Medicare is not understood by many people to be government insurance and Medicare itself goes to lengths to mask that it is. Nor is it an accident that some politicians feel that the lifetime contract with workers to guarantee social security is dispensable and violable. After all, who are all these citizens to feel “entitled”? [forgetting, of course, that we all pre-paid for those retirement funds with every paycheck for our entire working lives.]
I suspect that readers of my articles know all of this and I can rely on the short-hand examples to make the case. But it appears that the last shredding of universal commitment to an ethos of caring for others was the mask test. The politicization of the wearing of masks these past 8 months was unforgiveable, but that it resonated so broadly was the body blow to “the caring for others” part of the American compact.
The angry, hostile, bizarre, and destructive rejection of wearing masks under the notion of individual liberties can only be understood by the absolute rejection of any assumed responsibilities for any other. Our long-standing system of providing a culture of caring, albeit through voluntarism, dissipated into vigilantism – over the wearing of masks. Even something so evident, so lifesaving, so simple was too much for too many. No longer was personal responsibility the trade-off for personal liberty. Only that which served their own self-interest mattered.
It is probably true that the POTUS, who may or may not have been re-elected when you read this, intuited this. His entire life has been built around snubbing his nose at any responsibility for anyone except himself. That didn’t stop these last 4 years when he putatively had responsibility for almost 350 million Americans. If the POTUS could only care for himself, why, his followers reasoned, should they be different? Let the Republic and our future be damned.
Even if Biden is elected, and his policies and affect do begin to restore some sense of decency, we will have a very long way to go to reestablish the underlying compact that defined the American experiment: radical freedoms with assumed universal voluntarism. It is by no means clear to me how he or we will do that, but without that or some other profoundly transforming affirmative change in our current national ethos and public policy, we will simply continue our sad trek through the last paragraphs of the history of just the latest failed empire, the once worthy American Experiment.