For some time I have been wondering why America has moved so far to ‘the right’ in recent years. I use quotation marks because what is right and left are historically moving targets. Richard Nixon, for example, the conservative at the time, proposed national health care as president and invoked wage and price controls. These are now unthinkable even among Democrats, which tells me we are not now where we once were.
Anyway, it finally dawned on me why we have moved so much to the right in recent years.
As you may recall, I wrote an essay five years ago suggesting that the 9/11 attacks rattled our sense of identity as a nation, an identity that has always swung between two equally American images – the puritan and the pioneer. The former is moralistic and socialistic, which can be like the Amish or 1960s communes. The latter is opportunistic and individualistic, and can describe both the pious homesteader on the prairie or the robber barons of then or now.
My point is that both are true and powerful, and when all is well we affirm the good in both. Look back along the years and see that our two party system reflects these two images or identities. The tension between city and country, farmer and rancher, union and confederacy, all reflect these two American ‘archetypes.’
But when a crisis comes we tend to choose one over the other. And which one depends on where we are at the time of the crisis. The Civil War led to an upsurge over the next century in the puritan, culminating in the Great Society. Since then we have seen a return of the pioneer, first as a reaction to excess in the puritan movement. That all our presidents between between 1964 and 2008 were southerners and westerners (quintessential pioneer areas) says something I think. A natural process, I think, and even good because too much of one costs us the wisdom of the other.
9/11 happened just as the pioneer image was overcoming the puritan, and that had the effect of fusing us with it, as one clings to whatever one has in a storm. We essentially grabbed the pioneer image when we were threatened and decided that was the real America. Like people in general, when faced with a threat or crisis, we do not so much as rise to the threat as retreat from it into symbols and archetypes we know and trust.
That’s why today it is possible we shall reconstruct a late 19th century America when unions were considered anti-American, when exotic religious minorities were regarded as dangerous, when regulation of business was almost unknown. And we will stay there until the perceived sense of threat is lower.
The danger, and it is very real to my mind, is that those who benefit from the pioneer dominance of America will not want to see that change. Keeping America afraid and threatened is necessary, therefore. As long as terrorism or ‘islamofascism,’ or other fears can be stoked we shall remain captive of one half of our soul.
Thus the path to a better America is the one that casts out fear. I now ponder how to do that. As powerful as fear is, hope is stronger I think. “Give ‘em hope,” Harvey Milk said. That’s what we have to do now, give the nation hope so it can reclaim the other half of its soul. Without it we are a man with one leg, unable to move forward and barely able to stand. Let’s find the hope.