American Character: Which Way Did It Go?

Recent and current trends in political chaos, fear, and hatred raise some serious questions about “the American character.” The nation seems so divided that one might even question whether such a thing exists. Partisans in every direction try to capture “American” as their own exclusive property while casting doubt on the legitimacy of the Others.

Now that the American industrial-consumer economy has peaked and appears to be in danger of full decline, we have arrived at a strange convergence of economic individualism and retreat into racialized class antagonism. But what about the “American Character”? Some try to celebrate diversity while others decry the presumed usurpation of American culture (and jobs) by “outsiders.” Well, just who is an American?

Born in Unfamiliar Diversity

I recently read a fascinating book, American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America, by Colin Woodard (2012). Woodard traces the growth of the U.S. from its earliest beginnings by focusing on each of several main cultural groups as they arrived and disbursed among the regions of the continent. He follows each group and its relations with the others right up to the 21st century. In thinking about the chaos and conflict we experience today, Woodard’s book leads to a remarkable revelation. America began in extreme diversity.

It is far too complicated even to summarize in this brief commentary, but the socio-political complexities of the clashes and convergences among the groups Woodard describes is illuminating. They include Yankeedom, Tidewater, New Netherland, Deep South, El Norte, New France, Deep South, the Midlands, Greater Appalachia, the Far West, and the Left Coast. They emerged and developed in both conflict and cooperation with each other.

Woodard’s newer book, American Character: A History of the Epic Struggle Between Individual Liberty and the Common Good (2017) gets down to the central political conflict caused by the intersection of culture and class structure. The common good is the loser in abattle that only the super-rich can win.

Even seeing the names of the American nations gives one a sense of their history based on what little most of us knew of the American regional cultures before reading American Nations. I had always found history boring as presented in most history books. That was mostly because they too often just presented a litany of names of kings, dictators, and political and military battles and a slew of dates that students were expected to remember. Yawn. American Nations is one of several history books I have read since my student days that ring true because they focus on the lives of people who lived in particular places and times. This one illuminates the present by showing how it evolved from the past.

From Ethnic Cultures to Class Conflict

The denial of class conflict in American sociology always fascinated me. It asserted that social status and interest groups, not class conflict, were the key forces in “American pluralism,” driving both social behavior and political-economic change. Also, if a group—whether union workers, Black folks, or Mexican Americans—attempted to assert their rights, conservative politicians accused them of trying to cause class conflict. Privileged elites always try to sustain the fiction of fairness. Reactions to “uppity” behavior of the oppressed often involved violence. More often than not, elites would egg on other vulnerable groups to attack the oppressed group that threatened the status quo. Think poor whites in the Deep South.

Well, the convoluted American cultural history resolved into a new kind of conflict. As is so typical in the histories of nations, the powerful have effectively caused everyone else to fight among themselves as the financial and corporate elites shift more and more income and wealth to themselves. The former “middle class” is all but gone. The number of billionaires, as well as their wealth, has ballooned. That is anathema to human health and a healthy economy.

What most folks fail to understand is that there never was a “level playing field.” Power begets more power. The wealthy leverage their wealth to gain more wealth. Ordinary workers, whether poor or middle income, whether blue collar or white, earn only their wages. Most Americans today do not have enough savings to deal with a five-hundred dollar emergency.

The concentration of wealth is a positive feedback loop. That is, wealth accumulation is a self-amplifying process. On top of that, the political system further amplifies the greatest transfer ever of wealth from the main street economy to the super-rich. Of course, we know from complex-systems science that no system can endure when a self-amplifying process is allowed to get out of control. Eventually, the whole system breaks down.

Tragedy or Transformation: Devolution of the American Character

The diverse regional cultures that interacted as distinct forms of American culture are well on their way to devolving into an ultimately destructive trajectory of class conflict. The political culture has forced people into just a few classes. First, of course, the super-rich and the active financial and corporate elites, form the “ruling class,” partly hidden as such by the façade of a democracy in form if not substance–“Democracy Inc.” The marginally employed or unemployed working class now includes formerly middleclass office and factory workers. Combined with the pre-existing working poor they now form a large “underclass,” along with the growing hordes of homeless former factory, office, and unskilled workers.

The COVID-19 pandemic and accelerating climate chaos amplify the emerging crisis of imminent societal collapse by forcing large numbers of low-wage workers and small business owners out of the faltering corporate economy. The dominance of national politics by racist, classist, blatantly vengeful demagoguery has amplified an already growing tragedy. Can a new not quite progressive but more or less kindhearted federal administration turn this mess around?

Destabilizing planetary conditions as well as a faltering mainstream economy outside the artificially jacked up stock market call for a major transformation of society. Classic liberalism will not be enough. But, where is the American Character? Mostly fragmented, drawn into racism, nativism, and hateful blaming of victimized immigrant Others. Each of the American Nations had its own remarkable qualities—both good and bad—that once contributed to the American Character. Perhaps, somehow, we can resuscitate the good ones and abandon the bad.

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