I was born and raised in the United States of America, and have lived in New York City and environs my entire life. There is a joke, possibly inspired by that Saul Steinberg drawing of Manhattan as the center of reality, that New York City is a small independent country just off the Northeast Coast of the USA. The joke, like most jokes, is at least and at most half-true. NYC is, like LA and Chicago and San Francisco and Boston, a polyglot and polyethnic place, where Hasidim and secular Jews, Sunnis and Shiites, Irish and Latinx, Italians and Caribbean people of color, dwell together in relative peace if not exactly harmony. It is not “white bread America”, by a long shot. But the semi-falsity of the joke comes out in the fact that despite its “gorgeous mosaic” facade, NYC is a place that is, after all, really in America, and is American at its core.
NYC shows that being an American is a variation on a theme, but the theme is at best dissonant and at worst socio-cultural and political noise. Perhaps it is a stretch to call Americans at their worst psychopaths, but its culture, steeped in Exceptionalism and worshipful of acquisitiveness and domination, certainly has its psychopathic dimensions. Not just psychopathic traits: our culture has produced stellar musicians and authors, something for which the world at large is grateful. But otherwise, we are not to be emulated. The psychopathic traits were there from the birth of my nation, and, with the ascent of Donald Trump, have popped the skin of our self-satisfaction like a long-festering, sore blister. They won’t go away with his departure — if departure is even in the cards. We really do not know what is going to happen in all its dimensions.
You have pointed out something askew with the judgments of most American Liberals and Leftists: the notion that at base the United States is a land of sweeping Democratic Vistas, where the hearts of its citizens are clearly on the Left. I always thought this was nonsense. As you noted: if Americans are so enamored of the policies of a Left agenda — universal healthcare, affordable education, creating a society with the just distribution of wealth which is committed to racial and gender equality — why is it so rare that those who advance those policies are voted in?
The USA has moments of true commitment to Liberal Republican Democracy: abolitionism, the Progressive Populism of the 1890s, the New Deal of the 1930s, the Civil Rights movement, and a few others. But between these bursts of non-psychopathic decency, you have the competing oligarchies of the Founding Fathers, the enslavement of black people, the genocide of the Native Americans, the ravages of Gilded Age Capitalism, Vietnam, Reagan, Iraq, etc. The Liberal, Democratic, and Republican America one finds in the pages of Whitman, Emerson — the America committed to the Enlightenment ideals of Freedom, Equality, and Solidarity — has always competed with a darker side of the European Enlightement, what the political scientist and socialist C.B. MacPherson called “possessive individualism”. This is the idea that, to paraphrase Margaret Thatcher, “there is no such thing as society”, because society is just an agglomeration of individuals doing what they can to get what they want. It’s Hobbes’s “war of all against all”, but one nominally constrained by Marquis of Queensbury rules, where we all “play nice” in the absence of any awareness of a common good.
Americans, because they are trained to seem “nice” and cheery at all times, will champion the “Good Enlightenment” values of liberté, egalité, fraternité (et sororité!) when asked. But when confronted with the fact that embracing the Good Enlightenment entails rejecting the Bad Enlightenment — radical acquisitiveness, atomistic individualism, the drive to dominate others and instrumentalize the natural world — they seem to go with the latter every time.
While this is an anecdote, I think it is a telling one: I have overheard, so many times prior to COVID, random fellow (white, male) citizens say something like “Well yes, Trump is a narcissistic idiot, but the economy is doing well, my 401k is over the moon, and Republicans won’t raise my taxes. I’d be crazy not to vote for him.” Bertrand Russell once recounted how unnerved he was, at a party, by listening to “a perfectly rational lunatic.” And so it is.
You are right to shake your head in dismay at the cruel propensity of Americans to deny to others the basic common goods of healthcare, adequate food and shelter, and a share in common prosperity — often to their own detriment. But I wonder if the common good is well served by focusing on economic prosperity — shared or hoarded — as opposed to flourishing (eudaimonia as it were). The cult of wealth is an insidious form of idolatry. It can invade ideologies not only on the right but the center and the left as well. At some point, Americans have to be able to reject the dogma of “more” and embrace the idea of “enough” — enough for everybody.
The failure of American capitalism, especially in its current, financialized form, to establish a baseline of “enough”, is well on the way to making social and environmental catastrophe inevitable. The problem is that no one really knows what is “enough” in the climate of a political economy like that.
But this is a problem that plagues Good Society liberal centrism and “Champagne Socialism” as well. They both hold to the idea that current levels of production and spending-power can be spread around equitably to the middle-income and working classes and poor, and without too much strain this can be sustained, given technological advances. I think this dogma is itself unsustainable. Not all problems are solved by technology: e.g., how the techno-utopian libertarian-egalitarianism of the 2000s has morphed into Facebook, Newsmax, and Russian hacking. There is no evading the political.
I am hardly suggesting that we should all live like Cistercian monks and nuns, embracing vows of absolute poverty: after all, poverty can corrupt and immiserate just as surely as affluence. But we need to stop at “enough.” And our predicament is precisely that we share no common criterion for “enough.” This is the central problem and political task before us in the 2020s.
Kudos, and keep writing the good stuff, Umair. — -LMN