“Why America Never Changes”: more Cultural Than Social

This is well put. I would agree completely were it not for one, significant caveat: The United States of America’s problems are not primarily social or political, but cultural.

I’ve always considered myself a “polite radical”, following the self-description of the notable political theorist George Carlin. My problem, and Carlin’s, with self-described American Liberals is that they are usually committed to “niceness” in all things, which leads them to knee-jerk incrementalism, and to band-aid sized solutions that actually require tourniquets. They often believe that one can get to Democratic Socialism or Social Democracy by working only within the system, by making capitalism “nicer”. They often believe that racism, xenophobia, and LGBTQ-phobia can be overcome by appealing to their opponents’ “Sentiment of Humanity”, which will effect an overnight, Ebeneezer Scrooge-like conversion to warmheartedness and Kumbaya-consciousness.

This is a fool’s errand, since the country has turned leftwards only sporadically — Abolitionism, Reconstruction, 1890s Progressivism and Left-Populism, the New Deal, Civil Rights movement, etc. — and these turns rarely last more than a few decades, if that. Many Liberals do not want to anger or convert Republican party members, they want to “understand” them first and them “work with them”, without noticing that they already understand them, and that they are beyond conversion anyway. They reflexively think it’s bad taste to take their own side in an argument. Which is why they think that Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are “over the top” troublemakers, when they are actually the mildest of New Dealers.

And you’re right to suggest that this is why they fail in their attempt to effect social change by ordinary political means, working exclusively “within the system”, piecemeal.The philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn distinguished “ordinary sciencce”, periods of scientific practice where scientists work within a shared paradigm solving problems and extending existing theories in clear directions, and revolutionary science, where the old paradigms break down and new paradigms usher in a different set of problems and theories. “Revolutionary praxis” in science, if you will. Sometimes politics is likewise “ordinary”; sometimes it breaks down and new, revolutionary paradigms take their place.

The problem with American Liberals is that they genarally do not make that distinction. And we are in dire need of a socio-political revolution in the USA — hopefully not necessarily one using violence, but one that forces the hand of “ordinary politics” in a new direction. On this much, we are in agreement.

But I detect a tendency in your essay to conflate three kinds of holistic change: the social, the political, and the cultural. The pace of social and political change is episodic and spasmic: old paradigms break, new ones take their place. Cultural change is glacial. I think America’s social and political problems are held captive by the “cultural question.” I am quite pessimistic about the prospects for answering it in an encouraging way.

When you talk about the social, you focus on practices; when you talk about the political, you are also talking about institutions and the rules and norms that help them function. But the cultural is a matter of belief, sensibility, and deep conviction. In my own stuff on Medium, I have argued that there is a minority current in American culture that is seriously committed to Liberal Republican Democracy and its attendent values of liberty, equality, and solidarity: this is the America envisioned by Whitman, Lincoln, Eugene Debs, Martin Luther King. But the dominant current gives lip-service to these values while actually viewing life as a Hobbesian free-for-all.

The Canadian political theorist C.B. MacPherson put it best: the American ethos is “possessive individualism”, anticipating Margaret Thatcher’s idea that “there is no such thing as society” apart from competing individual interest. Life is a matter of doing what you can to get what you want, and any governmental constraints on this war of all against all are justified to keep the anarchic competition in check. I think the latter cultural ethos is baked into the American condition since its inception, and the latter bursts through only occasionally, in the movements I mentioned above.

Cultural change is, alas, glacial. It does happen, and it has happened in American history. You would be hard put to find an American who would sincerely support the institution of slavery. (Though you could easily find someone who would opine that the slaves “didn’t have it all that bad.”) But at the level of sensibility, the idea that “you’re basically on your own” still prevails, as it always has. The “American idiot” of which you speak is the default position, culturally, just as the Athenian idiōtēs was the defective one.

The fact that cultural change lags behind social and political change speaks volumes here across the pond. The Civil Rights movement was an social and political success: without it the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would not have happened. But culturally, well, all you needed was a Donald Trump to bring all the racist sentiment back to the surface again. Socially, Americans are far more tolerant of fellow LGBTQ citizens, and the Obergefell v. Hodges decision of SCOTUS is a clear manifestation of the episodic, all-at-once tendency of social change. Culturally, not so much. While I live in a burg that is relatively easygoing about LGBTQ individuals, I cannot assume that no one is going to insult or harass me — or for that matter kill me because I am trans. (Were I black I would be even more terrified — even in New York.) If I lived in other American locales I would be on edge 24/7, even if the laws and institutions there let me exist and actually go to the bathroom when and where I need to.

My caveat is, therefore: since cultural change lags behind social change, the American Left (such as it is) needs to be clear-headed about its prospects for success. Revanchist culture will always tend to sneak up on social revolutions and unravel them. This happened with Reagan regarding The New Deal and The Great Society, with Bush 1 and 2 demolishing the “Vietnam Syndrome”, and with Trump regarding race, immigrants, gender, Liberal Republican Democratic norms, and pretty much everything else that is civilized. This is the dominant American culture at work; the American Left is a counterculture. It needs to accept that, sadly and reluctantly, but decisively.

One further note: if this caveat is sound — I am open to persuasion that it isn’t, since I wish it wasn’t so — then politics, even revolutionary politics, becomes a long slog. This isn’t incrementalism, despite appearances. The change that needs to happen here is revolutionary: public de-marketized healthcare, open and free access to education for all citizens, de-militarizing the police, economic democracy, restructuring the digital sphere, etc. But achieving these goals isn’t going to be a sudden paradigm shift, since American culture, steeped in possessive individualism, will fight it tooth-and-nail.

The American Left, as it pushes for change outside normal political channels, should therefore not be averse toward working with erstwhile Liberal and centrist opponents as a form of damage control. The lesser of two evils may still be an evil, but it is a lesser evil. Biden and company are nobody’s idea of a new order of the ages, and their “return to normalcy” a return to a “normal” that wasn’t so hot to begin with. But it’s important, for now at least, to forge an alliance with them to put an end to the Trumpian fascism that almost won, politically and socially, and is still in the ascendent, culturally.

We are in for a long haul here. Not a comforting thought, but a sound one.

Writer, philosopher, information technologist,guitarist, neurotic, polite radical, avid and indiscriminate reader, Episcopalian, trans woman.

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