Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Constraining Power of the American Story

When my European friends ask why we Americans seem so willing to tolerate poor public services (or, more to the point, seem so unwilling to pay collectively for better ones), or why we seem so reluctant to restrict gun ownership, etc., I generally respond by recalling the priority placed on freedom among American values. It is not that individual freedom and autonomy are the only values most Americans care about. Most Americans, thankfully, are not libertarians. But it is the case that in their hierarchy of values individual freedom and autonomy generally matter more to Americans (mostly descendants of immigrants who left more authoritarian societies behind to find opportunity here) than they seem to matter to many in other societies. The result is that we are more disposed to sacrifice in those other areas in order to maximize our individual freedom and autonomy. Society and community also count in the American story (sometimes very prominently), but the overall narrative more often than not prioritizes freedom and autonomy over society and community.

Perhaps that is why, despite the continued prominence of religion and the generally conservative tenor of our culture, the individualistic “sexual revolution” of the 1960s has so successfully institutionalized itself. For decades now, our society has been divided along moral and cultural fault lines that continue to replay the conflicts of the 60s. In one sense, the revolutionary changes (sexual and otherwise) associated with my “Baby Boomer” generation’s behavior in the 60s (including the turn to a much less civil style of political discourse, which has since metastasized beyond anyone’s expectation) may represent a real wound to the Body Politic. At the same time, however, it is evident that such changes have penetrated deeply into the general culture, resulting in a widespread willingness to accept, condone, or at least tolerate all sorts of behaviors which would undoubtedly have been condemned (even if hypocritically so) a few decades ago.

Thus, abortion proponents have very successfully framed their advocacy of access to legal abortion not in terms of what it means for its victim, the unborn child, or its effects upon society at large, but rather as an issue of the individual’s right to choose. Such an approach carries enormous weight. It resonates with the American narrative of freedom. In the case of abortion, however, the stakes are so high and the damage done so dramatic that the opposition to its legalization has remained strong in spite of everything. On so many other issues, however, issues on which reasoned debate about the social implications and consequences of this or that might seem warranted, once the issue has been framed in terms of the narrative of individual freedom, the end result is almost inevitable. Such is the constraining power of the American story.

By breaking apart the post-war consensus on basic issues, however, the 1960s opened the door to reimagining everything that had been inherited – including the values and practices of the Liberal Welfare State (even in its admittedly modest American version). As the storied accomplishments of post-war prosperity suddenly seemed to be on the wane in the 1970s, opposition to the Liberal Welfare State got a new lease on life. Successfully tapping into the narrative of freedom and autonomy, the “Reagan Revolution” of the 1980s also resonated with the American story.

If Bill Clinton represented the inevitable institutional triumph of the 60s, his “New Democrat” orientation also embodied an acceptance of many of the ideas of the 80s. His successor, George W. Bush, may have identified more ardently with those 80s ideas and may have been more strongly supported by those still seeking in part to overturn the 60’s. Yet commitment to that latter goal always seemed secondary.

It is a popular political stereotype that “liberals” promote personal and sexual autonomy while repressing economic liberty, and that “conservatives” promote the latter while repressing the former. While that may well be true at the more intensely ideological extremes, my impression is that most of those in the center seem to have accommodated autonomy in both areas within the overarching freedom narrative that is the American story.

The current economic crisis may have emboldened the hard-core ideological left, but it has not resulted in any wholesale abandonment of the narrative of economic autonomy that so successfully reasserted its place in the American story in the 1980s and after. No solution to our current cultural and political impasse stands any serious likelihood of success unless it too can be convincingly expressed within some form of the American story’s freedom narrative. That applies as well to approaches rooted in other (e.g., religious) narratives.

As Isaac Hecker suggested in The Church and the Age (1887), “it is impossible, humanly speaking, that a religion can maintain itself among a people when once they are led to believe it wrongs their natural instincts, is hostile to their national development, or is unsympathetic with their genius.”

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