Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Am I Feeling American Today?

There's been quite a bit written about Glen Beck's restoring honor rally.  Not having attended it myself I can't comment on the specifics of it.  But I do have some thoughts about what has been expressed about the rally.  It was covered heavily just about everywhere.  The Economist blogs had three posts on it, Ross Douthat at the NY Times has been running with it, and there are countless others.  What is most remarkable to me isn't so much what the pundits have to say as what is said in the comments.

This makes it much clearer what the appeal of Glenn Beck is and what he was doing with his rally.  It's been expressed elsewhere but Beck's appeal is that he affirms what it is to live like an American.  This is an America that is explicitly emotionally felt rather than an America known through careful interpretation of our history and modern actions.  Mr. Beck's rally seemed to have a message that America is a great and successful country because of what Americans believe, how we live, and knowing that America will continue to be great as long as we adhere to our values, especially religious ones.  By affirming these values and continuing to act upon them America will continue to be great and grow ever more successful.  The solution to our problems is to stay true to what we feel America to be.  The American myth must become the American reality.  It's pretty much typical American populism.

While this is certainly a narrative with a long tradition in America, not only politically, the rally reminded me a bit of the Great Awakenings though I don't believe it will have nearly that impact, so culturally as well, this is a view that is irreconcilable with another view of America.  This view is that America is great because of our choices, because we were willing to make the tough decisions and change ourselves at a very basic level when we had to and we didn't fall into the trap of thinking we could work through our problems by affirming who we are as a nation instead of accepting the need to change.  In this view, America is so successful because it was able to continue to reinvent itself, we are a country that prides itself in being something different when we're grandparents from what it was when we are children.  This America is essentially a system, it's a set of institutions that a political community of unparalleled flexibility and strength was built upon.  It doesn't matter what the culture, beliefs, or values of the members of that community are, as long as they have faith in our institutions a way forward that includes everyone can be found.

These two views of America are based on two radically different views of how the world works.  One sees America's success as the result of the beliefs and values of the people making up the nation.  If their beliefs and values are good, the country will be strong and successful.  If they break away from what has been successful in the past, America will decline as we deviate from the very values that our country was built on.  This has been a very common and appealing view, it empowers people to impact the world and their nation through their own actions.  Our success or failure is independent of broader social forces.

The other view sees America as being successful because of how we responded to the environment we found ourselves in.  Our success isn't dependent on measuring ourselves against some constant set of values, it's dependent on how we respond to the changes in the world around us.  If we correctly identify what is happening in the broader world, and make the right changes, we will be successful and grow and our citizens will be happy and successful.  If we misdiagnose, or fail to respond, to the changes occurring and the systemic pressures we face, we will decline, and possibly eventually collapse.  While this doesn't have the message of individual affirmation the other view holds, it still sees us as in control of our own destiny. This view holds out hope for continued evolution and that there is no end to our improvement; if only we have the courage to continue to change.

The first view is one of the most common views held by societies throughout history.  They have all failed.  What makes America so successful is that with time we choose to act on the second view.  Despite the beliefs and efforts of men like Mr. Beck, the US knows deep down that change is inevitable and should be embraced so I have faith we will make the right choice in the end.


  1. We still have to find out if all these people are just goofing off.

  2. Doug,

    I do wonder that sometimes. For some reason these people remind me of the anti-globalization protesters. Same kind of dynamic relying on someone being a villain that can be resisted against. I'm sure someone has probably already written a book saying that both are the result of anxiety over globalization, though the expressions each used were somewhat different.

    The Seattle protesters at least had the excuse of being kids though.

  3. A friend of mine liked to describe the anti-globalization protestors as the well-intended ill-informed being led by the ill-intended well-informed. I don't actually know any but I like the phrase even if it was scurrilous.

    That might be equally fair or unfair to say about the tea party movement.

  4. Doug,

    That's a pretty apt description of the anti-globalization protestors that I knew. It may carry over well to the Tea party crowd as well.

    Though I'm less sure that they're all ill-informed than I was with the anti-globalization people. The big issue with understanding globalization is that everything going on is at the system level, there really is only very tenuous ties to individual action. There's a pretty significant intellectual industry in trying to deny that social forces matter and to instead trace everything back to the individual, especially in the US though it's hardly unique to us.

    This whole endeavor reminds me of the Ptolemaic view of the solar system, flawed starting assumptions lead to extremely complicated counter-intuitive explanations to make observed phenomenon fit the incorrect starting assumptions, but I think there is something much more emotionally satisfying with believing that everything stems from individual action and that annoying concepts like constitutive norms don't matter. So with the Tea Party crowd, they're not necessarily ill-informed, they're just not able to emotionally able to accept issues like globalization. So they may be both well intended and well informed, just not able to accept emotionally concepts that require systems rather than individual thinking.