National character is probably no more than an accident of geography and a common language, and perhaps a shared agreement on what’s good to eat and what isn’t, but it seems fixed. Everyone knows the French are arrogant, or maybe they’re scrupulously formal and understandably careful – and they eat snails, and frogs’ legs, with far too much garlic. The British are stuffy, or maybe they’re stoic and heroic – and they have no cuisine to speak of. The Germans are insufferably precise but the best engineers, which is kind of cool, but they’re so damned mechanistically-minded and always one step away from all of them becoming Nazis again – and for them it’s always beer and sausage. Italians are goofy to the point of being absurd – from Mussolini to Berlusconi with Federico Fellini between the two – or maybe they’re unapologetically passionate about everything in a way that everyone else wishes they could be, if they dared – and everyone loves their food. Similar assessments could be made of Russians and Swedes, and of the Japanese and Chinese and Egyptians and Kurds and Persians, and of Tongans for that matter. This sort of easy shorthand makes its way into political discourse, even if it is simplistic nonsense, when there’s any sort of geopolitical crisis. One must understand that “these people” only understand X, Y or Z – where the variable depends on what is little more than anecdotal folklore, which can lead to trouble. The Iraqis did not greet us as liberators, as they should, and the idea that the Arab world only understands force, so that is what we should use, exclusively, did backfire. No one over there cowered in awe and then backed down. We’re still over there. National character is more complicated than it seems.
That doesn’t mean all discussion of national character is useless. Had we accepted the idea that the French have a bias toward thoughtfulness, while we have a bias toward action, we could have worked something out in the run-up to that second war in Iraq, and there’d have been no such thing as Freedom Fries. The French have always liked us – the most popular chewing gum in France is named Hollywood and everyone smokes Marlboros, even if theirs are made in Romania – and Americans still dream of Paris, or Provence, and wonder whatever happened to Bridgette Bardot. Something could have been worked out, but then Americans aren’t so simple either. It’s hard to pin down the American national character. We’re not Canadians? It’s more complicated than that.
Yes, we don’t have much use for thoughtfulness – Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life traced the history and implications of that quite comprehensively – and we’re notoriously shallow and materialistic, but we like cool stuff and see no need to apologize for liking cool stuff. So what? We’re also notoriously warm and open (or loud) and generous to a fault – the happy warm puppy among all the other stuffy nations of the world – and you can also count on us to come in and save the day. We’ll fight for what’s right, even if it’s not our fight. We went over and saved things in Europe, twice, at least as we see it, and here at home we have a free and open society where anyone who wants to make it big can make it big – at least in theory. This is the land of opportunity, more or less. We have vast resources, and thus vast wealth, so come on over and compete for some of it. It’ll be fun. All of that is our national character.
That leaves out the dark side. We are also a mean and spiteful people, addicted to shaming others, before we destroy them. It’s our Puritan heritage. The Salem witch trials were not an aberration. When Arthur Miller wanted to write a play about the actions of the House Committee on Un-American Activities and Joe McCarthy, and keep out of trouble, and out of jail, he wrote The Crucible (1952) – all about those witch trials in Salem long ago, but not really. All that is as American as apple pie too, the notion that people ought to behave as we think they should behave and that’s that. No, you don’t get a chance to explain yourself. Shut up, shape up, get in line – or die, or at least wear that scarlet letter of shame – but that’s a different Salem tale. These days the scarlet letter of shame is that food-stamp card that irredeemable sinners reluctantly pull out of their wallet at the grocery store, to pay for the little food they need to survive, actually paid for by the worthy in this world. It’s a Puritan thing. Life is hard, and suffering is good for you, and also what God intended for you, because Eve took a bite of that apple and you do have to work off her original sin, which is yours now, and so on. That’s also part of our national character. Forget the happy warm puppy. We are a severe people. We can be mean bastards.
That’s playing out now, and the economist Paul Krugman notes one way it’s playing out:
For many years there has been one overwhelming rule for people who wanted to be considered serious inside the Beltway. It was this: You must declare your willingness to cut Social Security in the name of “entitlement reform.” It wasn’t really about the numbers, which never supported the notion that Social Security faced an acute crisis. It was instead a sort of declaration of identity, a way to show that you were an establishment guy, willing to impose pain (on other people, as usual) in the name of fiscal responsibility.
But a funny thing has happened in the past year or so. Suddenly, we’re hearing open discussion of the idea that Social Security should be expanded, not cut. Talk of Social Security expansion has even reached the Senate, with Tom Harkin introducing legislation that would increase benefits. A few days ago Senator Elizabeth Warren gave a stirring floor speech making the case for expanded benefits.
Here we see the two sides of our national character fighting each other. We can inflict more suffering, for no good reason, sort of because we naturally should – the Paul Ryan view via Ayn Rand – or we can ease suffering, rather easily, actually. Krugman has all the details, but his concern is the arguments for cutting Social Security are so odd:
One is that we should raise the retirement age – currently 66, and scheduled to rise to 67 – because people are living longer. This sounds plausible until you look at exactly who is living longer. The rise in life expectancy, it turns out, is overwhelmingly a story about affluent, well-educated Americans. Those with lower incomes and less education have, at best, seen hardly any rise in life expectancy at age 65; in fact, those with less education have seen their life expectancy decline.
So this common argument amounts, in effect, to the notion that we can’t let janitors retire because lawyers are living longer. And lower-income Americans, in case you haven’t noticed, are the people who need Social Security most.
The other argument is that seniors are doing just fine. They’re not, for good reason:
When you look at today’s older Americans, you are in large part looking at the legacy of an economy that is no more. Many workers used to have defined-benefit retirement plans, plans in which their employers guaranteed a steady income after retirement. And a fair number of seniors (like my father, until he passed away a few months ago) are still collecting benefits from such plans.
Today, however, workers who have any retirement plan at all generally have defined-contribution plans – basically, 401(k)’s – in which employers put money into a tax-sheltered account that’s supposed to end up big enough to retire on. The trouble is that at this point it’s clear that the shift to 401(k)’s was a gigantic failure. Employers took advantage of the switch to surreptitiously cut benefits; investment returns have been far lower than workers were told to expect; and, to be fair, many people haven’t managed their money wisely.
As a result, we’re looking at a looming retirement crisis, with tens of millions of Americans facing a sharp decline in living standards at the end of their working lives. For many, the only thing protecting them from abject penury will be Social Security. Aren’t you glad we didn’t privatize the program?
That’s why those who are not on the dark side, those who long ago abandoned the idea of the virtue of suffering, or at least the virtue of others suffering, are talking about expanding, not contracting, Social Security:
Yes, this would cost money, and it would require additional taxes – a suggestion that will horrify the fiscal scolds, who have been insisting that if we raise taxes at all, the proceeds must go to deficit reduction, not to making our lives better.
Which will it be? Which side of our national character will win out?
Timothy Egan, also writing in the New York Times, wonders about that, which he frames as The South’s New Lost Cause:
Before he was immortalized for saving the union, freeing the slaves and giving the best political speech in American history, Abraham Lincoln was just an unpopular new president handed a colossal crisis. Elected with 39.7 percent of the vote, Lincoln told a big lie in his inaugural address of 1861.
“I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the states where it exists,” he said, reaching out to the breakaway South. “I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.”
He was saying to a Confederacy that would enshrine owning another human being in its new constitution: If you like the slaves you’ve got now, you can keep them. It was a lie in the sense that Lincoln made a promise, changed by circumstances, that he broke less than two years later – and probably never meant to keep.
The comparisons of President Obama to Lincoln fade with every day of the shrinking modern presidency. As for the broken-promise scale: Lincoln said an entire section of the country could continue to enslave more than one in three of its people. Obama wrongly assured about five million people that they could keep their bare-bones health plans if they liked them (later amended when it turned out not to be true).
As inapt as those comparisons are, what is distressingly similar today is how the South is once again committed to taking a backward path. By refusing to expand health care for the working poor through Medicaid, which is paid for by the federal government under Obamacare, most of the old Confederacy is committed to keeping millions of its own fellow citizens in poverty and poor health. They are dooming themselves, further, as the Left-Behind States.
Why would these folks keep millions of their fellow citizens in poverty and poor health? They must be sinners, or perhaps it’s just meanness, and pure spite, as it’s certainly not logical:
In the states that have embraced a program that reaches out to low-wage workers, almost 500,000 people have signed up for health care in less than two months’ time. This is good for business, good for state taxpayers (because the federal government is subsidizing the expansion) and can do much to lessen the collateral damages of poverty, from crime to poor diets. In Kentucky, which has bravely tried to buck the retrograde tide, Medicaid expansion is projected to create 17,000 jobs. In Washington, the state predicts 10,000 new jobs and savings of $300 million in the first 18 months of expansion.
Beyond Medicaid, the states that have diligently tried to make the private healthcare exchanges work are putting their regions on a path that will make them far more livable, easing the burden of crippling, uninsured medical bills – the leading cause of personal bankruptcy.
And those states aren’t going to turn back the clock and revert to the bad old days, no matter how Republicans try to kill healthcare reform in the wake of the federal rollout.
Why would they, out of spite? The Puritans have left New England and settled in the South, and Egan sees what he calls a Mason-Dixon Line of healthcare:
On one side (with exceptions for conservative Midwest and mountain states) would be the insured North, a place where healthcare coverage was affordable and available to most people. On the other side would be the uninsured South, where healthcare for the poor would amount to treating charity cases in hospital emergency rooms.
Texas, where one in four people have no healthcare and Gov. Rick Perry proudly resists extending the Medicaid helping hand to the working poor, would be the leading backwater in this Dixie of Despair. In the 11 states of the old Confederacy, only Arkansas and Tennessee are now open to Medicaid expansion.
The South, already the poorest region in the country, with all the attendant problems, would acquire another distinction – a place where, if you were sick and earned just enough money that you didn’t qualify for traditional Medicare, you might face the current system’s version of a death panel.
The Washington Monthly’s Ed Kilgore takes it from there:
It’s worth accentuating that the Medicaid expansion issue has relatively little to do with the broader controversies over Obamacare. No one is being forced to drop private health insurance to enroll in Medicaid. No one can claim the president “lied” about Medicaid eligibility. The performance or non-performance of HealthCare.gov isn’t really an issue. The pace at which eligible folks sign up mainly just affects them. And there’s no “premium shock” associated with the Medicaid expansion.
And that is sort of why the issue makes the perfect ideological litmus test: opposing the expansion can’t be and isn’t being justified as a prudent objection to an unworkable program or as disruptive to the health care status quo. Yes, opponents whine about future fiscal obligations if and when the federal “super-match” that makes the expansion virtually free to participating states is allowed to expire (or is repealed), but that’s an almost abstract concern given the strong interest among Obamacare’s designers in increasing, not decreasing, the federal role in a more standardized Medicaid program.
So in many respects, states refusing the Medicaid expansion are doing so on grounds that they don’t want their own citizens to benefit from it. And since opposition has centered in the South, there’s not any real doubt a big motive has been a continuation of that region’s longstanding effort to – choose your verb – (a) reduce dependence on government among, or (b) keep down – those people.
We are a mean and spiteful people, addicted to shaming others, before we destroy them. And Kilgore agrees with Egan. This is spite:
There are nicer ways of saying it, of course. A significant portion, probably even a majority, of conservative activists subscribe to the “tipping point” theory – reflected in Mitt Romney’s famous “47%” speech – that power-mad elites are deliberately using government benefits to create a permanent constituency of serfs among morally corrupted Americans – mostly minorities and young people- who won’t take responsibility for their own lives. Unlike resistance to the Obamacare exchanges, the resistance to the Medicaid expansion is a pretty clear expression not of fiscal concerns or alarm over the impact on insurance premiums or even of hostility to government involvement in healthcare, but a moral objection to expanded public healthcare coverage.
That’s who we are and who we have been from our Puritan beginnings, Americans who are perpetually angry and outraged by those “other” morally corrupted Americans, and we’ll make sure they get what’s coming to them, and you can be damned sure it won’t be healthcare. And if Krugman is right about how most folks think in Washington, if there’s any spare change around, we’ll use it to pay down the debt, even if the actual deficit in question is getting smaller by the day and has been for the last two years, even if that choice means stalling the economy and more unemployment and more people suffering now even if they needn’t. Suffering is good for you. Ask Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale about that. It’s a Puritan thing.
Kilgore simply notes the irony of the Southern Neo-Puritans having to deal with the guy from the no-longer-Puritan northeast:
Partly as a byproduct of conservative optimism about rolling back Obamacare and partly in conjunction with the Republican Governors Association meeting going on in Phoenix, there’s a lot of buzz right now about Medicaid expansion becoming (if it has not already become) a litmus test for conservative orthodoxy and also for acceptability as a 2016 presidential candidate. It’s no coincidence, of course, that one of the governors who did accept the expansion, Chris Christie, is the early mainstream media Republican Establishment favorite for putting the Tea Folk back in their place and retaking the White House.
That’s odd, as accepting Medicaid expansion in his state puts Christie in a tough spot, because Medicaid is symbolic:
It will be a litmus test, especially when the 2016 presidential nominating contest heads south. If Chris Christie doesn’t “get” that fighting the Medicaid expansion is the latest front in the long civilizational battle of “decent” southern white folks to avoid being overwhelmed by the emboldenment of “those people” by manipulative Yankee elitists, then he’s hardly to be trusted with the presidential nomination of God’s own party.
It’s a pure meanness litmus test, and it could be a lot more powerful than the misgivings about Romneycare in 2012.
Hey, they just want a candidate who reflects America’s national character – mean, spiteful, judgmental, and on the look-out for nasty sinners, those “others” who deserve all the suffering that’s coming to them. If America is that happy warm puppy among all the other stuffy nations of the world, Christie is that puppy – even if a VERY large and VERY unruly puppy, who pisses on the carpet if you don’t watch out – but they don’t want that puppy. They want prim Puritan severity – and apple pie and motherhood and NASCAR too. They’ve made their assessment.
It is, however, hard to pin down the American national character, and dangerous to try, even if, underneath all our political disputes, that seems to be what we are always and forever arguing about. The rest of the world must find us quite puzzling. But then you know how they are.