Picture a wagon train from the old west. What do they do when they encounter an Indian war party? They circle-up, point all their guns outwards, and pray.
That picture is the prototypical metaphor of America. It goes a long way to explain who we are and why we want what we want.
About six months ago, I started wondering why the Tea Party had caught on so strongly in America. There are several general reasons, but no obvious causes for such strong emotion. Its core platform has to do with deficit spending, which does not have the emotional wedge of abortion, immigration, crime, or national security. The movement seems to be thriving on an anti-taxation platform despite the fact that so far, taxes have not increased. By contrast, Clinton actually raised taxes midway through his first term, and it did not spark the visible outcry we see today.
The Tea Party makes a nice, visceral example of American moral and political outcry, but my questions are broader than that. Is there some subtle nerve being hit here, that runs deeper than the obvious surface issues? Some secret anxiety that runs through the core American identity, of which this is just one example?
It seems to me that secret triggers are working below the visible surface of these issues. And I believe that these triggers are core to the fundamental American political traditions and beliefs.
When I want answers about subtle influence-triggers, my first stop is Cialdini. And indeed, his explanation of the Scarcity Trigger explains a lot of the emotion behind the movement. To paraphrase, there is nothing more motivating to people than a rapidly diminishing supply of something desirable, and this includes our perception of our own individual liberty.
This is why the communist coup against Yeltsin failed in the early 90’s; the genie of individual liberty doesn’t go back into the bottle. You can withhold it from the beginning, but once people get a taste of it, they will rebel when you take it away again. The same might be said for economic liberties: the right to keep what you earn.
So if that’s true, why isn’t the Tea Party a world-wide phenomenon? Europe has many conservative parties, but few of them have grassroots appeal; most modern European conservatism comes from an aristocratic tradition. So why is this sort of bourgeois fiscal conservatism (if that is indeed the root of the furor) so distinctly American?
The last piece of the puzzle came in the form of a New York Times Op-ed by David Brooks. In it, he traces the uniquely American connection between morality and wealth-building, and how that connection synthesized into The American Dream.
This connection, like the Tea Party ethos itself, stems from the early European settling of this continent. As Brooks notes:
When Europeans first settled this continent, they saw the natural abundance and came to two conclusions: that God’s plan for humanity could be realized here, and that they could get really rich while helping Him do it. This perception evolved into the notion that we have two interdependent callings: to build in this world and prepare for the next.
The tension between good and plenty, God and mammon, became the central tension in American life, propelling ferocious energies and explaining why the U.S. is at once so religious and so materialist. Americans are moral materialists, spiritualists working on matter.
When you have a colony, you essentially have a culture of order and taming, surrounded by wilderness and threat on all sides. The sixteenth century European colonies plunged a neoclassical, authoritative, cultivating, orderly culture right smack in the middle of untamed, romantic, encroaching, threatening wilderness.
How do you cope in that environment? You huddle up, build up your strength, point all your guns outwards, and pray: “Praise the Lord and pass the shipbuilding contracts.”
Then, in America, eastern Pilgrim colonists became Manifest Destiny settlers: “Praise the Lord, and pass the Henry Rifle.” But the colonial concept was still the same: build your resources, point your weapons outwards, and pray.
As the settlers were winding down their war with Native Americans, the slaves were freed. White communities, particularly in the emancipated South, afraid of retribution and Reconstruction, pointed their guns outwards, burned some crosses, and prayed.
Here is the “Brief History of America” cartoon that Michael Moore featured in Bowling for Columbine. Its general ideas about American paranoia and gun fixation line up with my thesis.
The key about this visual of a huddled community under perceived threat is that you have an inside vs outside identity. Though party names and constituencies have evolved since the founding days, the American two-party system has always reflected one populace that was inside the wagon circle looking out at the threat of the wilderness, and another party looking into the wagon circle, trying to get at the resources being protected (or hoarded, depending on your point of view). This metaphor is fundamental to general American self-perception.
For example, there is a famous story that at Andrew Jackson’s inauguration (representing the first time an American administration represented “the outsiders”), revelers trashed the White House. Metaphorically, they had penetrated the wagon circle, and felt like looting what they could.
In modern times, this mixing of (mostly white) America with the concepts of external threat, guns, property, religion, wealth-creation, and anti-interference begets Goldwater, which begets Reagan, which begets The Contract with America, which in turn begets the Tea Party. Each iteration becomes more grassroots, more visceral and less intellectual. The tradition has produced an open wound, a common exposed nerve of paranoia that personalities can exploit by playing to invasion- and theft-related anxieties. That’s why it works, and that’s why there is no liberal equivalent.
Those on the “inside” of the wagon circle define the “outsiders” who make up the external wilderness, which today is a mix of do-gooders, government bureaucrats, non-evangelicals, professional academics, the pretentious wealthy, receivers of charity, and ethnic minorities…none of whom joined in the work of “cultivation,” but all of whom are ready to reach inside the wagon circle and redistribute. To the wagoners, these people are not “Real Americans.” “Real Americans” are those inside the wagon circle.
Here’s online commentator Will Wilkinson’s take on “Real Americans,” and the politics of the American Identity:
The conservative conception of American identity is so selective and so specific that it tends to suggest to its adherents that many (maybe even most!) Americans aren’t real Americans, or are Americans who betray real American ideals. Birther and Muslim Obama memes crudely reify the logical upshot of the right’s fixation on its favored version of American identity. Most conservatives don’t need to believe that Obama is literally an un-American non-Christian. They’re just content to nod along with Glenn Beck when he implies, or outright asserts, that a guy who adheres to a mundane version of liberal politics slightly to the right of the typical “This American Life” fan is hell-bent on destroying the special Americaness of America.
This model explains why conservatives are traditionally more organized than liberals: Conservatism stems from a cohesive instinct to huddle-up and protect, while Liberalism stems from insurgency. It also explains the conservative obsession with national security; the idea of a palpable external threat is never satiated, but simply evolves: from European immigrants to Fascists to Communists to Muslims and Hispanic immigrants, for example.
This model also explains the conservative tendency to believe that the current president is a non-citizen (he is one of the “outsiders”), and why American conservatism has so much trouble recruiting minorities. It explains the seemingly implausible ferver of the Tea Party by casting it as what it really is; a visceral, emotional reaction to the perceived external threat of outsider meddling, has been conditioned into White America since colonial times, reinforced over the years through the re-targeting of new enemies, and compounded by the invention of “narrative news,” and the emergence of a president who appears more of an “outsider” than any previous.
Most fundamentally, it explains why there are no concessions in the eternal debate between the two camps: they operate from two completely separate factual realities, based on two separate and mutually exclusive world views.
Yesterday’s colony or wagon train is today’s gated community. Yesterday’s Natives are today’s Progressives. And yesterday’s rifles are today’s…rifles. From the Federalists to the American Whigs to the Dixiecrats to the Tea Party, the conservative tradition in America still strives to protect its “colonial holdings” and way of life. And from the Jacksonian Democrats to the Abolitionists to the Modern Democrats, the liberal tradition in America sees an exploiting, hoarding, xenophobic order in need of overthrow.
American moral materialism causes both Conservatives and Liberals to fixate on resources, but in different ways. Fundamentally, neither camp is defined by logical, reasoned argument on the best future for society. Both camps draw their membership from emotional reactions based on whether people see their resources as being threatened, or hoarded.
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