Divided States of America: Notes on the Decline of a Great Nation
The article is substantially correct in its analysis.
“America” has always been an idea, not a place. For all their flaws, and the flaws in their implementation of the republic, the founders conceived of an “America” in the very epitome of Enlightenment thinking: “liberty and justice for all.”
You’ll be hard pressed to find anywhere in the modern United States where such thinking gets more than a passing nod in any discussion. The modern United States is dominated by a new conception, “individualism,” which wasn’t even on the conceptual horizon of citizens 250 years ago.
The founders believed that the individual was important as a citizen, as a member of the community, local and national, and the necessity of liberty was that it enabled the individual to best fulfill his obligations thereto. By fulfilling his obligations (aka responsibilities) as a citizen, the individual benefited and the community — all the other individuals — benefited, as well. The modern “individualist” is motivated by a simple ethic: “I’m alright, Jack, fuck you.” Anything which is not immediately to the benefit of the individual is of no consequence; and, indeed, is threatening.
This country was founded with a mixed agrarian and mercantile economy. Capitalism, with its promotion of naked greed, exploitation, and resource stripping, had not yet arrived. Therefore, nothing the founders did, wrote, or said, in any way prepared the new nation for what was coming in the 19th Century. Indeed, I’m of the opinion that a new “America,” promoting “liberty and justice for all” as the grand scheme, could not be founded in a region dominated by capitalism. The founders simply hit the historical sweet spot.
The new cult of individualism, with its contempt for community and shared ethos, now so dominates public policy in the United States that I’m doubtful that we’re any longer capable of avoiding outright totalitarian government.
After I asked him what he meant, he replied that freedom consisted of the unimpeded right to get rich, to use his ability, no matter what the cost to others, to win advancement.
— Norman Thomas
That quote from over 60 years ago sums up the new ethos of “individualism” in America. Capitalism doesn’t depend on the form of government. Capitalism flourishes in China, as it flourished under the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile and the military junta in Argentina. Enough Americans now define themselves purely as cogs in the economic system, and are motivated by personal gain rather than by responsibility as citizens, that inevitably they’ll turn blind eyes to authoritarian actions by the government, as long as those actions don’t interfere with their accumulation of property.
A former coworker recently took to Facebook to express his outrage that the FDA was filing charges in court against a “small businessman” who was labeling and selling a home-made skin cream as a cure for cancer. “Government overreach!” he shrieked. Thus, he was pleased with Trump’s proposal to severely curtail the powers of the FDA by cutting its budget drastically, and reducing its enforcement purview. Welcome to modern “America,” where selling snake oil is good business and “liberty and justice for all” is a line on a tombstone.