The late 1970’s and early 1980’s were an exciting time for me for this reason, but they were also a stressful time. Between the challenge of dealing with a Scots-Irish workforce (organised and otherwise) and a “culture of envy” which hadn’t experienced the Reagan Era, things could get frustrating. It got to the point where I confided in a friend that I felt that many of the people around me were, underneath a capitalistic veneer, basically socialists. My friend, who was born and raised in the area, agreed with me.
And this was in the South.
Things are never simple in Dixie. Chambers of commerce here always tout a hard-working ethic that dislikes trade unions, but our business was organised within a year and a half of arrival, and the majority population’s ancestors didn’t come to these shores to be told what to do, or even if they had to do anything. It’s certainly possible to make progress, but it takes a different, more relational approach, and at that point I certainly hadn’t mastered it. On the other hand it was and is a lower tax regime than we had back in Illinois, but that’s not an ideological statement; it’s just an ingrained cultural dislike to have to shell out one’s money to take someone else “to raise,” to use a colourful expression.
In some ways that seeming contradiction is the root cause of the disaster that the Democrats have experienced in this 2010 mid-term election. They can see that the American people like, on the whole, to receive government benefits. So they come up with them, health care being their signature achievement in that regard. They step back, figuring they had bought the electorate. What they have bought is a lot of trouble, and a pushback that has many of them scratching their heads. Unlike the LGBT community, where people get outed against their will (and that somtimes with tragic consequences), the closet socialists are still safely in the closet.
Some of the issues are straightforward. Our federal government has a talent for taking the simple and making it complicated. Government benefits are seldom “user-friendly” and usually take a great deal of patience and a knack for navigating bureaucracies (finding the right person is problem #1) to obtain results. For a people used to the consumeristic convenience of the private sector, this is a bummer. If our government, for example, would just stop dreaming up new programs and work on the “marketing” of its existing ones, it would have more fans. Obama’s health care maze is a good example; with its endless list of agencies involved and the outside organisations like the insurance companies thrown in for good measure, getting benefits out of it will be a challenge, and the shifting of costs will produce sore losers.
Another simple issue is the debt. If there’s one thing Americans understand, it’s being in debt: on the whole, we’re up to our eyeballs in it. It’s hard to sell a people on ballooning debt for any reason when the central cause of angst for many is their own ballooning debt. People understand that not only are the “children” and “grandchildren” (the usual final appeal in American politics) at risk; their own bennies are on the line.
But beyond the obvious there’s the obvious contradiction. Americans fancy themselves as a self-reliant, individualistic people, and their self-image is built on that. But anyone who has led or managed our people know that things are more complicated than that. In the past, our leaders have understood how to play “both sides of the street” and win, and many in the corporate world still do. In places where the government is still reflective of the governed, that still holds.
Given, however, that our political system is divided by ideology–a fairly recent innovation for Americans, although it seems rather permanent to some of us–we have the spectacle of two parties, each controlled by an intellectually homogeneous base, who think that life will be good for everyone if their program is uncritically adopted. For those caught in the middle, neither side has figured it out, and that becomes especially evident when our economy goes “poop side down,” as happened in 2008. What we have now is a situation where the electorate swings from one side to the other, dissatisfied with the present situation but having only one alternative.
As I see it, there are only three ways out of this mess that would keep the United States united.
The first two are the victory of one side or the other and the relegation of the loser to the asheap of history, or more accurately the Federal penitentary system. That’s certainly possible; had Barack Obama put that as his #1 objective, pursued it administratively and left Congress out of the loop, he would be further down the road to a more permanent victory than he is now.
The third is the development of a multi-party system and the coalition politics/haggling that goes along with it. Divided government is a form of that, but in reality our present constitutional system–along with our Anglophone political sensibilities–rule out that kind of thing.
But in the end it may not matter. Unless this newly divided government discovers what fiscal restraint is–and I’m not holding my breath–our debt will eventually overwhelm our ability to earn our way out of it (and that ability is increasingly encumbered by the legal and regulatory maze we have for business people). At that point we’ll have lots of choices, because our continent will be restarting itself.