Americans are strange. It’s not just fast food, (American) football, tailgating, Nascar, big cars, bigger houses, huge portions, Walmarts, shopping malls, and suburbs.
Americans are unique in the developed world in their political views. Sociologist have long puzzled over the fact that Americans are willing to tolerate much higher levels of inequality than those in other developed countries. We have some sort of weird pathological fear of communism and anything that might be somehow connected with communism. We’re far more religious and our brand of fundamentalist Christianity is quite unique and quite strange.
We’re also the only developed country without universal healthcare. We have less maternity leave than any other developed countries. We have weaker unions than other developed countries. We have lower minimum wages, higher rates, of things like homelessness, obesity, infant mortality, and much much much greater economic inequality than the rest of the developed world.
Why are Americans so strange? We’ll never figure out much of the above but I think we can put some of the pieces together regarding our view of economic inequality.
Each countries’ unique history affects it current politics numerous ways. Think about the political differences between between England, France, Germany, Russia, China, Japan, and Israel. Each of those countries has a unique social and political conflict influence by unique social issues, wars, political parties, and so much more.
A large part of America’s current social and political problems can be traced its unique history of slavery and racism. My mind was blown when I learned that countries with the highest rates of slave ownership are still to this day the most racist. Racism can literally be traced to slave owning families! Our history of racism and slavery makes us unique amongst the developed world.
There is one other feature of American history that is quite unique, especially when compared to European history. Around 500 years ago Europe began a major social transformation which gave birth to the modern liberal democratic form of government we know. This period of history is known as the Enlightenment. A central feature of the Enlightenment was the call for revolution. There were of course ideological revolutions sweeping over Europe but there was also the call for political revolution. Every country in Europe made the transition from some sort of monarchy or aristocracy to democracy. Every country went through a profound social and political revolution based on the ideals of the Enlightenment. Some of the revolutions were bloodless like the glorious revolution of England and some were extremely bloody like the French revolution but all throughout Europe there were revolutions.
America had a revolution as well, our great war of independence. Why?
Because we didn’t want to pay taxes!
Seriously, because we didn’t want to pay taxes and because we wanted independence from Britain. The spirit of the American revolution is immortalized by Thomas Paine’s rallying cry, “Give me liberty or give me death!”
As a side note Gerald Horne has recently argued that the American revolution is really about slavery. We decided to revolt because Britain was going to outlaw slavery! I guess using liberty as a smoke screen for corporate interests has a long and storied history. Here’s a democracy now interview with Dr. Horne:
There is a somewhat superficial similarity between the revolutions in Europe and the American revolution but dig a little deeper and they are much different. Superficially both revolutions were revolutions against oppression. In Europe’s revolutions the people rejected not just monarchy or aristocracy per se but the economic inequality that accompanied those forms of government. Democracy was an instrument to achieve a form of government in which the common good was prioritized of the good of a select few, the 1% as we might now say.
But that really wasn’t a priority for the United States in our revolution. We were facing a separate set of circumstances and economic inequality wasn’t really such an issue for us at the time. There was economic opportunity and virtually unlimited “un-owned” land for the taking. There wasn’t an entrenched monied class that owned all the land and all the industry and had all the political power. There was a pretty high degree of economic equality, assuming you don’t factor slaves and native Americans into the equation, so economic inequality just wasn’t an issue for us at the time.
The core values of the enlightenment were liberty and equality. The European revolutions were in the name of both of these values. One the one hand was the liberty or basic civil rights like freedom of speech, thought, and assembly, and freedom from arbitrary search and seizure. On the other hand was equality, which included as the central notion that of the common good. The fundamental idea of the social contract is that the benefits of society should flow to everyone equally, in some sense, rather than some small portion of society making all the profit. For example, in the French revolution people wanted equal representation in the political system but the primary motivating source was economic inequality. If extreme economic inequality was not part of the picture the French Revolution wouldn’t have taken shape the way it did.
Our uniqueness in the developed world stems from the fact that we’ve never had a true revolution in the name of equality. Modern European history is basically the history of various revolutions in the name of equality. And I think it is the legacy of those revolutions that has firmly entrenched in European consciousness the importance of economic equality.
The American revolution was a revolution against taxes. And Americans still don’t like to pay taxes:
The American revolution was all about liberty and equality wasn’t really part of the equation. There was equality of opportunity and that was good enough. Entrenched in American consciousness is the libertarian spirit of independence and freedom but not the equally important value of equality.
Balancing the core values of liberty and equality is no easy task and philosophers have disagreed over the exact balance to strike. Europe has done a pretty good job overall but America has totally missed the boat. We’ve had brief periods of time where discussion of economic inequality have really surfaced, mostly recently of course with the Occupy Wall Street Movement, but never a full fledged revolution.
America needs a French revolution!
(Well, maybe a British revolution.)