How the American character shapes national debate

Posted on August 12, 2009


In debates over health care and other matters, proponents of government solutions often express frustration and disbelief that so many Americans obstinately refuse a federal solution to numerous societal problems. Why fight against these “reforms”, they reason, when so much of the rest of the world has adopted a similar path?

What that thinking fails to consider, however, is the fundamental nature of the American character. This nation was founded in a rebellion to a centralized power in the form of a monarch, and its Founding Fathers intentionally structured its government to limit the growth of a central federal power and distribute duties to entities closer to the people.

But more than that is the presence in the American character of the unique trait of so-called rugged individualism. Americans possess a desire for self-reliance and self-determination. They’re quick to voluntarily help a neighbor in need, but chafe at a so-called nanny state where others decide what’s best and who’s worthy of help. Above all is a libertarian mentality of “Live and let live, leave me alone and let me decide.”

Have we moved away from this recently? It would be hard to say no, given the rise of collectivist solutions and the tempting allure of an all-caring, all-providing public bureaucracy. But that tendency has not yet left us, and I believe it’s still alive and well.

It’s this dimension of the American psyche that makes big government solutions such a tough sell, and why politicians have to be subtle about talking about exapnding the government and spending more money. Anyone who campaigns has to pay at least lip service to the individualistic and libertarian nature of the populace. Proponents of big government measures think that opposition is just the people being stupid and backward – but it’s the core nature of the American experience that evokes such a response. It doesn’t necessarily make America better than other countries, but it is something to be celebrated, not denigrated or shrugged off.

Posted in: Politics