All nations, and this seems especially true of great nations, have paradoxes at the core of their national characters that define them. The tensions within these paradoxes are alternately, or in times of crisis simultaneously, a dynamic source of national strength and also an anarchic source of national turmoil.
In the United States, these paradoxes are every bit as clear today as they were a hundred or two hundred years ago.
They include the following:
1. We have enshrined the concept of representative government, but we have allowed elites to exercise powers associated more with oligarchies than with truly democratic republics, and as a result, although we honor public service, we have less trust in our elected representatives than in almost any other category of people; likewise, we talk much more about the value of democratic process more than we actually vote.
2. We emphasize individualism and self-reliance, but we also place great value on community, on involvement in civic organizations and volunteerism, and on both corporatism and unionization (though it might not seem so at the moment).
3. We have embraced the concept of the “melting pot,” but we cannot reconcile the concepts of multiculturalism and assimilation, of diversity and conformity.
4. We have proclaimed ourselves on being a nation dedicated to the preservation of peace and the promotion of international cooperation and shared progress, and yet no nation has waged war more frequently or more ruthlessly than we have, and no nation in history has built as powerful a military-industrial complex and security apparatus. As a result, we have had difficulty reconciling the concepts of patriotism and moral dissent.
5. We have prided ourselves on our ability to invent and to innovate, our “can do” spirit, but we have a sense of national decline, of the inherent instability and unsustainability of a nation founded on our values, since our nation’s founding.
6. We have wrapped our national mythos around the concept of the frontier, the conquest of the wilderness, and we have exploited our nation’s vast natural resources more successfully–and one can argue, more efficiently–than any other nation in history, but we are continually dismayed by the realization that those resources are not inexhaustible: that is, we are convinced that we can always find more, even as we constantly worry about having less, which is the essence of a material culture.
7. Lastly, at least for here, we place a tremendous value on education as the mechanism for self-improvement, equality of opportunity, and upward mobility, but we have a fear of indoctrination and sometimes even of knowledge itself, and so we honor the vocation of teaching, especially in retrospect, but we are endlessly suspicious of teachers (especially if they are unionized).
On the Far Right, these core paradoxes have, in effect, been reduced to caricature. They have been expressed contradictory talking points–in incoherent appeals to elements of the paradoxes completely lacking in any effort to reconcile them. That lack of any effort at reconciliation is what makes what the Far Right is doing so politically mercenary and destructive.
The rise of Far Right ideology has created the following oxymoronic truisms masquerading as truths:
1. The equating of corporations and their rights with individual citizens and individual rights, and the equating of wealth and free speech, as if either equation does not place the actual individual citizen at a very decided disadvantage.
2. The ostensible preservation of the democratic process, the value of the individual citizen’s vote, and prevention of nonexistent voter fraud by restricting voting rights and voters access to the polls; the accompanying assertion that elections are not necessarily democracy in action, if the other party wins.
3. The assertions that the private sector can do everything better than the public sector, even though all major safety-net legislation has arisen to meet a terrible need that the private sector was not meeting, and that unionization exploits workers while unregulated corporations will provide them with limitless opportunities.
4. The feeling that immigration is tolerable and perhaps even wonderful as long as the immigrants seem to look and think like “native” Americans and the deep suspicion that “diversity” and “multiculturalism” are code words for cultural and political subversiveness.
5. The argument that neoliberal trade deals that clearly favor corporate interests over the interests of workers are essential to the economic well-being of our nation, but that, in the same breath, foreign nations with cheap labor are the cause of the decline in wages and living standards for American workers and their families.
6. The assertions that any reduction in defense spending will place the nation at terrible risk, but that draconian reductions in all domestic spending will preserve our American way of life.
7. The transferring of value from human capital to technology and the equivocation of the worker with his tools, even as technology is rapidly replacing workers, especially in industry.
8. Lastly, the argument that the only way to save public education is to the “reform” it by transforming it into something that is neither public nor pedagogically sound.