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The Great American Breakup

Political scientist Louis Hartz accurately described the United States’ underlying cultural hyperindividualism. Is the next logical step the dissolution of the centralized federal state to become more like the EU?

B. Duncan Moench
June 02, 2020
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Clockwise from upper left: Washington, D.C.; Washington, D.C.; Los Angeles; Boston; Los Angeles; Atlanta; May 30-31, 2020Getty Images

It’s time to face facts, America: We’re a backward, dysfunctional, angry, anti-intellectual mess. Not just Trump, cable news, or Twitter but the whole freakin’ culture. While our cities burn in America’s latest “race” riots, the COVID-19 death toll continues to rise. Some of our citizens dance on top of police cruisers, while others frolic on prematurely opened beaches, gyms, and hair salons—convinced they can build up “herd immunity.” They come to this conclusion from a quick reading of the same 30-word Facebook post as our commander in chief, who asks aloud if it’s safe to drink bleach and—come on—admit it: Listening to his more-than-likely demented Democratic Party opponent try to form coherent sentences makes drinking bleach seem like a palatable alternative.

We all stare on powerlessly dumbstruck while mafioso corporate middlemen take their cut of the tax-payer relief package. (The federal government has already spent more per capita on its COVID-19 relief efforts than many countries did in permanently securing their citizens’ paychecks.) Meanwhile, an economic depression of untold proportions is taking shape. Nothing has been solved yet everyone is ready to throw in the towel—not just on the quarantine but on trying in general. We’re about to reenter the 1970s. Whatever cultural growth follows this period cannot come fast enough.

Future historians will mark the 2020 plague as the beginning of the end for the American “experiment” that began in 1776 and that Abraham Lincoln cemented together with steel between 1860 and 1865. The unparalleled nature of Trump’s incompetence in running a modern state, the inconceivable lameness of the Democratic establishment that fomented its lame “resistance” based on a childlike conspiracy theory and belief in the inherent honesty and goodness of internal security cops, a political left more interested in calculating the metaphysical sins of intersectionality than trying to help working people—all this combined with an actual plague? Surely, even the most cockeyed optimists have to admit our current structure isn’t working—and hasn’t been for a very long time.

Once California or New York begin the process of secession—and, don’t kid yourself, a second Trump term would stimulate serious discussion— Texas state legislators will do absolutely anything to beat them to it. Utah, Idaho, Montana, and Arizona—all at once—will follow the next day. The flag of Deseret will fly again. Without knowing it, our post-1960s culture war was leading us here the whole time. It just needed one last push.

Yes, infusions of cash are coming. However, for the people who need them most it’ll be far too little, arrive too late, and come dressed in undecipherable bureaucratic paperwork. Few will forget that when the financial levies broke their so-called “representatives” first thoughts were to save not the sick and the dying, nor the deeply indebted middle class, nor the hopeful young. Nope. Their first thoughts were for saving the Wall Street donor class from the slightest dip in their portfolios. The current riots are merely a preview of the anger about to burst forth. The American demos are poised to burst like roaches from the cadaver of a once-mighty steer.

The crowds protesting social distancing will inevitably get larger. Much larger. Most are unarmed—but for how long? This is a country with more firearms than people. The American story is in its third act. In accordance with Chekhov’s famous dictum, at some point in time—sooner rather than later—those guns will fire. Forty percent of small businesses are at real risk of permanently closing their doors in the next six months. Most states issued strict shelter-in-place mandates, but unlike most other industrialized countries, the federal government has refused to offer reliable—much less accessible—relief to small businesses and the middle classes. However this all shakes out, it seems safe to predict that the America that fully “reopens” this summer for business will not be the one that closed down 10 weeks ago.

Since the collapse of the New Deal coalition in the late 1960s the American political economy has been a Ford Mustang—the 1970 Boss 302 version. Bold. Brash. Quick off the line, barreling down the highway at 100 mph with an engine that can be heard for miles. No airbags. No whiplash headrests. Lap-only seat belts, none of which are buckled. Disasters, you see, are for other drivers—the ones of wussy foreign vehicles.

The American system of unconstrained liberal economy is done. Say goodbye to its hipster dance partner neoliberal globalism, and the so-called “Washington Consensus” also. Thomas L. Friedman will still write columns for the Times. Boomers on ventilators will read them until their dying breaths, but it’s over. Abre los ojos. The whole thing is cashed.

These developments would be very exciting if we had anything to replace them with. But we don’t. Turning the United States into a Germanic, Western European-style social democracy is not the solution. If Elizabeth Warren’s and Bernie Sanders’ meek capitulation to the lords of the Democratic Party establishment this spring proves one thing, it’s this: The American “left” (so-called) needs to shed the notion of turning America into Europe, because it ain’t happening. For all the American left’s post-1960s obsession with difference and the need to understand other “cultures” it has made astoundingly little effort to understand what makes American political culture different from that of the rest of the world.

In 1955, while teaching at Harvard, Louis Hartz a charismatic young Russian American scholar of Jewish descent, offered what is still the best explanation for what makes American politics truly unique. Born in Omaha, Nebraska, to bodega owners (who fled the pogroms), Hartz developed a keen insider/outsider understanding of both heartland America and its coastal elite counterpart. Hartz theorized that all American political thought remained trapped in the 17th- and 18th-century Anglo-liberalism of John Locke—all our social and legal issues are understood only through the lens of the individual, people think they can remake themselves through sheer force of will, and tend to be obsessed with property accumulation and a superficial notion of rebellion.

Equally important, due to their lack of a feudal experience, Hartz observed that Americans struggled to understand the realities of social class. European migrants to the states came to escape feudalism and class prejudice. Most believed they had. Those that didn’t, wanted to.

The so-called “American dream” and the rags-to-riches tales of Horatio Alger operated as the central myths of American politics. Few challenged the myths. Fewer had anything better to replace them with. As a consequence, America never developed a socialist or even the “tory” classical conservative traditions found in Europe—both of which were dependent on class consciousness, one defending class privileges and the other wishing to destroy them.

Liberalism surrounds Americans on all sides. It is the country’s life force, yet most Americans cannot come close to accurately defining what liberalism means, which, if Hartz is correct, makes them like fish that cannot understand water.

Hartz wrote that when observing American politics from a comparative vantage one is reminded of two boxers, blinded, “swinging wildly, knocking each other down with accidental punches.” Whether right or left, everything in American politics operates inside the frame provided by classical liberalism with some variation of a class-denying, hyperindividualist, independence-focused bent. Our “left” fantasizes about turning our thoroughly Anglo-liberal nation into something entirely different—without knowing even the first thing about how Western Europeans arrived at social democracy in the first place. They seem not to realize America is not Sweden, Norway, Germany, Denmark, France, or even Italy or Spain. Its citizens do not think about class, nor government, the same way. Not at all.

For most Americans, state programs are for carpetbaggers to circumnavigate and robber barons to enrich themselves with. That’s about all we understand about how state programs and bureaucrats work. (Also, law enforcement officers who kill 1,000 people a year, and the super happy time had by all at the DMV.)

A little story here about state bureaucrats and cultural difference. After the fall of the Nazi regime in 1945, France, the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, and the rest of the Allies occupied what would become West Germany. For many months they debated what to do next. How could they create a state that worked within the German political culture, but learn from the mistakes of the unstable Weimar Republic? Upon research and reflection, they realized that Germany’s political culture had something rather unique: the mandarins, a class of civil service bureaucrats that had existed in Germany/Prussia for hundreds of years and carried out their jobs effectively, if not impeccably well. One—big—problem: They had done so under the Nazi regime, also. The Allies, though, came to the conclusion that any future German state simply could not function without this institutionalized bureaucratic class. To get rid of them would destroy any chance of success for a future German state.

Self-styled progressive elites would like to think they can build a highly educated, highly efficient federal bureaucratic class that Americans honor and respect, but that just isn’t going to happen—not in the land of Joseph Smith, P.T. Barnum, and Vince McMahon.

Debates about the “banality of evil” aside, keeping these bureaucrats in place was absolutely the right choice. It is because of Germany’s class of effective, knowledgeable—and highly functional—bureaucrats that contemporary Germany was able to quickly coordinate policy and practice between Germany’s 16 provinces and their federal government. Then, having done so, quickly cordon off the COVID-infected, institute mass testing, limit the virus’s exposure, and start contact tracing. Because of all this, Germany—the second-largest country in the G-8—has had one of the lowest COVID-19 death rates of any nation despite being one of the most densely populated. They have already started slowly—and effectively—reopening the economy. This crisis has been Germany’s moment to shine, and they know it.

America does not have a mandarinlike bureaucratic class. It isn’t about to get one soon either. Nearly 250 years of cultural resistance to building one should tell you a thing or two about the likely outcome of such efforts.

Most Americans don’t find the arguments of Vox and Slate writers convincing because they are not arguments directed toward people who are recognizably American. Rather, they are most often mere expressions of contempt for social conservatives, the GOP, and middle-American culture. Self-styled progressive elites who staff institutions like the Center for American Progress would like to think they can build a highly educated, highly efficient federal bureaucratic class that Americans honor and respect, but that just isn’t going to happen—not in the land of Joseph Smith, P.T. Barnum, and Vince McMahon. It’s not who we are. Ordinary Americans hate the federal government—and often for damn good reasons (see: the 2009 bank bailouts and now the poignant beauty of this spring’s relief experience thus far). They hate politicians of all stripes. They don’t trust ’em—are you really going to argue they should?

Without knowing exactly why or how, everyday people realize all the dysfunctionality of America’s piddly welfare state and its pathetic payout system is on some level intentional. Unemployment office phone lines that can’t handle the needed capacity. Flimsy websites that crash. Paperwork that makes no sense. Untrained unemployment officers that ask inane questions. Untrained supervisors who answer to other middle-management bureaucrats who then answer to someone else, who is never in the office. It’s all purposefully designed to further humiliate and frustrate America’s poor and working classes, who should be “out looking for jobs instead of sponging off the state.” (Multinational corporations and banks? Oh, they get direct federal deposits in seconds. Funny how that all works.)

A great many American states just don’t do government, at least not well—and coordinating state action with federal agencies? They do that even less well. The 2020 relief process—and blaming the late-May riots on the phantoms of “white nationalists” and “foreign agents”—seems unlikely to inspire a massive increase in confidence in statism of any variety other than the safety-seeking law and order of Rudy Giuliani and his ilk. Elitist progressives and America’s earnest young social democrats often behave like a naive boy with a crush on the badass, beautiful, rebel girl. They think America secretly “would want” statism “if only” it could “get to know it a little bit.” Let’s end this fantasy.

American political culture does not prefer independence, it demands it—which is why we need a union of American states like the European Union. America is an abusive relationship with itself. Our dysfunctional federal system provides facile excuses to everyone for bad governance. Finger pointing—and gaslighting the populace—is too easy when everyone can point to the (legitimate) corruption of Washington, D.C., as the source of all our cultural ills. We need to end the “United States” and start an American Union—a coalition of independent nation-states with close trade ties, freedom of movement and employment across borders, and provisions for common defense, but independence outside that. Californians should no more seek to control the social policies of Georgia than they should those of Indonesia. Likewise, Alabamans should no more seek to hamper or control the environmental policies of New York City than they do Afghanistan. Arizona legislators would probably have no problem with a Medicare for All–like health care plan if they managed it themselves.

Much of our citizenry will flat out refuse to comply with the directives of almost any distant authority they don’t find legitimate, especially that of a state agency. A federalized system of true social democracy simply will not grow in North American soil. Those who care about issues of labor and the environment, as I do greatly, need to give up on turning America into something it just isn’t. Instead, thinking Americans need to accept what their country is and do the (very hard) work of figuring out where we go from here.

B. Duncan Moench is Tablet’s social critic at large, a Research Fellow at Heterodox Academy’s Segal Center for Academic Pluralism, and a contributing writer at County Highway.