What really distinguishes the United States from most other countries? For me, two things came to mind, and both are related. First, in America it seems to be much more about “me” rather than about “we”. That seems to be implicit with our notion of freedom, at least as Americans have come to understand it. Second, since it’s all about “me” and we see selfishness as a virtue, many of us have lost empathy for those not like us, if we ever acquired it at all. For many Americans, getting in touch with others not like us is dead last on our list of priorities. In fact, we are often openly hostile to the whole idea and want to bend policy on all levels to make sure this value permeates all government and society.
“Me” vs. “we” characterizes in two words our great and seemingly never-ending national political debate. As with most things, being exclusively “me” or exclusively “we” tends to be unworkable in the real world. Right now the “me” crowd is in control, at least in the House of Representatives but arguably in a majority of state houses as well. The “me” crowd are principally Republicans. The “we” crowd are principally Democrats. It seems that mostly neither side can understand where the other is coming from.
Political forces seem aligned to never allow one crowd to get into ascendancy for long. Arguably, the passage of the Affordable Care Act last year was a recent peak for the “we” crowd’s success in exercising its political power. Granted, for many of us it did not go far enough. Its passage, rather than settling the issue, had the effect of whipping the “me” crowd into a hornet’s nest of activity. To the “me” crowd, just about anything that the “we” crowd enacts into law amounts to socialism, because they see it as redistribution of wealth. (That the whole point of government is to redistribute wealth seems to escape them.) In their minds, any redistribution of wealth is socialism. Passage of the Affordable Care Act stirred up the “me” crowd, perhaps beyond expectations. It resulted in a near record eighty-seven new House Republicans in the 2010 election.
As Democrats discovered when they swept into power in 2008, controlling the reins of power is a heady experience that usually quickly leads to a reaction commensurate with the newly acquired power. It was swift in coming last November, not so much in Washington where Democrats still control the Senate and the White House, but in state capitals where Republicans found themselves with veto proof majorities. The tendency, particularly when your party is highly united, is to push your agenda through with all deliberate speed and to take no prisoners. (Democrats, perhaps because we have so many divergent opinions, frequently divide among themselves.) Therefore, being true to form, states like Indiana, Ohio and Wisconsin overturned previous long-standing laws allowing public employees to collectively bargain. Republicans could have addressed just the issue in front of them (aligning taxes with public expenditures) and likely not have triggered any reaction. Instead, they went for the ideological “cure”. Collective bargaining for public employees became unlawful, not because it saved money, but because collectivism in any form sounded socialistic, and was “we” behavior rather than “me” behavior.
Arguably, too much “we” behavior can be dangerous and foolish too. We can see it being played out in the European debt crisis. In general, the more socialistic the state, the bigger the debt crisis was. However, the degree of socialism was just one contributing factor. The competence of government was also a major contributing factor. Arguably Germany is as socialistic, if not more so, than Greece and Spain who are struggling with debt. However, Germany also has a strong manufacturing sector whose growth makes their level of socialism affordable. Greece and Spain have suffered from poor economies for decades, and Greece in particular has been run by a succession of incompetent, if not corrupt governors.
The converse is true as well. Too much “me” behavior is dangerous and foolish. Republicans are quickly reaching a dangerous and foolish phase where ideology is substituting for critical thinking. As Ezra Klein pointed out recently, as bad as our deficit spending is, the long-term costs get worse if you are not regularly doing things like fixing our infrastructure. For example, it is much more costly to replacing bridges later compared to repairing them now. This is not a matter of ideology; it’s a matter of fact. Chopping government spending in an unintelligent fashion, as seems to be the rage in the House, is counterproductive. An intelligent response to our deficit would include raising taxes, particularly on those who can easily afford to contribute more, and cutting programs that are demonstrably inefficient or don’t solve the intended problem. It also involves looking at programs that are inefficient but necessary, like Medicare, and figuring out how to make them efficient.
If your philosophy is always “me first” then at some point you end up narcissistic, which means you become unconcerned or inured to the problems of others. The problem with narcissism is that it gives you a false perspective and feeds feelings of righteousness as well. “Me first” does not solve the problem of global warming. You can, of course, assert that it is not happening, which many “me first” types are happy to do. Perhaps even worse is to acknowledge it and simply not care. It’s kind of like a criminal saying, “I know I torched that house but, hey, it wasn’t my house.”
“Me first always” is a very dangerous ideology. It is like choosing to go through life wearing blinders. It’s like Mr. Magoo driving his car unaware of the pedestrians his Rolls Royce has run over. At its essence, “me first” either denies or discounts the connections between people and our environment. The opposite is true. Our connections mean everything. None of us would be alive had we not had concerned parents who nurtured us. None of us would have flourished without teachers, who connected with us as people so that we could learn to deal effectively with reality. It is little wonder then that the public is solidly behind teachers and other public employees in Wisconsin and elsewhere. If you have a “me first” view then you don’t care about people like firefighters or public school teachers. Whereas, if you are a typical parent who is trying to raise a child to adulthood, your child’s success depends on teachers. You can make the obvious connection between overcrowded classrooms and the probability of your child’s success in life. Teachers are not your enemy; they are your friends and provide a critical service. It is in your interest to see them succeed, so your child succeeds and thus to ensure teachers are treated decently by government. For a “me first” person like Governor Scott Walker, none of this matters.
The result is a predictable and surprisingly powerful blowback, which might make this latest Republican resurgence remarkably short-lived. The public is quickly rediscovering why they do not like Republicans. They see them as people enthralled with tearing things down, not building things up. They see them as people remarkably detached from the real world. They see them as people who are not only narcissistic, but sadistic as well, and even gleefully sadistic. Their sadistic tendencies are now on display all over the country. Most of the rest of us find it revolting. They are the antithesis of the Christian values so many of these Republicans claim to champion.
How we resolve these polarities, if we do it at all, will be telling. It will be interesting to see which polarized politicians, if any, will find the courage to move toward compromise rather than embrace the destruction of rigid adherence to ideology alone. For those that do, perhaps they can thank a teacher.