As I noted before, it is a daunting task indeed to find commonality in a nation of over 300 million souls. After all, the northern, southern, eastern, and western regions all have their distinctive characteristics, and, beneath all that, the rich and the poor. For what can someone who earns $25,000 per year in Louisiana have in common with someone in New York making that sum in an hour? And yet, especially in times of national triumph and tragedy: E pluribus unum – out of many, one.
A broader feel for this occurs when contemplating the diverse array of African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, European Americans, Native Americans, and just plain American Americans that contribute to the various categorized cross-sections of our population. However, while we are all Americans of one stripe or another, a Southerner will not be particularly happy if you call him a Northerner (or vice versa). We are constantly reminded by the deep acrimony that currently passes for cooperative government in our Congress that America is comprised of fifty only somewhat “United States.” On the other hand, a single act of terrorism on our soil can sweep all of that aside, if only for a little while.
Even the distinction between rich and poor diminishes somewhat when regarding the nation culturally from the outside. There is no question about the inequality of wealth in America. It is greater than nearly any other industrialized nation, and you need only travel the short distance between the Bronx of New York City and Park Avenue to see it. In terms of economics, America is certainly two nations. But, at the same time, the vast majority of people feel themselves to be a single country and are more attuned to feelings of unity with each other than with members of other nations. Indeed, patriotism is still stronger than class hatred here.
But, as in most other nations, patriotism takes different forms in the different classes, although it acts as a unifying force between all of them. Only the members of the far left seem somewhat immune to it, and even then only as it diverges from their idealized conceptualization of America. As an emotive force, it seems to be much stronger in the masses than the wealthy, yet true acts of treason are certainly still very rare even amongst the financiers and inheritors that comprise the jet-setting rich. The parochial communities that make up much of rural America seem to be more susceptible to the darker, xenophobic undercurrents than those who live in the urban centers. On the other hand, all classes and communities exhibit the concept of “American exceptionalism” that feeds much of the undercurrent of “us” vs. “them.”
This feeling of commonality is a strong motivator, and, up to a point, an individual’s world view can be overridden by a sense of national unity. Because patriotism is a universal thread that even influences the rich, there can be moments when the entire nation suddenly swings together as one. The events of 9/11 were certainly such a time, when we put aside all of our differences and came together as a single people, united in shock and grief. But even events such as those do not guarantee that the country will do the right thing, merely some thing. After all, the events of 9/11 were arguably used by the national security state to burn the bogeyman of the ruthless Islamic radical deep into the American psyche, and all its subsequent actions have been designed to leverage irrational fear and hatred to enact policy changes once considered unthinkable.
That being said, the independence of the American voter may be less of a sham than supposed. An outside observer may see the gerrymandering of voting districts and the selection of “acceptable” candidates by the political machines as anti-democratic. But this ignores the considerable agreement that exists between the governed and those who govern, no matter the barriers to change. A ten foot fence merely requires an eleven foot ladder to scale it, after all, and the will to both build and use it.
For, despite the warnings and campaigns of many thousands of people who could see through the manipulation, it is undeniable that the bulk of the American people supported the post 9/11 war against Iran. Those opposed to the war professed to see the twisted truths and attempted to expose the lies used to sell it, yet the masses fell behind the much marketed certainty and unity of our government officials, with the solace that something was being done. Only after the shock had worn off, and the slow, grinding toll of American blood and treasure became impossible to ignore, did the tides change, and the people subsequently elected an establishment more attuned to the current mood, if mostly on paper.
Does this mean that America is a genuine democracy? Absolutely not. We are very much governed through the manipulations of a wealthy few. Yet, despite the totalitarian threat of surveillance in the name of anti-terrorism, thousands of people still freely voice their opinions on blogs, Facebook pages, whatever, with little fear of interference, although this is undoubtedly less due to any commitment to free speech than to the perception by the government that these things don’t matter. After all, it is safe to assume that the bloviations of someone such as myself will not be read by the vast majority. Still, in any calculation, one has to take into account our emotional unity, the tendency of all of us to feel alike and act together in moments of great crisis. However divergent our individual viewpoints, the nation is still bound together by an invisible chain. And, while at any normal time the ruling class will steal us blind, when the public roars, they still find it difficult not to respond.
Thus, while America is not the bastion of freedom and democracy popularized by much of our media, neither is it the totalitarian hell depicted by fringe conspiracists. It is an uneasy truce between the masses and those chosen by the moneyed elite to rule them, generally supported by the people, but capable of being bloodlessly ousted on those rare occasions when we can put aside our many parochial differences and speak as one.