In 1988, Rupert Wilkinson, who has taught at leading universities in America and the U.K., published a remarkable little book, The Pursuit of American Character. It is nothing short of brilliant. I only wish that more people everywhere were aware of it. If they were, they might really understand America.
The Pursuit of American Character is the single best succinct explanation of the underlying forces that drive American political behavior of which I know. The speeches and general campaigns of the current crop of Republican candidates read as if they were taken, word for word, straight out of Wilkinson.
Wilkinson identified four fears that have not only been present from the very founding of the Republic, but are so basic that they are synonymous with it:
1. The Fear of Being Owned
2. The Fear of Falling Away
3. The Fear of Winding Down
4. The Fear of Falling Apart
The Fear of Being Owned is the earliest and most basic of the four. It embodies all of the primal fears that drove our forefathers to undertake the perilous journey from the Old to the New World. The journey was not merely one of physical geography, but more fundamentally, it was a mental and spiritual journey. It was an heroic escape from the centuries old tyranny of "evil European Kings and despots" that literally did own us. No wonder why it is rooted so deeply in the American character.
The Fear of Being Owned helps to explain why the attack on "Obamacare" is so prolonged and vicious. Even though we are The Government, The Government is identified so strongly with the forces of oppression and tyranny that all the rational arguments in the world are almost powerless to overcome the perception that The Government is The Enemy even though in reality the big insurance companies are the real enemy. Like all of them, the fears are largely unconscious and thereby not open to direct examination by logical arguments alone. The only way to counter them is by getting at the deep emotions that undergird them.
The Fear of Falling Away is the fear of losing the original holy vision of a "City on a Hill" that the Founding Fathers gave us. It is the vision of an America that can do no wrong because She is the font of all that is good and right with the world.
Even though America was supposed to have no established Church or state religion, The Fear of Falling Away is not just "a vision." It is America's true religion. The very idea of America is a religion in which all can participate.
No wonder why the Republicans fear that in looking to the future, President Obama wants to take us away from America's glorious past. In drawing a sharp contrast between himself and the president, doesn't Governor Romney stress repeatedly that he wants to take us back to the values that made us great, whereas the president doesn't?
The Fear of Winding Down is the fear that we will lose the unbridled and unbounded energy and optimism that made America great. This fear is also so basic that it's wrapped up with all kinds of ideologies, e.g., capitalism. Thus, if President Obama would only relax the constraints on American business, then we "could get this high-energy economy going once again." But then goes the criticism, "This President doesn't understand business." Worse, he's incapable of understanding it.
The Fear of Falling Apart is the fear that we are tearing ourselves apart because of all our internal conflict, e.g., young versus old, black versus white, etc. Therefore, in contrast to the "weak leadership of the current President, we need a strong leader who understands what America is really all about."
To dismiss these fears as completely childish and irrational, as intellectuals and liberals are prone to do, is a not only fundamental, but a grievous mistake. They may indeed be "childish and irrational," but they are "real" to many Americans. The only really effective way to deal with them is to co-opt them as only a political genius like Bill Clinton could.
In the end of course, we desperately need new and better stories of who and what we can be. The old fears are seriously out of touch with a world that is interconnected and complex as never before.
Anyone who thinks that the world basically doesn't run by stories needs to have their head seriously examined. But that, too, is another story!
Ian I. Mitroff is a crisis expert and an Adjunct Professor at UC Berkeley. His most recent book is Swans, Swine, and Swindlers: Coping with the Growing Threat of Mega Crises and Mega Messes, Stanford, 2011. He is the co-author of the forthcoming book with Murat Alpaslan, A Prefect Mess: Why Everything Is A Mess And How To Cope With It, University of Pennsylvania Press. His PhD is in Engineering Science and the Philosophy of Social Systems Science from UC Berkeley.
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