Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Conservative Revolt - Losing Control of Our Destiny: Middle Class Unrest and the Massachusetts Election

Pundits are struggling to define what is happening in Massachusetts. There, a moderate Republican, state senator Scott Brown, has seemingly come out nowhere to challenge and perhaps even defeat the Democratic quasi-incumbent, Martha Coakley, for the late Senator Edward Kennedy’s seat. We’ll know the result tonight.

The Meaning of It All

What does it all mean? Everyone has their theory. Mine is that Brown’s rise represents pent-up frustration of the American middle class and Democratic over-reading of their mandate and ignorance of American history and culture.

Consistent Ideology

In today’s Wall Street Journal, columnist Gerald Selb says the Massachusetts election shows the difficulties of governing from the left in a center right country.

In his piece, “US Shifted Party, Not Ideology,” Selb cites WSJ polls since 2006 showing Americans have a consistent ideology - about 21% liberal, 38% moderate, and 34% conservative. What is happening, says Selb, is that liberals are marginally decreasing, moderates are shifting to the right, and conservatives are staying about the same.

Habits of the Heart

I have been reading a book Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (University of California Press, 1984). Five sociologists wrote it. They say America is a middle class country, made up mostly of ambitious individuals. These individuals believe in self-reliance, economic progress, private independence, religion, historical traditions, social activism, decentralization, and distrust of government elites telling them what constitutes the “public good” or “common good.”

Basis of Our Culture

Because of this set of values, which forms the basis of our culture, Americans are leery of a large, controlling central government expending trillions of dollars , either to bail out the rich, or subsidize the poor. Americans seek to take governance back into their own hands.

Democracy in America

Alex de Tocqueville, a French nobleman who wrote Democracy in America (published in two parts, in 1835 and 1840), coined the terms “habits of the heart” and “individualism.” Tocqueville saw the great importance of Americans “who have gained and kept enough wealth and understanding to look after their own needs. Such folk owe no man anything and hardly expect anything from anybody. They form the habit of thinking for themselves in isolation and imagine their whole destiny is in their hands.”

Middle class Americans are restless, frustrated, angry, and acting out, in health care and other matters, because they feel others are trying to do their thinking for them and because their destiny suddenly seems to be in the hands of others.

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