There is a longstanding, positive conception of what it means to be American. It has gone under many names – Jefferson’s yeoman farmers, rugged individualism – and you see it pour through pop culture in the figure of the cowboy and the pioneer. This is the notion that part of being American is a tough, practical self-suffieciency: being a burden to others is shameful. It’s a vision of Americanness as scrappy, hard and entrepreneurial: not stoic, but seasoned. Clear-sighted and bright-eyed with calloused hands. It is under attack.
I am going to call it “Crockettism” – as in Davy – and it must be distinguished quite vigorously from “capitalism,” “neoliberalism,” “libertarianism,” and the dubious intellectual project of Ayn Rand. Each of these terms come with their own intellectual history and set of ideas. None of them are “notions” about what it means to be American; they are technical terms which date to the 20th century, and therefore are distinctly separate from what it means to be American. Rather, it is the notion of Crockettism that has played into the widespread acceptance of “capitalism,” “neoliberalism” and”libertarianism.”
Crockettism is a “wedge issue” in that our attachment to it has been used for political gain on the economic front; its equivalent on the social front, for example, is abortion. Huge numbers of Americans vote Republican every year in the name of Crockettism. It’s clearest political, contemporary articulation is libertarianism, which essentially occupies the position of “socially liberal and economically conservative.” This is a gross characterisation, but I feel like it has to be made in order for our own clear thinking on this topic. Anytime somebody says “I don’t want the government telling me what to do” that is libertarianism. Capitalism in a technical sense, simply refers to private ownership of capital and its use as the basic engine of economic activity. Straightaway, we can tell that no American political party is against “capitalism.” I include the Green Party and Bernie Sanders, and progressives in general, in this statement. Again, a distinction must be made between capitalism (Adam Smith) and neoliberalism, a very different beast.
Neoliberalism is the set of economic ideas and policies that originate with the writings of Frederick von Hayek, an Austrian who traumatically encountered the ideas of Milton Keynes in the ’30s. This has been the ruling ideology of the United States since Reagan’s Administration; it includes Clinton’s and Obama’s terms. Also known as “Austerity,” and “trickle-down economics” it is in fact an extreme pro-corporate, pro-elite set of ideas which is the true target of progressive figures like Bernie Sanders. It’s privatisation for privatisation’s sake, deregulation for the sake of deregulation and hero-worship of robber-barons for the sake of robber barons, er, I mean Captains of Industry. It sees government as a strangulation of enterprise; it has a telling connection to the adolescent ideas of Ayn Rand. Anytime somebody uses the parable of a rich guy buying and maintaing a yacht and how this employs people, or a crude allusion to “if we shouldn’t feed the wildlife because it makes them dependant, then the same applies to people,” that is neoliberalism.
As you can see, it has little to do with our cherished notion of Crockettism. Since Reagan, who instituted tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations, deregulation and privatisation, we have seen a decline in the American middle class. Meanwhile, CEO pay has exploded along with corporate profits. The American work force has become more efficient and productive, yet works ever-increasing numbers of hours. We live in the most inquisitions society of all time; a handful of individuals and corporate control the vast majority of the wealth in this country. Thus, when somebody is against the redistribution of wealth, or resents welfare recipients for “getting something for nothing,” they are implicitly ignoring the current redistribution of wealth that is taking place in this country. That is, a transfer of wealth upward from the middle class. It gets even more ironic because even as conservatives and libertarians fret over taxation, it is the reality that the wealthiest Americans and businesses have escaped the tax burden. A vote for the Republican party directly supports a taxation system which puts billionaire paying as much in taxes as their secretaries. This, combined with a corporate system that pursues profit-maximazation above all else explains the decline of the American middle class.
Crockettism is under attack from profit-maximaization and the subversion of democracy by corporations which find buying government support through lobbying an excellent bargain. Adam Smith and Davy Crockett would not approve of Rupert Murdoch and the sinister manipulation of minimum wage laws by Wal-Mart. Americans for Prosperity and Citizens United have little to do with our own self-reliance. It comes down to what sort of society you want to live in given the current realities of our society. I think we can agree that Jefferson’s yeoman farmers is not a realistic option. Think of it like this: do you want a country of strip malls and Wal-Marts? Or do you want a country of hipster downtowns? It’s a simplification, but it’s the essence of your choice. Society is mutual cooperation, not about “the war of all against all” which conservatives seem to relish so much.
A counter-point might be government over-reach; the libertarian anxiety about “tax-and-spend” policies. First of all government is dedicated to the well-fare of its citizens, not profit. No matter how clunky or corrupt, government remains accountable to us, even if only in the abstract, the citizenry. A corporation must mindlessly pursue short-term profits, no matter the cost to human individuals, our democracy and society, and our fragile environment. Put another way, the unwieldy intuition of government is our only recourse against corporate oligarchy. If you want a society of strong, independent individuals the first step is restoring a certain economic/income equality which did actually exist during during the post-WWII years in this country. The Republican legacy is just as much “big-government” as the Democrats; the truth is that our government is in the hands of corporate influence, and both political parties are beholden to a handful of wealthy donors. How the Republicans managed become the party of Crockettism in the minds of Americans is beyond me. Is it because Reagan often appeared in a cowboy hat? Looking at the facts, the Republicans are more reliable the party of fossil fuels, gross military expenditure and creeping theocracy, not plucky individualism. Look at their record on surveillance, torture and the environment.
It’s a complex, painful issue. It asks you to see “beyond the horizon” if you will, of our everyday, concrete world, where the poor person is poor because they are lazy (and that is emotionally satisfying, like big cigar). The failure of identity politics, the clumsy, flawed functioning of the welfare state has many critics – and I agree with these critics. I just cannot fathom support for the Republican Party based on these ideas. It’s inexplicable to vote for a (born rich) billionaire who has gamed the system over and over again in the name of personal responsibility and hard work. Watch as the Republicans pull the levers of Big Government in the name of Small Government and Freedom. Watch as our rights are stripped away in the name of patriotism. Already, the bedrock foundations of democracy, be it First Amendment rights, or voter suppresion, or fake news is destroying what little is left of our democratic heritage. Clearly, Trump only values people based on their support for Trump. The Libertarian support for Trump will do serious damage to the concept of small, efficient government to everybody’s detriment.
By allowing our sentiments of Crockettism to vote for Trump, we may have ended the last vestiges of Crockettism itself.