America’s National Character, Revealed in its COVID-19 Response
“The entire man is… to be seen in the cradle of the child. The growth of nations presents something analogous to this; they all bear some marks of their origin. If we were able to go back… we should discover… the primal cause of the prejudices, the habits, the ruling passions, and, in short, all that constitutes what is called the national character.”
Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (1835)
“Begin as you would continue,” my new mother-in-law told my bride and me. Her advice was good beyond gold — a standard we return to in every new beginning, of which there’ve been many in 40+ years.
Alexis de Tocqueville didn’t offer the principle as advice, he recognized its operation in the America he famously toured and wrote about — a nation shaping itself around its founding principles — its “primal cause.” A country’s “national character,” he said, is revealed in the “prejudices,” “habits,” and “ruling passions” of the government and the people. The specifics may shift over time as certain founding values prevail over others due to political tradeoffs and changing circumstances, but in the long haul the country stays true to its origins. Countries, like marriages, continue as they began.
The same dynamics that apply to individuals and nations also apply to institutions, for example societal institutions of law, economics, academics, and commercial enterprise. And for all of them, there’s no such thing as a single beginning to be sustained forever. Personal, national, and institutional histories are shaped around many beginnings and endings. With every new beginning comes an invitation to return to “primal causes” and accept the transformation of historical into contemporary; i.e., each path forward requires a fresh look at how the past’s wisdom can help navigate today’s unprecedented challenges. Trouble is, transformation is perhaps the most difficult thing asked of a person, relationship, institution, nation. The opportunity to transform is therefore rarely recognized, much less embraced, but without it there will be hardening into what was but no longer is, and soon the person or entity under stress will fray under the strain of forcing the fluidity of today into the memory of yesterday.
The Covid-19 Policy-Making Triumvirate
Covid-19 has brought the entire world to an inescapable threshold of new beginning, with its commensurate invitation to transformation. America’s response reveals no embrace of the invitation, but rather a doubling down on the pre-pandemic version of a currently predominant ideological triumvirate of values. Other “prejudices,” “habits,” and “ruling passions” of the “national character” are clearly evident in the nation’s response as well, but I chose to write about this triumvirate because I’ve previously done so here and in my other blog.. The three prongs of the triumvirate we’ll look at today are as follows:
Freemarketism is grounded in a belief that marketplace competition will not only prosper capitalists but also promote individual and communal welfare in all social and economic strata. Its essential prejudices and practices are rooted in the transmutation of the western, mostly Biblical worldview into the Protestant work ethic, which judges individual good character and communal virtue by individual initiative and success in “working for a living” and the ability to climb the upward mobility ladder. The state’s highest good is to sponsor a competitive market in which capitalists, freed from governmental regulation and taxation, will build vibrant businesses, generate wealth for themselves as a reward, and activate corollary “trickle down” benefits to all. Granting the public good an independent seat at the policy-making table is considered detrimental to the market’s freedom.
Freemarketism skews Covid-19 relief toward business and charges the state with a duty to restore “business as usual” as quickly as possible. Direct benefit to citizens is considered only grudgingly, since it would encourage bad character and bad behavior among the masses. Particularly, it would destroy their incentive and willingness to work for a living. The employable populace must be kept hungry, on-edge, primed to get back to work in service to the capitalist engine that fuels the greater good of all.
Freemarketism is a belief system that emerged in the 1980’s, after the first three decades of post-WWII economic recovery played out in the 1970’s. Freemarketism addressed the economic malaise with its utopian promise of universal benefit, and its founders promoted it with religious zeal as a new economic science — the rationale being that it had been “proven” in ingenious, complex mathematical models. But math is not science, and however elegant its proofs of Freemarketism theory might have been, they were not the same as empirical testing . Freemarketism was therefore a new economic belief system — something you either believed or didn’t.
To gain widespread political and social acceptance, Freemarketism would need to displace the Keynesian economics that had pulled the U.S. out of the Great Depression of the 1930’s by massive federal investment in infrastructure, the creation of new social safety nets, and the regulation of securities markets. During the post-WWII recovery, neoliberal economic policy had struck its own balance between private enterprise and government intervention, creating both new commercial monoliths and a vibrant middle class. Freemarketism would eventually swing this balance entirely to the side of private enterprise. It did so thanks in part to auspicious good timing. At the dawn of the 1980’s, after a decade of Watergate, the oil embargo and energy crisis, runaway inflation, and the Iran hostage crisis, America was ripe for something to believe in. Its morale was suddenly boosted by the USA’s stunning Olympic hockey gold medal, Then, at the end of the decade, came the equally stunning collapse of the Soviet Union, brought on by Chernobyl and the fall of the Berlin Wall. These two bookend events ensured that Freemarketism had made a beginning that politicians and the populace wished to continue.
By then, Soviet-style Communism had been fully exposed as a horrific, dystopian, failed system. It had begun with Karl Marx’s angry empathy for the plight of the working stiff, but a century and a half later had morphed into a tyranny of fear, mind control, and brutality that turned its nominal beneficiaries into its victims, administered by a privileged, unthinking, corrupt, emotionally and morally paralyzed class of party bosses. When the failed system met its just desserts, the West’s storyline trumpeted that capitalism had won the Cold War. Freemarketism stepped up to receive the accolades, and its political devotees set about dismantling the social structures Keynesian economics had built before WWII.
From that point, as Freemarketism gained acceptance, it stomped the throttle toward fundamentalism, which is where every belief system, whether religious or secular, must inevitably end up. Belief by its very nature demands its own purification — the rooting out of doubt. To endure, belief must become irrefutable, must become certain to the point where doubt and discourse are demonized, conformity becomes the greatest social good, and ideological myths become determinants of patriotic duty and moral status. Accordingly, as Freemarketism evangelists increasingly installed their privatized solutions, any system of government based on state-sponsored promotion of the common good was quickly characterized as a threat of a resurgence of Communism. In the minds of Freemarketers — both priests and proles — the European social democracies were thrown into the same toxic waste dump as Communism, because the state could never again be trusted to know what is good for its citizens, or be given the power to carry out its agenda.
Freemarketism’s blind spot is now obvious: for all its demonization of government policy, it needed precisely that to create the conditions it needed to operate. Polictician from the 1990’s forward were happy to comply. Thus empowered, in the four decades since its inception, Freemarketism has ironically failed in the same manner as Soviet Communism, gutting the public good of the working masses and protectively sequestering the wealthy capitalist classes. Along the way, Beliefism as the cultural norm has displaced scientific rationalism with moment-by-moment inanity, expressed in the Covid-19 crisis by everything from drinking bleach to mask and supply shortages, lockdown protests and defiance of mask-wearing, terminating support of the World Health Organization, confusion and skepticism about statistics of infection rates and the value of mass testing, the public undercutting of medical authorities, and much more.
The post-truth flourishing of Beliefism is in turn held in place by the third prong of the triumvirate:
Militarism is the enforcer for the other two prongs of the triumvirate. Its status as a pillar of the national character is on the one hand entirely understandable, given that the USA was formed because the colonists won their war, but on the other hand perhaps the most ideologically inexplicable when measured against the Founders’ rejection of a standing military in favor of a right to mobilize an armed militia as needed. The displacement of the latter with the former was fully complete only after WWII, grudgingly acknowledged by the General who masterminded .he D-Day invasion: “In the councils of government,” President Eisenhower said on the eve of leaving office, “we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex,” He further warned that, “Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”
The extent to which General Eisenhower’s warnings fell on deaf ears is by now obvious. Meanwhile, the Founders’ concept of the right to bear arms has metastasized into an absolute right to private armaments. The American national character now rests secure in its confidence that it has a big enough stick to forever defend its libertarian version of individual freedoms — including the freedoms of the marketplace — against all opposing beliefs, Communist or otherwise.
Militarism is evident in developments both expressly directed at the pandemic and coinciding with it, spanning both macro and micro responses from saber-rattling against Iran (against whom we apparently still we feel we have a score to settle), blame-shifting against China accompanied with rhetoric that has quickly escalated to the level of a new Cold War, Congress’s self-congratulatory passage of another record-setting new defense budget, and armed militias rallying against the lockdown and supporting protestors in their belligerent non-compliance.
In its Covid-19 response, America put its money where its mouth (ideology) is.
This ideological triumvirate is evident in the spending priorities of the USA’s legislative allocation of government speaking during the lockdown, as indicated in the following two graphs, which reveal that:
- The amount directed to business — mostly big business — was twice again as much as the defense budget;
- The amount directed to healthcare — during a pandemic — was least of all — half the amount directed to individuals;
- The 2020 defense budget approved during the lockdown was twice the size of the amount directed to individual citizens under the CARES relief act; and
- Meanwhile, defense spending dwarfs that of our seven nearest national “competitors.”
The Anatomy of the $2 Trillion COVID-19 Stimulus Bill
U.S. Defense Spending Compared to Other Countries
Character Over Time
“True character is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure,” screenwriting guru Robert McKee wrote, “the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character’s essential nature.”
Pressure of the magnitude brought on by the pandemic catches national response off guard. It freezes time, demands instant responses to unprecedented demands. Pretense falls off, values and priorities leap from foundational to forefront. There is no time for analysis or spin, only the unguarded release of words and actions in the pressing moment. The result is national character, fully revealed.
The way out of this dizzying spiral is to embrace the invitation to character transformation, which begins in the awareness that something essential to maintaining the status quo has been lost, life has irreversibly changed, an ending has been reached. Every ending requires a new beginning, every new beginning requires a vision for how to continue, and every vision for continuing requires the perspective of newly-transformed character. If there is going to be systemic change, character must be the one to make concessions. The nation’s policy-makers made no such concession in their Covid-19 response.
Response Without Transformation
We’ve spent a few years in this forum discovering the triumvirate’s development and contemporary dominance of government policy-making, which in turn has been supported by enough of the electorate to keep the system in place. Now, the pandemic has put our “more perfect union” under extraordinary stress.
Given the recent racial issues now dominating the headlines, it isn’t far-fetched to compare the pandemic’s moral and legal challenges to those of the Civil War. Today’s post won’t try to do that topic justice, but it’s interesting to note that slavery was a dominant economic force from before America became the United States, especially buttressing capitalist/entrepreneurial wealth generated in tobacco and cotton, and was both expressly and implicitly adopted as a social, economic, and national norm, — for example in the U.S. Constitution’s denying slaves the right to vote and providing that each slave would count as 3/5 of a resident for purposes of determining seats in the House of Representatives. These “primary causes” remained intact for the nation’s first several decades, until a variety of pressures forced a reconsideration and transformation. Those pressures included, for example, a bubble in the pre-Civil War slave market that made slaves themselves into a valuable equity holding to be bought and sold for profit — a practice particularly outrageous to Northerners.
The Covid-19 triumvirate is not Constitutionally recognized as slavery was, but clearly it is based on the current emphasis of certain aspects of the USA’s foundations to the exclusion of others. Many economists argue, for example, that the way out of the deepening pandemic economic depression is a return to a Keynesian-style massive governmental investment in public works and welfare — a strategy that even then was hugely controversial for the way it aggressively rebalanced the national character. The Covid-19 response, along with the military budget, makes no attempt at such a rebalancing — which, among other things, would require policy-makers to retreat from the common assumption that government support of the public good is Communism.
It took a Civil War and three Constitutional Amendments to remove nationalized slavery from the Constitution and begin the transformation of the nation’s character on the topic of race — a transformation which current events reveal is still sadly incomplete.
What would it take to similarly realign the national character in response to the pandemic?
 Since we’ve been discovering and examining these for several years in this forum, in this post I’m going to depart from my usual practice of quoting and citing sources. To do otherwise would have made this post far too redundant and far too long, If you want the backstory, I invite you to examine what has gone before..
 McKee, Robert, Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting (1997).
 See the analysis in Americana: A 400-Year History of American Capitalism, Bhu Srinivasan.(2017), and the author’s interview with the Wharton business school ,
Originally published at http://iconoclast.blog on June 4, 2020.