No, America is not a conservative country. But we do have a racism problem.
by David Atkins
In case you haven't heard, France is embroiled in a big battle over gay marriage right now, with the fate of the law uncertain. Yes, many states in America are now to the left of largely secular, "socialist" France on this issue.
What is there to make of this? Simply the following: most of the U.S. is actually mostly on a par with Europe and Japan on most major social issues. We complain about some of our civil liberties protections being eroded, which is true--but the protections we are upset about are largely nonexistent in Europe, where the surveillance state is largely the norm. The U.S. is nearly alone in allowing direct birthright citizenship. Homeschooling and certain religions are banned in Germany. The hijab is banned in France.
Instead, what we see in the U.S. is three things: first, the lack of direct experience of domestic warfare that allows for an unchecked militarism untempered by the sobering experiences of Europe and Asia.
Second, the moneyed corruption of a winner-take-all system without publicly funded elections that creates economically conservative laws in spite of a fundamentally progressive populous. Americans want a stronger safety net and higher taxes on the wealthy. That we don't get them is more a product of the corruption of government than of our relative conservatism as a people.
But the biggest problem is the most controversial one, and I'm sure I'll get a lot of flack for saying it. We have a racism problem in this country, mostly localized to the South, but also prevalent in other rural, sparsely populated areas as well.
The United States has a unique relationship to race because of our history of slavery. After World War II, the nation was well on track to create social democracies and safety nets on par with other civilized nations. The one dirty secret, however, was the fact that minorities were not allowed in on the game.
When the Civil Rights era of the late 60s finally began to put an end to the de facto segregation and benefit differences, a huge segment of white America society began to freak out at government using their tax money to help people of color (and, to a lesser extent, women who wouldn't be dominated by men.) We're still living through--and barely crawling out of--the repercussions of that.
But that doesn't mean that America is a conservative country. If you took resentment of racial minorities off the table, Americans would be mostly as progressive as other nations. But racial resentments complexify and skew every political debate.
Most important, though, is the fact that there is no "conservative" or "liberal" America. There is rural/exurban white America, and then there's everyone else. If it were up to non-urban whites, Mitt Romney would have won nearly every state in the union.
On the other hand, if you had simply removed every state from the Old Confederacy and Mormon Triangle from the union beginning in 1930, American public policy would look pretty much on par with the rest of the civilized world.
I suppose one could say that this means that our struggle is deeply American, has always been with us and will always be with us. That's true in one sense. But in another very real sense, it also means that there is not and has never really been one America. There has been an uneasy peace between two Americas since the nation's founding, a peace in which one side and then the other has alternately found itself more in power.
Nixonland was very successful in returning the Lost Cause to glory, and allowing that other America to hold sway with a drawl, a twang and a cowboy swagger for some 50 years. But now the tide is turning--perhaps permanently--in the other direction. That's a good thing.
But under no circumstances has it ever been fair to say that America is a "conservative" country. Certain parts of it are, in certain very ugly ways for very ugly reasons. And those parts have been allowed to have undue sway for far too long, aided and abetted by a political system that is all too easily bought and corrupted by the interests of the militant and the wealthy.