U.S. Government Shutdown: A Cultural Perspective

As you have likely heard, the U.S. federal government shut-down has ended. And as expected, plenty of news space is now dedicated to analyzing the political winners and losers. Rather than rehash all that, I’d like to examine the event from a cultural perspective, using mainstream U.S. culture as a framework for understanding some of the value-driven motivations of those who orchestrated and worked through the standoff.

First, a few notes on culture:

Mainstream U.S. culture is what it sounds like – the primary flow of what the majority of people value, how they experience events, what they expect, the behaviors they deem appropriate, etc. These values express ideals about the way we think the world should be, and are generalizations, meaning that compared to other cultures, these values describe us. It does not mean that every person in the U.S. feels exactly the same way.

U.S. Values

  • Individualism

Our value of individualism means that we uphold the individual above society. We emphasize personal success, personal responsibility, a personal work ethic, and, for many, a personal relationship with God. This isn’t just selfishness, but a survival skill. *As immigrants arrived at Ellis Island and then moved West, there was a sense that it really was “every man for himself.” This value is deeply rooted and underpins much of our worldviews like American Exceptionalism, our willingness to “go it alone” in Iraq, and our innate sense of esteem that there is nothing we can’t achieve if we just put our minds to it.

Thus, it is no surprise that individualism was present during the shutdown. It certainly informs the views of those who chafe against the government forcing them to buy health insurance. Likewise, there is a camp who views the legislation as proof that big government is creating (perhaps intentionally) a generation of citizens who lack independence. In the eyes of those who see individualism as the foundation upon which our entire society is built, the Affordable Care Act imperils the very soul and survival of the nation.

Those who favored expanding health insurance coverage also used individualism to buttress their arguments. They labeled it an individual “right” and pointed out ways in which they thought it would help individuals to be more mobile, entrepreneurial, and creative in their professional pursuits. A viral campaign in social media featured individuals holding up signs listing their outrageous medical bills and what it had done to their livelihoods.

The resulting law was imperfect, as was the budget, but once entrenched in the shutdown, individualism was the lens through which the problem and solution were viewed. Stories about how the shutdown affected individual travelers, patients, and workers filled the headlines. And, the public searched for individual “voices of reason” who could slice through the acrimony and, like John Wayne, take the reigns and get the job done.

  • Egalitarianism

One of our country’s strongest values is that everyone is created equal. This has informed populist movements which pit the “everyman” folk hero and his “salt-of-the-earth” “common sense” against the know-it-all elites with their fancy pants “book knowledge.” This David vs. Goliath trope has played out in our history from Andrew Jackson’s presidency to the Occupy Movement. Lately it has appealed to those who feel alienated by our changing demographics and globalized economy by offering a narrative in which they are both the victims of an unfair system and the champions of real America. For a certain section of the US, egalitarianism is why the government should not fiddle with health care; by their logic, the heavy handed, hierarchical and bureaucratic hand of government would intrude upon the folksy man-to-man relationship they imagine themselves having with their country doctor. (The fact that health care is a bureaucracy in its own right doesn’t factor in to this group’s thinking). Those in favor of the Affordable Care Act also appeal to egalitarianism by saying that it is simply not fair, when we are all equal as human beings and as citizens under the law, for some people to have luxurious health care plans while others are left to rot in the dust.

  • Control of the environment/control of one’s destiny

Merging these two values, we can go deeper and see that, according to the mainstream U.S. perspective, what you make of your equality – through your independent action – is entirely up to you. Since we believe we have equal chances and that the only variable is our individual choice, one of the ways that we are judged is by our character. Those who pushed for the shutdown  were consciously demonstrating their principles, no matter how futile their quest. It was never about winning, but about being seen as a rugged individual “taking a stand.” Despite the anger now directed toward them by the moderate Republicans and Democrats, they can tell their local districts back home that they “fought the good fight.”

Lest it seem that this is something only done on the Right, it should be noted that when social justice advocates and liberals do it, we call it “speaking truth to power.” The left was electrified by one of then-Senator Obama’s speeches against the War in Iraq, and has probably been most disappointed by the presidents’ inability to translate that community organizer spirit into tangible political gains. As a nation, we remain enthralled by examples of individualism and egalitarianism combined, whether in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous speech or in Ronald Regan’s words to Mikhail Gorbachev. We all long for a leader who will lead us through the wilderness. The aims of both sides may conflict, but their efforts are informed by similar values.

  • Practicality

A fourth critical value shaping how Americans see the world is practicality. Quite simply, we like concrete things that work, which are much preferred over theoretical ideas. (Many people’s main argument against socialism, which they confuse with communism, is that “it doesn’t work”). We also strive to improve things that don’t work, and have dedicated a lot of time as a society on implementing solutions. From our NTSB crash investigations to fire codes to Silicon Valley’s desire to “disrupt” outdated modes of operation, we are generally interested in fixing and perfecting the products and institutions in our lives.Those in favor of the Affordable Care Act point out that our health care system is broken, and needs to be fixed. Yet on the other side, opponents reject this law because they are afraid it will take a semi-functioning system and make it worse. The value is the same, but the perception of what is broken and what needs fixing is very different.

Practicality also influences the way that the public views the shutdown. When people lose their livelihoods because of an avoidable problem, our blood boils. And, since most people in the U.S. don’t follow politics all that closely, what with the mess of daily living, they don’t necessarily have the energy to worry about who started it or whose fault it is. Just like a parent who is tired of hearing their kids tattle and bicker, many Americans have dulled their senses to the history that brought us to the brink. They simply want it to stop.

From this view, the biggest blow to the Tea Party is that it is fundamentally impractical. Its members rant about their myriad complaints, which are less about policy and more about a changing world. The fact that this isn’t a fatal blow speaks to the power of individualism and egalitarianism, along with the aforementioned desire to control the environment, which they do through their spokesperson Rush Limbaugh and shadowy sources of funding.

More to the point, the moderate wing of the Republican Party and the Democrats continue to flounder in the pragmatism category. And, unlike the Tea Party, they don’t have the individualism factor playing in their favor (since the Tea Party portrays them as callow, spineless bureaucrats letting America go to hell in a handbasket). They also don’t have the egalitarian value helping them out, since they both have a fair number of political, if not economic “elites” in their ranks. As the Tea Party plays it, the rest of Congress is literally “the establishment.” In this view, the government IS Goliath.

And so the moderate and leftists’ best bet is to at least be competent, which they are, it’s fair to say, not very. If they dodge the blame for driving us to the brink, they receive full blame for not bringing us back sooner. It’s no coincidence that the words used to describe Washington are “broken” and “dysfunctional.” People may not like either party, but they decry the ineptitude and total breakdown which, besides being self-inflicted, threatens the rest of our abilities to function. Thus just as the shutdown is rooted in our individualism and egalitarianism, the public’s reaction is an outgrowth of the value we place on pragmatism.

Conclusion

When outsiders marvel that this couldn’t happen anywhere else in this fashion, they’re right. These U.S. cultural values framed the events, and it is through these them that the shutdown can be best understood.

*If you noticed that this view of the U.S. leaves out a lot of people and their experiences (Native Americans, African Americans, and more recent immigrants, not to mention people of different abilities and other groups), you’d be right. But that’s for a different post.

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