Americans who don’t believe the United States is in the throes of a serious identity crisis just haven’t been paying attention.
We are deeply divided over what it means to be an American, and what sort of future we want for the nation. Those on the right perceive liberals to be akin to cowardly and snobbish world-order communists, while those on the left perceive conservatives to be fearmongering bigoted nationalist deplorables.
None of this is very helpful, and the divisions between us are being deepened and hardened by an increasingly partisan press, and by the pathetic rhetoric of unprincipled elected officials who represent the interests of those — and only those — who contribute heavily to their campaign coffers. All of which leaves a majority of Americans to conclude that our system of government has failed us miserably.
And, yes, this means that government is the problem. Yet, ironically, the only thing that can save us is better government.
What we must now do is drop the political stereotypes and stop the flow of divisive discourse, and focus on two very fundamental questions.
First, does there exist, way down deep, a set of values that a vast majority of Americans cherish and defend? If so, then there may be some hope. And, second, what are the policies (social, political, economic) that have the best chance for putting American values into practice?
If we can answer these questions, then maybe we will have a shot at a viable future. If not, then the nation is moribund.
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The first question is easily answered: What Americans value, above all else, is “Liberty and Justice for all.” What we really mean by liberty and justice (or, freedom and equality) is that we want everyone to be able to pursue interests that will result in personal fulfillment, and that we also want the level of social cooperation that will make this possible. It should be clear to everyone that we are doing a poor job of realizing these ideals.
Freedom to pursue happiness is always, in some measure, a matter of economic wherewithal, and the ever-widening gap between rich and poor in this country means that some people are much more free to pursue happiness than others. Our dismal failure to approach economic equality also means dismal failure in achieving personal freedom.
The signs are clear: We need to change our policies.
The second question is a bit trickier. On the matter of policies, we should consider taking a page or two from the Norwegian playbook. Norwegians, by the way, cherish liberty and justice every bit as much as Americans do, and their institutions are far more democratic than ours. They are, you might say, better at being Americans than we are.
Norwegians — more than we — have figured out that “freedom for” the pursuit of human fulfillment must begin with “freedom from” certain basic sources of anxiety.
Consider this: The three concerns about which most Americans feel anxiety and insecurity are health, education and retirement. We all want to be secure in knowing that if we get sick we will have access to affordable health care; we all want to be secure in knowing that our children will be well enough educated to enable their livelihood; and we all want to be secure in knowing that when our time comes we can relax with dignity.
It turns out that Norwegians are “free from” worry about these major concerns, leaving them “free for” the pursuit of happiness in all sorts of constructive ways.
Would it surprise most Americans to learn that the level of entrepreneurship in Norway greatly exceeds that of the United States? And can we ignore the fact that Scandinavians are consistently at the top of the international heap in surveys about happiness?
These facts about the Norwegian model of social organization are often dismissed because “they have the advantage of scale” or, “they pay too much in taxes.” Such misguided dismissals invariably come from those who have manipulated our government’s policies to their own advantage. But let us make no mistake: Norway’s policies work! And the result is that Norwegians are healthier, happier, more evenly prosperous, and enjoy more liberty than we.
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Just as Norway’s dominance in the 2018 Winter Olympics has attracted the attention of American coaches, so also Norway’s quality of life should attract the attention of American politicians.
President Donald Trump recently lamented that too many immigrants to America come from “shithole” countries. He favored welcoming more immigrants from countries such as Norway. When these remarks hit the news, Norwegians responded with scoffing: Who would leave Norway to go live in a shithole country like America?
Ouch! That really hurts; but it certainly tells us something.
• Loyal Rue is emeritus professor of philosophy and religion at Luther College in Decorah.