By John Rolfe / Red Hook, N.Y.
For years I’ve heard conservative commentators and politicians decrying the loss of “our American way of life.” Curious as to exactly what that is, I’ve done a little reading and thinking.
The basic consensus is that the term, popularized in the 1930s, is the American nationalist ethos that embraces the principle of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as an integral part of our personal and national identities. I agree with Lawrence R. Samuel, author of The American Way of Life: A Cultural History, who pointed out in Psychology Today in 2020 that the concept is open to interpretation, means many things to many people, and is constantly mutating:
“It has also functioned as a useful and powerful device for anyone wishing to promote a particular agenda that serves his or her interests. A consumerist lifestyle supported by a system based in free enterprise has been the ideological backbone of the American Way of Life, but the term has been attached to everything from farming to baseball to barbecue. There really is no single, identifiable American Way of Life and there never has been, making it a kind of Zelig of belief systems and a highly contested site (much like its ideological kin, the American Dream).”
I was raised by my parents and teachers in the 1960s and ’70s to believe the American way of life meant the freedom to pursue your dreams and ambitions, achieve them via hard, honest work, earn some dough (or make a whole heck of a lot of it by starting a business or investing in the stock market), buy and own a house, drive a nice car or two, raise 2.33 children (or whatever the national average happened to be) and worship (or not) as you wished.
I also couldn’t help but notice that many people embraced the belief that wealth and fame were considered the true measures of success and personal worth.
All of those things are certainly still achievable if somewhat more challenging than they once were for most Americans, and that’s due to a host of factors.
Liberals point the finger at capitalist exploitation of workers, which has led to an ever-widening chasm between the megarich (aka the one percent) and the middle and lower classes. They also cite right-wing efforts to limit or exclude particular minorities (people of color, LGBTQ) from the main paths to prosperity and security.
Conservatives tend to blame the current difficulties in achieving the American dream on government over-regulation of free enterprise and taxation for the sake of social spending. (In their eyes, an unfettered free market cures all ills.) They also see American culture as an integral part of that dream and say it’s being destroyed by liberal demands for enforced racial diversity and inclusion, an abandonment of established moral norms regarding sexuality, abortion, drug use, and adherence to organized religion (mainly Christianity), as well as restrictions of constitutional rights such as gun ownership.
During my lifetime (nearly 65 years), the biggest factor I’ve seen in all the unsettling change in our lives, how we live, and the world as a whole, is the impact of technology and social media on community bonds, culture and the economy.
It seems to me that many people across the political spectrum aren’t doing what they need to do in order to succeed in complex, ever-changing and challenging conditions. They could still achieve financial and emotional security by adopting a live-and-let-live attitude and making sacrifices to stay out of debt and gain more freedom of mobility and protection from costly setbacks such as job loss and illness. Instead, they devote more time and effort trying to return to an idealized era when life was supposedly simpler, easier and more homogenized.
How to achieve the American Dream is at the heart of our most heated political conflicts, and has been since the 1936 battle for the presidency between Republican Alf Landon and Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt. Each party has since claimed to be the champion of the true “American Way.” Generally speaking, Republicans/conservatives see it as something that has been lost while Democrats/liberals see it as a goal.
Given that our society is now extremely polarized, I roll my eyes whenever I hear politicians and pundits make blanket statements about what “the American people” want. We want different things, often vehemently so. Polls that claim most Americans feel the country is on the wrong track are essentially meaningless because there is no universal agreement on what the right track is.
Thomas D. Klingenstein, writing for the conservative think-tank Claremont Institute’s The American Mind stated in May 2020 that the American way should be a strategy for creating conditions that are conducive to the American Dream.
“President Trump gets this,” Klingenstein wrote. “He has a mission: ‘Make America Great Again.’ That’s his mountain top. He keeps his eye on it, and he recognizes that the new circumstances of the moment require a route which does not conform to traditional Republican norms.”
In one of his more revealing but chilling (in light of Trump’s effort to overturn the 2020 election) passages, Klingenstein insists that “freedom” and “limited government” are not enough.
“Often, Republicans describe their mission as ‘freedom,’” he wrote. “But the word ‘freedom’ (used in its everyday sense) does not give us any guidance as to when freedom must be restricted, as it often must.”
So Republicans complain that their freedoms (unlimited speech and gun ownership; the right to discriminate on religious grounds) are being restricted while they seek to restrict the freedoms of others via bans on abortion, books and speech (particularly in classrooms) that explicitly examine America’s racial, sexual and gender issues, and the rights of the LGBTQ community to marry or receive certain kinds of medical care.
One can easily see why authoritarianism has become so attractive to conservatives, not only here in the U.S. but in all countries seeking to maintain a monochromatic culture and way of life. It is the simplest way of imposing their vision on others. Democracy does not ensure that kind of absolutism.
For that reason, I am not comforted or inspired by the American flags I now see everywhere. I feel threatened because I don’t know what vision of America they are representing. The nation that is inclusive, welcoming, compassionate, generous and innovative? Or the vision of the so-called “patriots” who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, one where my views are going to get me a bullet in the head, as a right-wing co-worker informed me two years ago?
If a kind of red-white-and-blue cookie cutter society is the goal, it’s no wonder that immigration (legal and otherwise) and the liberal/progressive vision of America are considered existential threats. One left- wing essay I came upon while trawling the Net noted that the American way is “an idealized way of life based on the attractiveness of the United States, the capacity for progress and the exceptional qualities of its population” as well as the belief that the future will provide better conditions as long as we work for them.
I can’t help shaking the notion that the initial attractiveness of America was that it was (and to a large extent still is) seen by many as a place where life could be lived with maximum freedom, especially to accumulate wealth with little or no concern for the larger community.
The wish of many seems to be every man for himself, and if making billions of dollars while others suffer from your efforts makes you happy, well, then, their suffering is not your problem. It is theirs to solve by themselves. The cultural norms were established by those who first built this wonderland and profited most from it (predominantly white Christians) and the challenges to those norms are still being bitterly contested.
The American way of life is not only a matter of competing interpretations, it is the battleground of past vs. future. That is what the upcoming elections in a month and in 2024 are really all about: the soul of the nation and what kind of place it will be for those of us who live here.
John Rolfe is a former senior editor for Sports Illustrated for Kids, a longtime columnist for the Poughkeepsie Journal/USA Today Network, and author of The Goose in the Bathroom: Stirring Tales of Family Life. His school bus drivin’ blog “Hellions, Mayhem and Brake Failure” is parked on his website Celestialchuckle.com (https://celestialchuckle.com) with the meter running.