Monday, July 5, 2010

Need Help: Why Do Americans Hate Government So Much?

I've been trying to figure this out for a while and I'm hoping that maybe my readers will be able to help me out with finding an answer to this question. Why do the American people react to the mere word (let alone the concept) "government" with such a degree of hysteria? Even societies who were victimized by totalitarian regimes that claimed millions of victims don't hate the idea of government quite as much. Given that the US has never had and is not very likely to have a strong government any time soon, the American fear of a completely nonexistent strong government seems to be schizoid in nature.

In Framing the Sixties, Bernard von Bothmer offers an explanation that is as shallow as the rest of his book. According to him, the US government messed things so bad in Vietnam that every American government since then has had to live in the shadow of a deep-seated popular mistrust.

This argument sounds pretty unconvincing but I find it hard to provide an answer of my own. Is it the legacy of the Cold War? Is it some kind of a cultural phenomenon? I don't think that the usual suspect which is the "Anglo-Saxon individualism" works in this case. Great Britain doesn't seem to have it nearly as bad as the US. I hope the readers of this blog will provide their own explanations for this strange phenomenon.

19 comments:

Melissa said...

I think it might just be a function of the self-centeredness our country breeds. Americans tend to not only believe that we're the best country in the world, but they also tend to be pretty unaware that any other countries even exist, at least in any real way. (I'm sure you've seen that kind of attitude a lot.) We're brought up from the beginning (ESPECIALLY white people, who tend to be the ones railing against government anyway) being told that we (as a country) are THE best, we're IT, and that we (as citizens) can and will have everything we want--that we, in fact, have a God-given "right" to everything we want. When people who've grown up believing that have to submit to any kind of taxation, government regulation, or just plain following those pesky little laws, they become pretty indignant.

Steve Hayes said...

They seem to hate government of the party they don't support. It's still strange, though, considering that no matter which party is in power, little changes. Two years after "cahnge you can believe in", American soldiers are still in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Pagan Topologist said...

I was a Vietnam war protester, and I would find the von Bothmer argument convincing, except that I think the anti government attitude dates back to the late 1950's, before the Vietnam war. JFK tried to alter it, and succeeded to some extent with, for example, the pledge to send a man to the moon and return him safely to Earth.

Clarissa said...

"When people who've grown up believing that have to submit to any kind of taxation, government regulation, or just plain following those pesky little laws, they become pretty indignant."

-I think this is definitely a huge part of what is going on. Thank you for this very insightful observation.

Clarissa said...

" I think the anti government attitude dates back to the late 1950's"

-Do you have any idea why it started to arise? There must have been some powerful reasons to bring it into existence at that point in time.

Anonymous said...

I think what started it was the Civil Rights movement and the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Almost all of Americans' (unwarranted and frankly crazy) distrust of government springs from that time.

Almost all of this distrust is from whites, and most of it -- like a lot of politics in this country -- is racially based.

If you haven't read it, Rick Perlstein's Nixonland covers related territory.

Reaction to traditional WASP privilege being removed by government fiat explains 95% of the crazy politics in this country.


-Mike

Anonymous said...

I think this tendency began a lot earlier, with the frontier mythology of a self-reliant, lonely, courageous individual who carves out an existence through his own strength, cunning and intelligence.

If your foundational myth is based on self-reliance and rejection of any kind of authority, eventually this is what you get.

geo said...

In the early 1960's, when I entered my teenage years, we had a somewhat stifling, conformist culture where Anti-Communism in many ways was the single unifying cause.

The Vietnam War helped tear that apart. The week after Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot (during the same period) was in some ways the "end of liberalism" (not that it was that "liberal") and the beginning of increasing Wars for the Hearts of many of us - between forces of reaction and various things more towards the middle and left.

Campaign Finance Reform related issues certainly have helped keep us separated from each other and our Government.

On a far, far simpler level, we don't listen to each other and work through issues - from gender, race, economic issues to "simple" things like education and health care.

Does it help that Our Government lies to us and can't see the Trees - even Obama today with his buddy from Israel (I could only imagine the storm that would happen if similar treatment went to Abbas).

We have a History - Banana Republics through Afghanistan and Iraq today - and can't see how what we did in Iran in the 1950's-1970's somehow isn't ignored when we act similarly today.

At the same time we seek our answers from TV and idiots like Rush L - who know how to play on our fears.

Excuse my ranting..... Thanks!

Clarissa said...

No need to excuse yourself, Geo, I agree with every word you say.

profacero said...

Fascinating responses, and good. I'd add that Reagan, in his presidential campaigns and presidency, did a lot to bolster this. I can remember that sales job and its effectiveness really well.

What I don't understand is why Americans think large corporations can do no wrong.

geo said...

profacero - I think that "why Americans think large corporations can do no wrong" - is part of a larger issue.

I think that oft times USian people look at things in a way that is unrealistic at best. We say: "In 5-10 years I'll be doing much better than I'm doing now and Then these tax laws will really help me, though they aren't helping me now" and similar (usually) garbage.

We fail to look deep(er) into things and see how we're getting the shaft when we are.

Because we don't vote "our interests" and don't push for things with serious commitment and depth, we are stuck either accepting corporate propaganda and similar or we sedate ourselves and get caught up in "drugs" whether real or tv escapism or similar. Either way things rarely change much for the better. Thanks!

Pagan Topologist said...

I have been thinking of your question since you asked it, and I am coming to suspect that it may indeed be racially based. I was born in 1944, so I was a child in the late 1950's. When I was a small child, there was a lot of pro-government sentiment. The government had won the second world war, and the GI bill of rights let to a strong economy when everyone expected another recession or depression.

But, in Tennessee, a lot of (white) people were resentful of Brown vs. Board of Education. I was not consciously aware of this at the time, but in the place I grew up, I think this may have been the beginning of the anti-government sentiment that I saw. The Vietnam war exacerbated it.

NancyP said...

Racism.

That's the #1 motivation behind anti-government sentiment. "How dare the government help people who don't look like me?" You will notice that the Teabaggers are happy to receive Social Security, happy to drive on public roads, happy to have cheaper health care via Medicare, just A-OK with government subsidy of all sorts of businesses, and happily take federal tax deductions for their house mortgage (this deduction is not seen in Canada, U.K, etc).

Heaven forbid some poor person has access to basic health care in a dignified setting.

The current conservative screech-a-thon is over the Justice Department challenge of the Arizona "breathing while brown" law, and specifically, the nature of the challenge. The Justice Department claims that immigration falls under federal jurisdiction, and that state and local police have minimal, if any, role in enforcing immigration law.

Arizona is asserting "States' Rights", and the "States' Rights" argument has been and is the major one used to defend racially discriminatory laws. Arizona has a long history of racism.

Iris said...

I must agree with the other comments listing racism or more specifically attempts to eradicate racism on a personal everyday level as the main cause of hatred of our government. I think this refusal to turn its back on racism offended some (most?) white people on a deep visceral level. After all, our government supported racism in the military throughout world war 2. 20 years later, it was forcing integration. I would imagine some felt a sense of betrayal and that hurt has turned into anger.

Currently, I live in a state that 46 years after the civil rights act is still infested with die hard racists. And the 2 states I lived in before this one were infested. I know this because although I am 3/4 northern european, my basque heritage is stamped on my skin and features.

I've just found your blog, Clarissa, and I find your writings thought provoking and witty. Honestly, I'm looking forward to reading all your archives.

Cheers
Iris

geo said...

Iris - you are 100% correct about the Importance of Racism!

I guess that Related to this, I'd wonder how many of us really question things by Listening to at least one other Person at a Deep Level - who seemingly faces - "more potential oppressions" than we do as individuals.

How often do us Men - listen to Women?
How often do us Whites listen to People of Color?
How often do us Hetish Folks listen to Gay/Bi and Transgender People?

Racism seems Key here - Yes! Where we get hung up on Sexism (alone) or Gay-Lesbian-Transgender issues (alone)- usually our Racism interferes with much more here.

For me personally it's been difficult and fascinating being partnered (lovingly) with a Black, Bi-sexual, Large Bodied, Assertive Woman.

I thought I knew a lot more before! I continually learn how little I know as I try to Grow.

I think that it's much easier for all of us to "live comfortably" at a distance from these issues, even when we seemingly face them in our personal lives and work.

Thanks!

Iris said...

"I think that it's much easier for all of us to "live comfortably" at a distance from these issues, even when we seemingly face them in our personal lives and work."

A very profound statement, Geo.

It's hard to understand the concerns of others when we seldom understand ourselves. If we can't understand ourselves then how can we understand much of today's hatred of the government is in fact because President Obama is black.

Sure, W. is a bigot, with the leadership capability of a toddler and a sanctimonious little poop head; and people disapproved of him across the board. But all of this sheer nastiness was nowhere in evidence when he held the office of president.

W. - in a mere 8 years - flung us into debt we may never see the end of, decimated Iraq's infrastructure, gave his cronies military contracts that are bleeding us dry, alienated most (all?) of the world from us, started corporate welfare, etc. and no one called for an end to our government.

President Obama is charming, well-educated, bipartisan, a great negotiator and a shining example of a leader ('tho he's still a politician.)

Every day I hear ignorant people lay all of our nation's problems at his feet. Is it something in the water?

Cheers
Iris

Clarissa said...

"W. - in a mere 8 years - flung us into debt we may never see the end of, decimated Iraq's infrastructure, gave his cronies military contracts that are bleeding us dry, alienated most (all?) of the world from us, started corporate welfare, etc. and no one called for an end to our government."

-Exactly! And the most ridiculous thing is that now Obama gets blamed for all those things. I keep asking the Tea Partiers that I meet online whether they remember who it was that gave out the first humongous bailout and pushed it through congress like a raging bull on crack, who it was that created this economic crisis, who spent billions on needless wars. To which they always respond that it's time to forget events of distant past. This historic forgetfulness is truly orwellian.

Iris said...

"To which they always respond that it's time to forget events of distant past. This historic forgetfulness is truly orwellian. "

It truly makes my brain ache. I have an acquaintance who confided in me she voted for Obama and asked me not to tell anyone because her republican friends would severely disapprove.

Last time I spoke with her, she told me Obama was "my president" because she had not voted for him.

When I asked her if she had lied before or was lying now - well - I don't think she'll be calling me again.

Bless her heart. It must have been that "historic forgetfulness."

Cheers

profacero said...

Upthread: the racism, yes. Being anti-government is code for what isn't polite to say.