Dateline: March 31, 2018
By Helena Dearnell
The last elections have proved that the US is deeply divided and this division is causing tempers to run high, demonstrating that extreme tribal identification can lead to irrational behaviors. Much of the media blames events in the recent past for this division, but I think it is better to look further back to the founding of the country and how this has affected the divisions we see today. The divisions have an economic, class, and cultural sub-current that has been neglected by the press. In my opinion, though race plays a big role in the tribal identification, the class and economic divisions within the white community better explain the recent election results and aftermath. The division inside the white American tribe has been present since the arrival of the Europeans to American shores and it has been exacerbated during periods of extreme economic inequality. The resulting disenfranchisement divides the country into halves and causes the political rifts that diminish the democratic process.
Most people would agree that religious freedom is at the basis of the beginning of America. The most prominent example is the Puritans, who created the backdrop for America’s religious and cultural evolution. According to Max Weber, the Calvinist basis of the Puritans made them value material success in what he called a “worldly asceticism.” The Puritans in the New World had a strong sense of obligation and charity towards others, following the divine covenant that was the basis of their social contract. John Winthrop, the leader of the Puritans believed that God favored inequality because it was a way to allow believers from different social standings to show their justice and mercy. However, this type of belief quickly morphed into the Money Cult. Chris Lehman, the author of the book of the same name, shows how religion in the US was transformed from its Puritanical ideas of a social contract that balanced material rewards with charity, to an individualistic cult of the market and profits that precludes any social responsibility. This Money Cult has been incorporated into American culture and has promoted inequality with a disregard for the well-being of society. This in turn has perpetuated the division of the white tribes that we see now.
American history usually touts the beginning of America as an equal society in which people were free to pursue their new lives. It is useful to remember that most of the colonies, except Georgia, were created by an English Royal Charter that usually gave the title to a few rich people. In the South, the entire colony of Virginia was given to one person and the charter of the Carolina’s was given to 8 people. The constitution of the Carolinas was written by philosopher John Locke. In it, he made sure that the institution of slavery was protected and that land distribution was based on a class hierarchy. In the North, the ownership of land was also concentrated in a few hands in urban centers. The lucky few quickly formed elites by intermarriage and unfair commercial practices that kept the majority of poor whites out. Big landowners in the South required slaves and this, plus the concentration of land in a few hands, made it difficult for poor white arrivals to find jobs or buy land. Many Europeans came to the US as indentured servants and they had to sign contracts with obligations to work for 5 to 7 years in order to pay for their trip to America. After they were released, they became tenant farmers at best, with contracts that benefitted their master unfairly. This unfair land distribution didn’t give a fair chance to most white immigrants and this is why, as history shows, they often joined forces with the black slaves to fight against unfairness and inequality. Once elites saw them coming together, they felt panic at the prospect of a united front and tried to give a better chance to some poor whites, hoping to cause division between whites and blacks.
In order to understand how the tribes in America divided not only along racial lines, but also within racial lines, it helps to bring back to mind the intense obsession with pedigree and good breeding that characterizes most of American history. In America there was no nobility, but the people still insisted on creating distinctions. This constant preoccupation created two types of whites, the correct ones, mostly elites from the North and South, and what they called the waste people. The term ‘waste people’ was the name applied in England to the immigrants for the Americas. The New World wasn’t seen as a place of opportunity as we see it today; it was a place for the disposal of undesirables in the society. The poor European arrivals were seen as inferior by the elites in both North and South. During the Enlightenment, the cultured elites were avid readers of Oliver Goldsmith’s History of the Earth and Animated nature. One of the premises of the book was the idea that racial traits correlated with geographical areas. Europeans were superior to the rest because Europe had a civilized pleasant geography, but people who lived in jungles, bogs or deserts were considered inferior. In the US, these ideas were used not only to discriminate against blacks and American Indians, but poor whites too. Poor whites were not considered of the same race as the ‘right whites’, because their poverty forced them to live in wild or unfavorable areas. Later In the 19th Century, the preoccupation with breeding led many otherwise educated people to advocate for eugenics and similar practices created to deter the procreation of the wrong whites. This perception of tribal differences within the same race, helped to create the cultural differences and rifts that have been handed down for generations, and that cause the dislikes and scapegoating that we have seen during and after the 2016 election.
The idea that America began as a classless society started with a misconception about the American Revolution. It was a revolution against the monarchic rule and a stale aristocratic system, but remained silent about the question of inequality, class and slavery. In his book Common Sense, Thomas Paine expressed it well, by ranting passionately against the British monarchy, but avoided the inconvenient issue of class and inequality. The majority of the revolutionaries were Northern and urban men who belonged to a wealthy merchant class. The British new tax impositions were detrimental to the profits of these urban elites, but not to the majority of poor whites, black slaves and American Indians. For them, the freedom from the British didn’t bring any positive change; many became even poorer and more vulnerable after independence. What mattered to the revolutionaries was freedom from the British, not real freedom for all. They wanted to stay at the top of the societal pyramid, while keeping the unequal societal structure and slavery intact Their values spoke of freedom, equality and fraternity, but their reality was based on free trade and the market, showing their Money Cult allegiances.
Poor white people were forced to follow a cycle that was started in England. Britain solved the poverty problem by sending the poor to the US. In the Eastern US, the land was concentrated in a few hands in a short time. The solution for poverty in the East was the same as in Britain: poor whites were moved towards the West, displacing Indian populations in turn. Once the white poor had cleared the area of weeds and American Indians, the rich land speculators came and displaced them further West. The cleared pacified land was then turned into big estates for high pedigree whites. When the Pacific was reached, the cycle continued in a modified way, reserving the best lands for the ‘right whites’ with the creation of suburban complexes where the poor whites and blacks were not welcome.
The educational level also became a creator of difference between the tribes based on class. The Northeast had an urban culture that valued learning and this prompted the creation of many colleges. There were more colleges in New England in the late 17th century than in England. The South lagged because big landowners saw education for slaves as a threat and didn’t feel the need to educate poor whites either. In order to keep the unjust social order, illiteracy was a big help. As America was filled with people, the education system continued discriminating against working-class whites and blacks by using property taxes as a basis for education spending. This unfair practice left them eternally lagging and created a big cultural difference between North and South, urban and rural, a division that continues to today.
After the Civil War, there was an effort to bring education to the South and this was furthered during Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and then Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. The 20th century had the first real concerted efforts at treating the working class poor whites and the blacks as part of one country, deserving of education and improvement. The 1950s was a time of plenty, a rising tide that managed to lift many more boats than ever in US history.
Unfortunately, Roosevelt’s New Deal provoked an intensely adverse reaction among the rich. Their insistence on not letting their profits diminish by one cent prompted them to dedicate many of their efforts to undo what Roosevelt and his successors had done to redress many wrongs in US history. Reagan began the undoing of the social programs designed to create more equality of opportunity and this trend continued with all subsequent presidencies, each one eroding one by one the progress that had been made during the first part of the Twentieth century. The party affiliation of the president has mattered only slightly, the erosion has continued, the only difference between parties is in the rhetoric that accompanies the undoing.
The tribal discrimination based on class and education is still very present in America. The angry reaction to the results of the recent election showed that the disdain for working-class whites, and their resentment in return, is as alive today as it was at the beginning of America. The New York Times has interesting statistics about the 2016 election results and the most revealing ones measured the perception of the economy and the prospects for the future relative to how people voted. From them, it is easy to deduce that based on their economic reality, half of the country saw the economy as doing very well and the other perceived the issue in the completely opposite way. The people who saw everything rosy had good paying jobs and they saw no reason to demand a change. The other people lived a very different reality and the need for a big change seemed essential to them. This difference in reality and perception created a further rift between the tribes of whites.
The privileged whites and the mainstream discourse have bypassed the fact that a concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands has created a rentier economy that is more interested in using their wealth to pump up the stock market than in investing in job creation and wage improvement. This in turn has been leaving more and more people lagging economically. The 2008 economic crisis was produced by the extreme money cult greed in which the well-being of the community was once again completely forgotten. To make things worse, the solution to the crisis benefited the same few who caused the crisis and left the most vulnerable in a worse situation. This allowed for wealth concentration to continue as though nothing had happened and for the economy to continue on its selfish course. As a result, there is an increasing number of working people whose wages have stagnated for decades, while decent paying jobs with benefits are very hard to find. These people who have been left behind once again tend to be lumped together as the ‘incorrect whites’, incorrect because they are usually seen by the mainstream as uneducated, lazy, racist, crass, ignorant and misogynist. The “correct whites” are the opposite; they understand the idea of meritocracy and tend to dismiss the poor whites as too stupid to even know what is good for themselves. A big part of this division is cultural and it became the casus belli for a demonization of people who didn’t vote for the correct club in the recent election.
The division in the country is causing problems with the functioning of the democratic system. In order to solve this state of affairs we should try to resist excessive tribal identification which only makes the division worse. As a social animal, we evolved to be loyal to our tribe, the more threatened we feel, the more we defend it; even when there is no rational basis for this defense. Understanding the historical reasons for the difference between the tribes can help us to perceive the opposite tribe as less threatening and therefore reduce the animosity towards it. A reduction of inequality is also essential, since its increase tends to provoke more division. For this it is useful to acknowledge how the money cult has transfused the American culture and allowed the influence of big money in the functioning of both political parties. The election showed that party affiliation coincides with tribal divisions, but we are so focused on those divisions that we forget the existence of a more powerful tribe that is more dangerous to the wellbeing of both tribes: the tribe that bypasses democracy and uses their wealth to overly influence politics. The real question is not about choosing between one party or the other, but between a fairer society for all or the political system controlled by corporations that we have at present. Critical thinking is essential in order to better assess the situation and to acknowledge the distortive effect of the money cult in our culture.
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Helena Dearnell spent her early life in Colombia and studied Civil Engineering at Los Andes University. She then decided to explore the world and went to live in Paris, where she studied painting. She has lived in New York and Paris at different times in her life and says this has helped her to understand the European and the American perspectives. She finds this very useful for critical thinking and questioning the status quo.