It’s all about the three strains in the American character. America was founded on the principle of rugged individualism, the pioneer spirit of self-reliance and “each according to his abilities.” That’s another way of saying that self-interest is woven into our national DNA.
That strain tends to narrow the prism through which individual Americans view the greater body politic, their position within it, and their responsibility to it.
There’s another strain, too—the one that came through Ellis Island along with all those carpetbags and valises containing the worldly possessions of European immigrants. These new Americans moved directly into the established neighborhoods of their ethnicity, where organizations existed to give them a start. Once they had their feet solidly planted on American soil, they in turn helped their later-arriving brethren succeed.
It burgeoned in religious and secular agricultural communities, where neighbors understood that raising a barn, for example, was not something that could be accomplished single-handed. Everyone knew that pitching in for everyone else was a matter of survival.
There has always been a tension between these competing strains in American politics, and we are seeing that tension manifested in the current negotiations over the “fiscal cliff.” But there is yet a third historic strain, the one that embraces compromise as the best way for the nation to move forward while continuing to respect the aspirations of all its citizens.
When we express our dismay at Congress’ inability to function effectively, we should remember that its individual members serve at our pleasure, and that they are acutely aware of that fact. It’s healthy in a democracy for there to be tension between the first and second strains that run through our national character. The hardest one for us to be generous with is the third, particularly when it’s most needed.