Let me get straight to the point: Americans’ profound distrust of government is neurotic -- irrational, defensive and born of emotional trauma.
That doesn’t mean I discount other sources of our disabling distrust of Washington. I believe the scholars who cite watershed events like Watergate and Vietnam as having undermined our belief in governing institutions.
But such recent-history rationales for our distrust don’t fully explain the emotional depth of our disaffection. They don’t properly take into account how these events triggered the anti-government strain already in our national DNA, in the same way that, say, environmental factors can trigger a genetic predisposition or a childhood trauma can create anxiety in an adult.
If Americans were to seek help for their neurosis, any good therapist would try to dig down to the root of the outsized distrust. Maybe he or she would let us beat around the bush for a few sessions. We’d recount incidents of government corruption, overreach. Then there was slavery, Jim Crow, internment camps and poorly planned wars. But eventually, we’d have to discuss our national birth trauma, our violent revolt against our “father,” King George III, which gave us our independence in the first place.
It’s no secret that the founders infused this mistrust into the design of our government, or that the Constitution was deliberately written to prevent another King George from trampling on our liberty again. Just pick up Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” to remind yourself that government is “but a necessary evil.”
Still, a legacy of articulate stances against tyranny doesn’t explain our anti-government emotionalism. Last week, members of the sprawling, fractious “tea party” movement gathered in Nashville. As with most naysayers, their fundamental conundrum is how to harness an essentially negative impulse into a positive, constructive force.
The movement’s very name has a lot to say about how emotional such discontent is. Think back to your grade school lessons about the Boston Tea Party and remember its carnivalesque aspects. The conspirators that night painted their faces and dressed up as Mohawk Indians. As University of Michigan historian Philip J. Deloria points out in his book, “Playing Indian,” the dress-up part of the party wasn’t only about masking identities; it was about exercising New World liberty, which would become a fundamental part of forging a new collective identity as Americans.
The Tea Party wasn’t the only instance in which colonial whites acted out in Indian disguise. To these revolutionaries, Deloria writes, “Indianness lay at the heart of American uniqueness.” Donning feathers and darkening their faces, they symbolically proclaimed their separation from the mother country. And what did they think the Indian costume meant to the representatives of King George? Unconstrained, even aboriginal, freedom.
That would be a breakthrough on a therapist’s couch. From the very beginning, to go with our legitimate fear of tyranny, we’ve idealized an end to all authority.
In a 1923 essay on U.S. literature, British novelist and poet D.H. Lawrence ridiculed the American fetishization of liberty as a source of perennial tantrums. “Somewhere deep in every American heart,” he wrote, “lies a rebellion against the old parenthood of Europe. Yet no American feels he has completely escaped its mastery.” To Americans, he went on, liberty means “the breaking of all dominion.”
In other words, the American passion for absolute liberty isn’t too far removed from heedless adolescent rebellion. The “tea party” faithful might as well be Marlon Brando in his black leather jacket in “The Wild One.” “What are you rebelling against,” a girl asks the smoldering Brando. “What’ve you got?” he replies.
So, yes, there are reasons to be suspicious of government, and yes, our yearning to be “masterless” has created a culture that sends adventurers on the open road and pioneers looking for the next frontier. But it’s also making it increasingly difficult for government to function.
I’m not unsympathetic to the argument that vigilance -- protest, activism, anger -- is the price of freedom. But with the national government in gridlock, I’m beginning to worry that our “don’t tread on me” birthright has a deeper and darker cost.
It’s not a matter of left or right. In my mind the only difference between 1960s leftist radicals and new millennium right-wing refuseniks is the length of their hair. They both have showed a desperate need to work through their issues with old King George.