Throughout South Carolina’s history, there has been a streak of independence that morphed into an ingrained hard-headed reactionary reflex. It’s not uncommon for people on either side of the aisle — and people who don’t even care about politics — to react in one similar way: “Don’t tell me what to do.”
You can see it in the life of slave-holding patriot Christopher Gadsden before the Revolutionary War as he gathered like-minded people under an oak tree outside Charleston’s walled city to talk about liberty. He later designed the “Don’t Tread on Me” coiled snake flag that was appropriated by the modern tea party movement.
You can see it today in zealous people who get red in the face when told they or their children need to wear masks to protect themselves and others from getting COVID-19. They don’t listen to reason; they instinctively react on emotion, misinformation and the old “don’t tell me what to do” attitude.
The difference between now and 250 years ago is that people then believed governments could actually do something. And they did. They organized the nation’s economic system, provided for the common defense, built infrastructure, invested in public works, education and people. In short, a strong government created America as the world’s powerhouse and innovator.
Now, however, Americans are too susceptible to a discourse so coarse, so charged, so unwieldy that politics often is dumbed down to a word or phrase of two. And the nation suffers.
Someone who may be for government programs to help people is just a “libtard” or a “socialist,” when, in fact, they’re not. Another who believes it’s important to rein in spending and maintain a moral backbone might be called a “right-wing nut” or “fascist” these days when, in fact, they might just believe in pinching pennies and following the teachings of the Bible.
For almost 50 years, political scientists — and the consultants who advise in our elections — have known something that most fail to believe — that Americans are relatively unsophisticated in how they approach discussions of policy and can be swayed pretty easily by manipulating language to charge political behavior. Hence, doctors who perform abortions are vilified as “baby killers” and abortion opponents are “right-to-life” nuts who hate women.
Jordan Ragusa, a political science professor at the College of Charleston, said the late Philip Converse described how most Americans have unstructured, unstable political views in a groundbreaking 1964 work, “The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics.”
“He found very few Americans have what we would describe as a meaningful belief system,” Ragusa said. “Instead, they had haphazard policy ideas that didn’t show any relationship with another.”
Part of the reason may be in the way we govern. Our founding fathers created a system of checks and balances with three branches of government that makes it tough for things to happen. Laws are passed with approval of two differing legislative chambers.
“You get a lot of watered-down compromises that govern our lives,” Ragusa noted.
But our democracy, which features a social safety net in things like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, a strong national defense, is balanced by a capitalistic drive and structure for economic independence.
“It’s great to debate the role of government, but it’s unrealistic to say there should be no government,” said Ragusa’s colleague, political scientist Gibbs Knotts of Charleston. “What do you want to do — pave your own road? That’s ridiculous.”
For too long in recent years, Americans have been hearing that government is a problem. It may not always provide the best solution, but it’s not an enemy. What we need today are Republicans and Democrats and independents who want to make it work, not just score points daily at everyone else’s expense.
Andy Brack is publisher of the Charleston City Paper. Have a comment? Send to: email@example.com.