Rethinking America

America and the Common Man: RIP?

When the “common man” dies, the United States of America that the world marveled at for 250 years dies with him.

Credit: Stas Walenga Shutterstock.com

Takeaways


  • The Common Man has lost the attention of America's elites.
  • America’s Common Man exists no more – gone and forgotten. Once he was lauded as the salt of the earth.
  • We are now a society where growing numbers recognize no external communal standard to appraise their conduct.
  • The new categorical imperative is to think of oneself alone whenever and wherever possible.

America’s Common Man exists no more – gone and forgotten. Once he was lauded as the salt of the earth.

He was the U.S.’s embodiment of what made us Americans special, attested to what made the great democratic experiment successful and the most potent symbol of what made of the United States the magnetic pole for the world’s masses.

A stunning disappearance act

While politicians paid their rhetorical respects, Aaron Copeland composed a “Fanfare to the Common Man” suite. It was an honorable term, an affective shorthand for the Working Man, the Artisan and the Shopkeeper, the clerk.

To add insult to the injury, they are politically marginalized by a party system that serves up a restricted menu of options which effectively disenfranchises 25% or so of voters.

The Common Man has lost the attention of the country’s elites. Today, to call a person common is an insult, just as we have degraded the term working class.

Natural selection

The connotations are heavily pejorative – they are deemed failures and losers. They may have had the American Dream within reach, but lacked the will and the spirit to grab it. It’s their own fault, following a process of natural selection.

This Victorian ethic grounded in Social Darwinism has now been restored as part of the national creed. Fitted out in the post-modern fancy dress of market fundamentalist economics, this beggar-thy-neighbor ideology dominates our public discourse.

All this is no accident. Powerful interests have orchestrated a relentless campaign for more than forty years to reconfigure American life in accord with their reactionary aims and principles.

Heartless America

The distressing truth of our times is that the Common Man has been abandoned by those elites – in politics, in government, in journalism, in professional associations, in academia.

Those elites care little, are preoccupied with their own careers and pastimes, possess only a feeble sense of social obligation, and are smugly complacent. Money is the common denominator in all of this.

But why? Simple, avarice and moral courage are not compatible human traits. The plutocratic structures that control our public affairs offer no relief to the vanishing common man.

Pervasive status anxiety

This is due to a crude political-economic calculus. At the heart of American carelessness is pervasive status anxiety. In a supposedly “grand” nation that is equipped only with a scant safety net, all layers of society struggle with status deprivation or status insecurity.

It always has been a hallmark of the United States that inherited class position has never been wholly secure and easily uprooted by the winds of a constant social shuffling.

That is a key reason why Americans have always been so consumed by an endless, open ended status competition. That generates anxiety since there is never enough positive status to go around.

Moreover, status is a finite commodity, as most are destined to find out to their surprise and frustration. The constant deepening of our narcissistic culture has not helped. It has only uprooted us even more.

We are now a society where growing numbers recognize no external communal standard to measure and appraise their conduct – or worth.

Godfather ethics

With all that heartlessness, America’s collective superego has shriveled. The new categorical imperative is to think of oneself alone whenever and wherever possible. To give priority to any other claim is taken as unnatural.

The Godfather’s self-serving plaint that “I did it for my family” is widely adopted as the elite’s all-purpose excuse American credo.

The idea to “let humanity be the ultimate measure of all that we do,” once viewed as enlightened social humanism during the second half of the twentieth century, is viewed as some self-destructive form of European socialism.

The days when an idea like this balanced and oriented us Americans is long gone.

This leads to temptations that further erode the U.S. social and political fabric. Why not trade in my senior government post, the rationale goes, for a lavish corporate life style?

In a country where notions of the collective good and of the public trust are now almost considered subversive, total emphasis on the individual enterprise is totally ok. Isn’t that what makes our country great?

Academia is similarly infested. Egregious examples abound: Why not be accomplice to torture when doing so opens a spot at the Pentagon trough for the American Psychological Association?

Why should a law school Dean or senior faculty stick his neck out when the Koch Bros are offering lush funding to establish Law & Economics programs that just happen to promote market fundamentalist principles?

Toward social degeneration

To their own mind, these are also the persons who will stand up front before history – never mind that they knew better, should have known better, were expected to know better.

If I have good reason to sublimate all this, such a person rationalizes, why do I have a duty to the Common Man – the ordinary citizen? My status, my rank, do not depend on it. My financial well-being does not dictate it.

Amidst all these ever crasser displays of raw self-interest, we know one thing for certain: When the “common man” dies, the America that the world marveled at for 250 years dies with him.

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About Michael J. Brenner

Michael Brenner is Professor Emeritus of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. [Texas, United States]

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