Sense and Non-Sense: American Culture and Politics

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9780130833433: Sense and Non-Sense: American Culture and Politics

Designed to introduce readers to the ways that American culture structures the outcomes of political life, Wray's book addresses American culture and politics with a three-phase approach. First it provides readers with a careful analysis of what culture is, as well as its political significance. The text then offers four distinctive American cultural characteristics and encourages readers to consider how these values influence modern political life. Provides a complete analysis of American cultural characteristics and political culture. For individuals interested in the US political system.

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Preface

A fundamental task of political science is to shed light on how political systems in various societies work. In pursuit of this goal, one important guiding question is, "How does one account for the distributive decisions that are generated by a political system?" There are a number of ways those interested in the political system of the United States seek to answer this question. One explanatory mode that I believe is underutilized is the assessment of political culture. The intent of this book is therefore to introduce students to the ways that American culture structures the outcomes of political life.

To place the argument of this book in context, it is useful first to identify other ways in which political scientists account for policy outcomes. The kinds of explanation typically used by those seeking to describe American politics may be framed by considering one of the most important domestic policy initiatives in recent years: The Clinton Administration's attempt to establish a comprehensive health care system for the United States. National health care is an interesting political issue, in part because of the wealth of this country, in part because of the significance most of us give to the importance of health to a good life, and in part because the United States stands alone among the industrialized nations of the world in its reluctance to implement a national health care plan.

Perhaps the most common way to answer distributive questions of this sort is to treat each idiosyncratically, without reference to any connections or underlying commonalities among policies. This "case study" approach is useful. Each policy pattern is, after all, complex and to some degree distinctive. Case studies are edifying because they highlight these distinctions. A case study of the attempt by the Clinton Administration's health care initiative might suggest, for example, that it failed for idiosyncratic reasons—because of underlying resentment of Mrs. Clinton's leadership role, inappropriate for a "first lady," or because policy guru Ira Magaziner was politically inept. Or, perhaps Clinton's plan failed simply because it was too complex for average Americans to understand. Each of these possibilities is plausible. As explanations, they are relevant only to health care policy. Mrs. Clinton was far less involved in other policies; other Clinton proposals might have been more straightforward, and so forth.

A second way to understand policy patterns is to look for things that bind them, to consider whether they are part of a larger pattern that reveals important properties of the political system. This approach is also useful. It may miss nuance, but it directs attention to the whole, to theoretical issues. One such explanation locates policy within the matrix of distinctive political institutions. Institutional analysis, for example, might suggest that we do not have national health care because of the uncertainties of this nation's Founders who, living at the dawn of a democratic age, were also fearful of what this age might portend. Health care was doomed by those timid souls who fragmented the political system precisely to make political accomplishment difficult. Because the U.S. political system disburses power across an array of institutions, policy accomplishment is problematic. In this case, the Congress, always responsive to a different array of interests than the Presidency, could not be rallied to support Clinton's plan. In this sense, health care failure might well be viewed as simply business as usual.

A differing explanation of this general type ties political outcomes to more fundamental economic forces. Scratch the surface of a given political pattern and one will find the forces of raw economic power at work. Political outcomes are controlled by economic elites. In this understanding, national health care was whipsawed between the Scylla of a media campaign funded by insurance companies and the Charybdis of PAC contributions to financially strapped politicians.

The approach used in this book is to consider policy patterns such as national health care through the prism of political culture. This approach neither argues for the primacy of culture nor gainsays the importance of the other perspectives just described. The forces shaping particular political outcomes are, at some level, unique. And there can be little doubt that both the array of political institutions and economic factors are crucial to political life in this or any other country.

The argument of this book is that the understanding of American politics can also be enhanced by considering the cultural context in which political struggles take place. Policy outcomes are not merely random occurrences. They are structured and connected. A fragmented political system makes political accomplishment more difficult, but it does not prevent it. And for all the power it exerts in political life, capitalism in America is quite different from capitalism in Sweden Qr China. Political outcomes are not completely explained by autonomous economic forces. Capitalist Canada, for example, has a well-established national health care system.

For these reasons, political culture, far less frequently considered in explaining political outcomes, is also important. Policy questions such as national health care are debated and evaluated in a cultural context, and a culture that privileges individualism, competition, and private material acquisition over other versions of reality is politically relevant to policy outcomes. In such a milieu, policies like national health care face an uphill battle.

To recognize the significance of culture in politics is commonplace. Cultures, those shared versions of reality that bind people together, are universal, a fundamental characteristic of human organization. Any society must generate shared symbol systems in order to survive in a world that is indifferently ambiguous. Unproven but common understandings about the nature of reality develop, and these allow for daily discourse and social cohesion. The problems in Bosnia, for example, are fundamentally connected to the inability of its citizens to share some version of reality. In short, no culture, no society. They therefore must be important politically.

It is one thing to recognize the significance of culture abstractly; it is quite another to discuss it in specific terms. For several reasons the subject is daunting, and this may account for the lack of attention to it. Cultures are pervasive and evolving. They cannot be described fully. There is no way to account for all of the cultural nuances relevant to an understanding of American political life, and nowhere to stand to see our culture wholly and clearly. Simultaneously, and ironically, culture is something that, by definition, we are all experts in. Because cultures bind members of a group, their characteristics must be palpable to them. Those who treasure the throne of expertise would be wise to look elsewhere for a subject.

These inherent features of the subject matter give one pause. And yet, because cultures are an essential ingredient for understanding political life, they need to be considered and assessed. This book is not an attempt to discuss the entire U.S. political culture. Rather, I have focused on four characteristics that I believe reverberate powerfully through it. Even though I have been thinking about American political culture for a number of years, I am sure I don't have it completely right. This is part of the subject's fascination. But I hope I have enough of it right so that this book will stimulate interesting conversations. One of the ways in which cultures evolve into more compelling and useful social "stories" is by bringing them to consciousness and evaluating them.

The eight chapters of this book may be divided into three parts. The first part, comprised of Chapters One and Two, establishes the setting for considering American political culture. Chapter One introduces the concept of culture and explains why cultures are necessary for social life. It also discusses why, even though they are difficult to analyze, cultures are important for political life. Chapter Two establishes a political setting that provides a frame for understanding American political culture. Space is given to considering the meaning of politics and democracy because these concepts recur throughout the book. The bulk of the chapter identifies some political policies and attitudes that are distinctively American.

Chapters Three through Seven comprise the core of the book. These chapters discuss four dominant and distinctive cultural characteristics of U.S. society: individualism, competition, mobility, and materialism. I define each of these concepts, trace their origins and development, identify ways in which they are reinforced and extended in contemporary society, and consider some of their social and political effects.

Chapter Eight returns to some of the questions raised in the initial section of the book. I show how the characteristics that have been considered individually work in concert to contribute to the political curiosities identified in the second chapter. I also argue that these cultural characteristics are increasingly out of sync with everyday life experience and, in consequence, their ability to bind people together—the essential function of a culture—is diminished. I also discuss why they nevertheless remain powerful in contemporary society. The final section of this chapter considers cultural change, leaving open the question of whether such change is likely.

J. Harry Wray

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