America is a socially conservative and economically liberal country.
Do you believe that? Consider that a recent article pointed out that North Dakota, of all places, may not be a bad place to live. The reason? North Dakota – despite its “lack of culture” (quoting from the article) or major league sporting teams – has so much money and is so well off financially that it is looking to give back $400 million to residents, has an unemployment of 3.8% (best in the nation), and is saving at the state level for a rainy day fund. They have the lowest credit card default problems in the nation, terrific housing prices, and the state will spend only one fifth of their proposed budget. What will they do with the excess? See the rainy day fund mentioned earlier.
This is put in stark contrast to states with inconceivable debt, like California ($25.4 billion projected budget shortfall for the 2012 fiscal year), Texas ($13.4 billion), New Jersey ($10.5 billion), and New York ($10 billion). Illionois, Michigan, and Wisconsin had huge financial troubles in the news lately, and even the Federal government played chicken with the concept of having to shut down. Surely there are a myriad of reasons for this financial situation. And my wife can tell you how far I am from a financial expert. But in the face of these numbers, one thing seems clear even to me: America is no longer a fiscally conservative nation. (If it ever was I leave to the historians to decipher.)
But what about the social end? Recent polls and surveys demonstrate that, on the whole, Americans oppose loose abortion laws, evolution, and atheism. Now, certainly, there is a wide umbrella as to how to define “conservative,” and perhaps this is far from conclusive. Further, it seems that the tide is turning for most American social thought. Far from the old “blue laws” that used to govern large swaths of the “Bible belt South” even up to a few decades ago, recent proposals involved opening up marijuana and prostitution in Detroit, MI to make it more viable market and “fun.” So while America may not be able to consider herself socially conservative for long, there are some indicators that there remains a “conservative memory.”
Perhaps these conclusions are flawed, but if they are correct, where does this leave us? For one thing, a socially conservative but economically liberal majority of Americans do not have a clear political party to vote for. The Republican party has its own issues defining itself, but recently the GOP has been the more socially conservative party for voters. However, Republicans are in principle against loose fiscal policies. (I’ll restrain myself from sharing where I see the differences between “in principle” and “in reality!”) The exact opposite is largely true for the DFL, as Democratic supporters have taken a more lax view toward social issues, but their economic ideas may be appealing. Neither party is exactly hitting the “sweet spot” if this analysis is accurate.
Further, economic troubles will continue to hamper social thought if left unchecked. When was the last time that America’s largest national cause for concern was a domestic, financial issue? The Stock Market Crash and Great Depression were so quickly swallowed up into WWII, in comparison many Americans (who weren’t alive to experience that twentieth century fiasco) have no high water line with which to consult. (As if inflation allows for an accurate high water line!) One of the suggestions of Huxley’s Brave New World was that our own desires and distractions would come to imprison us. Are the residents of California or Texas as “free” as those of North Dakota? Their futures? Are the legislatures of CA or TX as “free” as that of ND?
From my own personal perspective, finances are ultimately social: the ability to make good on a promise to pay a mortgage, a credit card, or a loan depends on individual commitments to honesty and promise. So to some extent, Americans are trying to pull the wool over their own eyes. The irony that California, notorious for its laissez faire approach to morality, would be considerably less “free” in its use of finances in comparison to the stereotype of boring, Midwestern, “lack of culture” North Dakota is laughable. (A smile tugs at the mouth at the thought of CA coming hat in hand, seeking a bail-out from ND. “But what would you spend it on?” comes the smirking reply.) Again, personally, I would work to see us socially and fiscally conservative. My values will ultimately shape how and when I spend my money, and my guess is that this would ultimately prove true for a nation of individuals.
But regardless of my response, is the assessment accurate? Is America divided between social mores and fiscal priorities? And if so, what should be done about it?
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I do think the U.S tends toward social conservatism and economic liberalism. At least this would likely describe the sympathies of Millenial evangelicals, Catholics, older blacks, Hispanics, other non-Western immigrants. If there ever were a “silent majority” this one might actually be it. I say that because the US voter turnout rate is pretty low and I know a number of people who don’t vote or do throw-away write-ins because they feel that neither Democrats nor Republicans (nor Independents nor Greens) represent their beliefs. Most want the US to be fiscally *responsible* with conservatives claiming that label. But I don’t think there’s a lot of loyalty to fiscal conservatism in principle, whatever it means.