Strikes move into their second day in France, after a record setting 1.2-3.5 million people took to the streets yesterday in protest of Nicolas Sarkozy’s controversial retirement reform legislation. From high school teens to aging service workers and educators, the manifestations show a level of unity that we, Americans, have trouble understanding.
After several years of experience in social and environmental activism back home, I wonder why we aren’t able to mobilize around issues that seem just as pressing (if not more pressing) as a simple increase in the retirement age.
Tackling the global threat of catastrophic climate change immediately comes to mind.
It isn’t that Americans don’t care, we do, deeply, but maybe about too many things. With a population of over 300 million and a government founded on the liberal idea that everyone is entitled to self-realization, we seem to be lacking in a coherent national identity, something that Europeans have taken centuries to develop and redevelop. In fact, we take pride in the “melting pot,” citing it as a hallmark of our modern democracy.
Missing from The United States’ persona is that feeling of cohesion, identity and common good. Though not necessarily a bad thing, it does make mobilizing around issues as contentious as global warming a real challenge. The civil rights movement, while huge, still took considerable support at the federal level before really getting anywhere: forced integration of public schools and spaces, for example.
Geography also plays a significant role in our inability to stick together. The sheer size of the US, compared to France (about the same area as Texas), stifles progress at the federal level, as we struggle to represent varying interests from across a tremendous landmass. I can say that I identify well with my fellow Virginians, but calling myself an American based on a set of shared values has always been much more difficult for me.
Some people think that the tea party debunks this concept, but I’ve yet to see a solid strategy emerge from the group. Despite the name, we aren’t witnessing the rise of a new political force in the United States, only a loosely-held group of frustrated regular Joe’s with no real agenda and no real political implications after November. I’m looking forward to seeing elected tea partiers mesh back into the Republican fold once elections have come to an end. Much like progressives on the side of legislation designed to fight climate change, the efficacy will be lost upon entering our quagmire of a federal government.
The United States was founded on what were primarily economic ideals: private property, free markets and a general lack of government intervention in people’s business. What we lack, however, is the other side of the persona that most nation-states have, the sense of social unity and near-forced socialization of habits, beliefs, interactions and otherwise.
We consider this a point of pride, and as the “melting pot,” we should. However, our diversity of ideas will always serve as a significant barrier to moving forward on many major issues, and as undemocratic as it may sound, the federal government may have to take the reins on several major challenges as we move into the future. In the case of climate change, we may not have any other options.