All Together Now: 'We' is the New 'They'|
Georgia Online News Service
In our country, major shifts in public philosophy are announced with big, dumb overstatements – "The era of big government is over" – and then augmented by a battery of much more subtle, cultural-commercial messages that define the change more precisely. So it is with the New American Groupthink.
"We Are All Socialists Now," Newsweek proclaimed in a recent cover story. Not by half, or even close to that, we aren't. A stimulus package more modest than the one enacted by Japan is hardly reason to sing the Internationale. But the bigness and the dumbness of this pronouncement are clues that something important, if more complicated, is going on.
Polls like the recent Gallup survey which showed that 83 percent of Americans favored government programs to create jobs, and 64 percent are okay with giving strapped homeowners money to avoid foreclosure, do indicate there's been some change of attitude about the role of government. But the real change has been in public perceptions about who has the problems government needs to solve.
That would be us. The same Gallup survey shows a solid majority of Americans don't support helping out the auto companies and the banks – institutions not as readily identifiable with our personal interests as our homes and our jobs.
If the headline had said, "We Are All Broke Now," it would have been a broader statement of public sentiment. The crucial thing is what the construction says about the way we organize and confront the problems of the day, and as more and more Americans are affected by the worsening economy, that increasingly is in terms of groups.
Television commercials are all about organizing and confronting the problems of the day. Watch them closely, and you will note that the rugged individual and the liberated hottie, those reliable stock ad characters, show up less often than they did a couple of years ago. Instead there has been a huge infusion of "We-ness" in the advertising dialect.
"We don't just want to be any car company. We want to be your car company," Chrysler proclaims.
Volkswagen is having its "The people want it now" sales event, with a commercial in which stereotypical American drivers and passengers mouth through a kind of Steinbeckian litany: "The people want things to happen...The people want value that lasts... The people have always wanted that.... The people want to go further on every tank..."
The understanding broker opens his office early to assure a nervous client that they'll get through this thing together. Our bank understands how much more important it is these days that we can trust them. It's more than Hyundai wanting us to know that half its cars are made in Montgomery, Ala. It's an overall approach to hawking products that suddenly values inclusiveness over exclusiveness.
The "Yes, We Can" mantra is an emblematic part of the New American Groupthink, and there was of course a lot of inclusiveness in President Obama's first address to Congress Tuesday night. But last Sunday night's Academy Awards telecast offered a much more sophisticated view of how big political and economic shifts change the culture.
The audience at the Kodak Theater was bunched up close around the stage, as if the stars were having an office party at a nightclub, or watching the Oscars at home with their friends. Instead of having last year's winner give the award for best actor and actress, a lineup of five previous winners took turns giving personal tributes to each of the nominees before the winner was named. The montages for the best picture category mixed clips from the current nominees with previous great screen moments, as if to emphasize their place in a long line of movie greatness, rather than their individual achievement.
"What is required now is for this country to pull together," Obama said to Congress Tuesday night. Those words have come just as easily from one of the awards presenters Sunday night.
None of this is to suggest any great unanimity over what "we" should be doing about the mess we're in. What's pervasive is the style in which we view things: Rick Santelli's rant against mortgage bailouts last week wasn't just one guy speaking, but a sort of collective shout-out from the boys on the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade. Nobody seems much for going it alone any more.
"We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly, we shall all hang separately," that energetic capitalist and stoutminded individualist, Benjamin Franklin, said at the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
These days, we get that.
Tom Baxter is editor of the Southern Political Report and senior vice president of its parent company, InsiderAdvantage, a media and polling firm. He was the chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 20 years. [full bio]