A response to: Urban free traders or rural individualists

Robert Tracinski
National Post
November 30, 2000

Please see the original article: Urban free traders or rural individualists

The vote for president wasn’t even close. I know what you’re thinking. If you look at the national totals, the Electoral College count, and the chaos in Florida, this election is probably the closest in history. But look at it again, state by state, precinct by precinct, and you’ll notice a very different story. For about half of the nation — clustered in urban areas, mainly in the Northeast and on the West Coast — Al Gore was the clear winner. But a huge swath of the country — the South, West, Midwest, and rural districts practically everywhere — chose George W. Bush by a landslide.

Folks in my own county in central Virginia, for example, voted for Bush by 54% to 43%; in some precincts, the margin was more than 2 to 1. But if you live in the Upper West Side of Manhattan, or in Cambridge, Mass., you probably don’t know anyone who voted for Bush. And that is the conflict in this election. It is a clash primarily between urban elites and what those elites sometimes call "flyover country." It’s a clear contrast between two Americas with two different views of life.

Rural America generally reflects the original values of America’s founding. In all things, wrote the famous 19th- century observer of American culture, Alexis de Tocqueville, the American "relies on individual effort and judgment." The typical American was contemptuous of tradition and authority and confident in his ability to solve his own problems. This led the Americans to accept a moral philosophy of "self-interest properly understood" — that is, long-term, rational self-interest — a viewpoint "you hear … as much from the poor as from the rich." And for the early Americans, greed was good. "What we call love of gain," Tocqueville says, "is praiseworthy industry to the Americans."

This is the outlook summed up by that uniquely American phrase "rugged individualism," and it is still dominant in much of the country today. The American "common man" tends to believe in independence, individual responsibility and self-reliance. These people don’t want government interference in their lives, even if it’s billed as "help." And so they want smaller government, less welfare, less regulation — and it’s no surprise that they responded to Bush’s campaign rhetoric.

But there has also been a very different influence on American culture. This influence came from intellectuals educated at European universities — universities that produced thinkers such as Karl Marx. These universities drummed into their students the philosophy of collectivism.

In this view, the individual is irrelevant; collective social forces are everything. Individuals, Marx declared, must "enter into [social] relations that are indispensable and independent of their will." These social forces determine everything, including an individual’s ideas; men’s "social existence," as Marx put it, "determines their consciousness." This is the view, enshrined in today’s universities, that every issue boils down to a power struggle between social groups determined by "race, class, and gender." The only answer, in this view, is for these allegedly oppressed social groups to rise up — under the guidance of the educated elite — and seize control of the economy. After all, if the individual is helpless to control his own fate, he must rely on "society" to provide for his needs and to protect him with a vast network of government controls.

This collectivist viewpoint rules our nation’s universities — these days, it’s called "political correctness" — and it is the standard view of the liberal-arts-educated elite. These elites long for European-style socialism, and they clamour for bigger government, more regulation, more welfare, higher taxes. They heard these ideas echoed loud and clear in Gore’s class-warfare campaign rhetoric — and that’s why they refuse to accept a Bush victory.

That’s also why counting and recounting every vote in Florida won’t tell the whole story about what the American people want. This election wasn’t fought last Tuesday in the precincts of southern Florida. It was fought decades ago in the classrooms of the nation’s universities. And it is still being fought in our universities today.

That’s where those who are concerned about the future of the country should focus their attention. While individualistic Americans have created a dynamic free society and blazed a trail of innovation that pulls the whole world in its wake, the intellectuals who dominate our universities have condemned America’s values and indoctrinated generations of students in their collectivist ideals.

The two Americas who squared off in this year’s election are just a symptom of this fundamental gulf — this dangerous conflict between America and its intellectuals.

Robert Tracinski is a writer with the Ayn Rand Institute.

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