*Last weekend the Cub Scouts were at my local supermarket collecting groceries for those in need during the holidays. Because of activities like these, The Boy & Girl Scouts of America are organizations lauded for their dedication to what some would say are the ideals of American culture.
In fact conservatives often proclaim that if people could emulate the mission of the Scouts then the country would go back to dominating the world the way it did in years gone by. Similar statements are made about church attendance, the nuclear family structure, traditional marriage, and eliminating the government social safety net. But all of these elements of American society were by products of being the dominant country in the world, not contributing factors
Consider that when the Civil War happened (1861-1865) the United States was a second tier power – if that – on the world stage. In fact the United States in the 1860s had only recently become the undisputed leader of North America. This was true despite a high percentage of Americans proclaiming Protestantism and attending church regularly, and establishing the culture of Americana that the Scouts strive to reproduce. Clearly international power is not a function of those elements of society.
In contrast at the end of the Civil War the United States began to look to expand its territory and influence overseas. This began slowly with the acquisition of the Alaskan Territory in 1867 and American led arbitration of South American issues in the 1870s. By the turn of the 20th century the United States had won a war against a (dwindling) European power (without help this time) and gained territory across the globe. To be fair Americans were still consistently attending church, entering into heterosexual marriage, and there was no government safety net. But it was a change in the goals among the nation’s decision makers that led to the change in the nation’s status.
The 20th century saw the United States operate fully from an imperialistic perspective and, with only a brief pause during the 1930s, get involved in international affairs each time an opportunity arose: two world wars, more arbitration of conflicts, entering into mutual protection leagues, financing the rebuild of Western European economies, and containment of communism. It is during this period that the nuclear family was established but also when it was destroyed; it is during this period that the Scouts were established but also when the government created all of the social safety net programs that are the bane of conservatism today. During the 20th century the United States became the number one power in the world even though church attendance has steadily decreased during the second half of the century and the fact homosexuality has become steadily more accepted in American society.
The key factor in all of this is the strength of the American economy. After the Civil War the United States underwent massive industrialization that helped the economy grow and allowed for American aspirations overseas. Once the basics of our society’s need to have people working and feeding themselves were well taken care of, we could look to get involved elsewhere. This economic security was present in American society for the most part from the 1860s until today. The only time the American economy wasn’t humming along, The Great Depression, we took a step back from trying to impose our will internationally.
Not only has economic security been a catalyst for American dominance, it also led to the strength and weakness of all of the pieces of Americana that conservatives are happy to espouse. Economic security allowed for the time to attend church; it allowed for people to get married with the belief that they would be able to support their family; it allowed for the government to create and maintain a safety net for the less fortunate; it allowed for people to have the time to question religion; it allowed for homosexual Americans to feel secure enough to assert their existence; it allowed for Americans to pursue other forms of culture in general.
If the country is in trouble it is not because of a change in culture, it is because of a change in economics. Quite simply it is more advantageous for companies to establish production operations in other countries where labor costs are much cheaper. That sapping of American economic strength and security is our number one issue. Once it is fixed everything else will fall into place.
Trevor Brookins is a freelance writer in Rockland County, New York. He is currently working on a book about American culture during the Cold War. His writing has appeared in The Journal News. You can reach him at [email protected] or be disappointed in his lack of output on Twitter @historictrev.