Why Americans think they embody freedom but really don’t

Possible member of the status quo?

When you ask an American what it means to be American, the most common word we use is freedom. Freedom was one of our core values when our original thirteen colonies battled the English army to become the United States of America. Those roots — combined with the way we violently acquired our territory from American Indians and Mexicans — created our American self-image as individualistic, independent, powerful people who answer only to our own conscience (which we often call God). The freedom to do as we choose, unaccountable to any outside sovereignty, has always been one of our top priorities as a culture.

When we became the United States in 1776 it was critical to focus on our independence because at that time we were vulnerable to being taken back under English control. But since we became one of the most powerful nations on the planet, we haven’t been in much danger of being occupied, so our desire for freedom has turned into a struggle against each other that never ends. Americans want to be free to live our lives as we please, which is reflected in our widely differing traditions and life choices, but we constantly fear that other Americans — or even the government — might take away that freedom at any time. So we clutch our religious symbols, guns, marijuana plants, controversial clothing, etc. and push back at anyone who seems like they might limit our habits, privilege or material possessions.

The irony is that this fear means we are constantly watching each other for threats to our freedom, and that vigilance can turn into an attempt to get others to change their behavior to match ours. And that, of course, is the opposite of honoring freedom.

The social dynamic in the U.S. means that those with more power can pressure those with less power to alter their lives. This is neither fair nor democratic (another word Americans cherish), but it’s the point at which our valuing of freedom collides with our valuing of the status quo. In this context the status quo refers to having only certain people in control of institutions, commerce and social mores. In the U.S. those people have mostly been Anglo-Saxon, Christian, heterosexual, wealthy or middle class, American-born, and natively English-speaking (no “foreign” accents). The status quo is what many Americans think the United States should be and those Americans are willing to fight hard for it.

Many Americans with less power (people of color, the working class, etc.) fight hard against the status quo. That has led to the current power struggle that will probably never end. It’s a struggle that includes (but isn’t limited to) equal access to jobs, financial security, education, health care, sexual freedom and religious freedom. Americans value such freedoms highly, but because our society is so diverse and so many Americans favor the status quo, we’re also in conflict about them.

The American tendency to prioritize the freedom of some over the freedom of others also leads to our uneven foreign policy: we will lend our military strength for the freedom of part of the population of a country, but rarely for the freedom of everyone.

A study asked people in other countries which was more important: personal freedom or taking basic care of all the citizens in your country. People in other countries said taking care of all citizens was more important. In the U.S. people said freedom was more important. This is why the U.S. lags behind other countries in providing for the poor and those who are unable to work: we feel a conflict between using tax dollars to provide for all citizens, and only minimally taxing individual incomes. We want the freedom, as individuals, to do with our money as we want, not have the government decide for us. Similarly, many Americans favor “small government” or a government that leaves most law-making and tax-collecting up to the states. Those Americans say “Let us govern ourselves and spend our money as we want. That’s freedom.” This attitude, combined with our belief that your earning power determines your worth, causes us to do a poor job of taking care of the basic needs of all citizens.

On July 4th Americans will commemorate the day on which we declared our independence from England in 1776 (while the American Revolutionary War still raged on). We’ll take pride in how our country has embodied freedom and how well we model it for the rest of the world. And when the beer has been drunk and the fireworks are over, we’ll go back to tussling with each other over our individual freedoms and we’ll keep wondering why all the other nations haven’t imitated our values yet.