The Scottish independence referendum left me disappointed. That’s funny because I would have voted against separation if I had been able to vote. I didn’t have any kind of stake, but it looked to me like Scottish independence would have been bad for the UK as well as for Scotland. Divorces are almost always messier than the parties anticipate. So, the vote went the way I believe it should have, but I’m still disappointed. I think the reason for my disappointment is that Scottish independence would have been a real change that Americans would have noticed.
Americans have become profoundly conservative since World War II. I don’t mean the Republican type of conservative. I mean that we seem to have this idea that the way things are is the only way they can be. Sure there are changes, but not the kind of changes that really change anything. Even a change as dramatic as the fall of the Soviet Union didn’t really register for most Americans. Russia and the Soviet Union were always pretty synonymous. Americans don’t see why the Ukraine situation is troubling because most of us think they are all Russian anyway. And it’s not like we dismantled the military/industrial complex that resulted from the Truman Doctrine. We just kind of subbed China in for Russia and kept plugging along as if nothing had changed.
We talk about change a lot in America, but we are a horrible combination of fearful and cynical about it. We are fearful because we seem to think that any change will be a change for the worse. Socialized medicine will obviously result in long waits and death panels. Any kind of robust social safety net will make everyone lazy and stupid. It’s a, “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t,” idea that has become pervasive. We are cynical because we never believe change will make a difference. Don’t quit smoking because something else will just kill us instead. If we raise taxes, they’ll just find another loophole.
I’m not just talking about Republicans either. Liberals in America are just as conservative. That’s a big part of why politics is so predictable. It doesn’t matter what scientists say about fracking or whether expanded use of natural gas would be good for the environment, it’s a new technique that could completely disrupt the fossil fuel market and there might be an accident, so it must be bad. GMOs might be our best way to survive climate change and feed the hungry, but apparently it’s better to not try than to maybe, possibly do something bad.
Looking at the Great Recession, everyone’s goal, on the left and the right, was to get things back to normal as quickly as possible. Why did we want to go back to what caused the problem in the first place? Because we are too conservative. It’s like it never occurred to anyone that systematic failures might be the result of a bad system. Instead of bailouts and regulation, maybe we should have tried something new.
Education reform is another area where everyone is conservative. Most people seem to think there are problems with education, but nearly all of the proposed solutions are downright timid. Most of them come down to more: more teachers, more math, more homework, more tests. Rather than worrying about how many teachers there are, how to assess the teachers and students, and who should pay for it, let’s look at the model itself.
Anyone who has read this far is probably wondering what any of this has to do with the referendum for Scottish independence. There are two things. Scottish independence would have been real change that actually changed things and I think Americans would have actually noticed. We would have noticed because we share a language and we have real and deep ties with the UK. They are not an adversary like the Soviet Union, and Sally Struthers has never asked us to help them. Our banking system uses the London InterBank Offered Rate. HSBC, Lloyds, Standard Charter, and RBS are all hugely influential in America and are all British. I know I’m being naive, but I just feel like if a real change happened that people noticed, maybe we’ll wake up and realize that we can change, too. 50 isn’t a magic number, maybe we could add some states. Capitalism isn’t part of our constitution (and it wasn’t on the minds of the founders), so maybe we could experiment with other economic systems. The point is, we have a lot of longstanding problems in this country and in this world. They are not going to get fixed with the same ideas that haven’t worked before. We need something new. And while I think the Scots made the right decision, I feel like we missed a real opportunity for change.