Interview with Historian Eric Foner 'Life Is Getting More Difficult for Americans'
As Americans prepare to vote, historian Eric Foner speaks to SPIEGEL about the current crisis of confidence in the United States, the roots of US exceptionalism and the country's ever-changing concept of freedom.
SPIEGEL: Professor Foner, almost 80 percent of Americans believe that the country under President George W. Bush is on the wrong track. Do you think that the "American spirit," the conviction that the United States is exceptional in the world, is in danger?
Eric Foner: Well, temporarily perhaps. We never had such a large number of people, at least if you believe public opinion polls, saying that the country is on the wrong track. The reason is a combination of the war in Iraq, but even more the feeling of economic insecurity. Globalization, de-industrialization, declining real wages, even for people who have jobs, life is getting more difficult. Then I think a complete loss of confidence in government. Whoever becomes president, they are going to have to convince voters that they can actually make a difference. For all the crimes and mistakes of the Bush Administration, I think one of its greatest failings was just utter incompetence.
SPIEGEL: What parallels to today's crisis do you see in American history?
Foner: Well, of course, the Great Depression and the 1890s before that was another period of tremendous social change and economic problems. Maybe the 1970s is the best example. You had this combination of various economic crises plus the Vietnam War. It is quite different from now because people had enormous confidence in the ability of the government to solve problems.
SPIEGEL: People need to be given back this confidence, but under conditions that are much more difficult.
SPIEGEL: What does American history teach us: In times of great insecurity, do people ask for a candidate with a lot of experience or do they look for change?
Foner: It is change that people want at this time. I see this as an election very similar to 1980 where you have someone running for reelection like Carter, but Reagan is promising change. McCain is saying you can't trust Obama. He's new, he's inexperienced, and he's too extreme. That's what Carter said about Reagan. Until the weekend before the election, the polls were even. It was three days before the election when everyone decided we've got to change things. That probably will happen again.
SPIEGEL: In Europe people tend to call on the government in times of economic insecurity. Why doesn't this happen in the US?
Foner: First of all, in Europe it is the ordinary people who call on the government. Here, it is the rich who call on the government. Look at what is happening with investment bank Bear Stearns or mortgage lenders Fannie Mae. They have no qualms about turning to the government to rescue them. That is hundreds of billions of dollars involved there and the phrase here is, they are too big to fail. It is quite ironic.
SPIEGEL: Similar situations have come up in Europe. But why don't ordinary people in the US demand more help from the government?
Foner: During the New Deal, during the 1960's people did look to government. We have had two generations now of demonization of government. Bill Clinton played an important role when he said the era of big government is over. That was one of the most important sentences because it meant the Democrats are not going to go back to their notion that the government should be helping you out. Clinton used the same arguments as the Republicans. I think now that we are in this economic situation, people are looking more to government to deal with some of these problems, the regulation of the financial system, some kind of national health system. It won't be like in Europe, but we can't just keep the situation going where 50 million people have no health care.
SPIEGEL: Do you really believe every American will soon have health insurance?
Foner: If McCain is the winner, it will be a problem but I think it will come to America because business wants it.
SPIEGEL: Today big corporations bear the cost of health insurance themselves. Small companies, however, frequently do not insure their workers.
Foner: Correct, Wal-Mart for example has been running big ads, arguing that the government ought to be taking care of health insurance not private corporations. For companies like General Motors these costs are now simply too enormous.
SPIEGEL: Let's go back to this special American conviction that we talked about in the beginning. What justifies this belief in American exceptionalism?
Foner: It is deeply, deeply rooted in our culture. Some people say what is most exceptional about America is the strength of the belief in American exceptionalism. It has both religious roots and secular roots. The puritans wanted to create "a city on the hill" ...
SPIEGEL: ... a sort of holy Jerusalem ...
Foner: ... the example of a good, righteous society where the free person is the person who subjects himself to the proper moral code.
SPIEGEL: And what are the secular roots of this belief?
Foner: It really comes out of the American Revolution and the idea that this nation is a symbol of liberty in a world of tyrannies. The people who have created the nation had a great deal of chutzpah, as we say in New York. That is to say a couple of million people on the edge of civilization not just creating a new nation state, but saying this is going to be the model for all of mankind, the empire for liberty.
SPIEGEL: Do you think America is the symbol of liberty for the whole world?
Foner: Yes and no. Our country and our history have imbued Americans with a very powerful sense of individual liberty in ordinary life. Of course, other people also cherish freedom. The downside is that we do not think that we have anything to learn from anybody else because we are so exceptional.
SPIEGEL: The strong combination of religion and politics is characteristic for the United States. Is this part of the American foundation myth?
Foner: No, the Founding Fathers didn't want religion interfering with government and they didn't want government interfering with religion. Look at Abraham Lincoln, the greatest of our presidents. He was never a member of a church. He used religious language, but in his second inaugural address, a great speech at the end of the Civil War, he says, "We don't know God's will." Today, every politician knows God's will. Everybody has a direct line. God has just told me to vote for this bill.
SPIEGEL: How did this mixing of religion and politics come about?
Foner: The first one who really started doing this was Jimmy Carter. By now religion is no longer a private thing. At the beginning of the 80s I was in England and I watched the Conservative Party convention. Margaret Thatcher was in power, Ronald Reagan was coming into power in the US. The difference was really interesting. The Republican convention here was suffused with these religious preachers while the British conservatives did not mention God at all. God was not a member of the Conservative Party the way he seemed to be a member of the Republican Party.
SPIEGEL: How do you explain the difference between Europe and the US?
- Part 1: 'Life Is Getting More Difficult for Americans'
- Part 2: 'Freedom Has Been Privatized'