The Two Strains Of American DNA

James McManus distills it:

American DNA is a notoriously complex recipe for creating a body politic, but two strands in particular have always stood out in high contrast: the risk-averse Puritan work ethic and the entrepreneur's urge to seize the main chance. Proponents of neither m.o. like to credit the other with anything positive; huggers of the shore tend not to praise explorers, while gamblers remain unimpressed by those who husband savings accounts. Yet blended in much the same way that parents' genes are in their children, the two ways of operating have made us who we are as a country.

That's not just a metaphor, either. Geneticists have shown that there is literally such a thing as American DNA, not surprising when nearly all of us are descended from immigrants. We therefore carry an immigrant-specific genotype, a genetic marker expressing itselfin some environments, at leastas energetic risk-taking and competitive self-promotion. Even when famine, warfare, or another calamity strikes, most people stay in their homeland. The self-selecting group that migrates, seldom more than 2 percent, is disproportionally inclined to take chances. They also have above-average intelligence and are quicker decision makers. Something about their dopamine-receptor systems, the neural pathway associated with a taste for novelty and risk, sets them apart from those who stay put.

I'm sure the genetics of this can be hotly disputed. But leaving the science behind, I like the idea that these two strains balance each other to make something coherent. Things which look like contradictions on the OBAMA09GWJimWatson:AFP:Getty surface can actually be a fruitful dynamic in the actual human world.

In some ways, aren't these two types more expressive of the divide within America than the exhausted one of "left" and "right"? The risk takers and the prudent Puritans are temperaments rather than ideologies. There are elements of both among Democrats, Republicans and Independents. It's possible to be a risk-taking Democrat (Johnson) and a prudent one (Clinton). America has had risk-taking Republicans (Bush II) and prudent ones (Bush I) in the self-same family. There's the populist, radical kind of independent (Perot) and the dour, green eye-shade one (Peterson). The best presidents have both. Reagan was a huge risk-taker and bold leader, but his prudence was often over-looked. The man raised taxes, cut his losses in Lebanon, and decided to manage Gorbachev rather than humiliate him. Perhaps the archetypal risk-taker was Kennedy. The archetypal bank manager was Eisenhower.

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And I think what we're seeing in America right now - in the Obama moment - is a belated resurgence of the prudent Puritan strain. After the dot-com bubble, the housing bubble, the market collapse, the two wing-'em wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the vast spending of the Bush years and the sudden leap in public debt caused by the recession, the mood has mercifully shifted. The Republican over-reach - in economics and foreign policy - is pretty hard to miss. There is a belated understanding that money does not grow on trees, that choices have to be made, that a fiscal reckoning is coming, and that the political system must be forced to deal with it. That's what was driving Olympia Snowe, I suspect - from the fiscally prudent and practical Northeast.

How does Obama fit into this? I see him as having a strange mix of the two. He harnessed the restless American spirit in his campaign in order to bring balance back in governance. He campaigned like Reagan and is governing like the first Bush.

His movement is the real risk-taker now; and he is its somewhat flinty, cautious manager. It's a useful dynamic.

He is, in this respect, something also quite familiar, as Tad Friend recently remarked. Obama might be the last gasp of true WASP power - trapped in a black man's body.

Now you don't get much more American than that.

(Hat tip: Ordinary Gentlemen)