The ethos of our country is not something we see or hear discussed very often by our leaders. This is surprising. For it is ethos, the guiding beliefs and moral nature of any democratic society, that determines the very quality of life of its citizens, as it does of ours.

Even in as limited a democracy as America maintains, given that its elections are so largely determined by those who pay for the most advertising, balloting outcomes are driven by ethos — the attitudes, fears, likes and dislikes, and long-held biases that voters bring to their polling places.

Unfortunately for reasonable government, this means that in places like Alabama, Kentucky, and Arkansas, where education averages are low, local ethos plays a strong role in expressing their peoples’ feelings, at the sacrifice of rational decision making. For ethos is dominantly emotive, and only secondarily rational; it is lore, not evidence-based judgment.

In places where well-entrenched lore is resistant to advancing civilization — say in Afghanistan — women are harshly subordinated, children are property, civil law defers to that of the mullahs, and life is, in Thomas Hobbes’s words, “poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

We in the United States congratulate ourselves and each other on how our quality of life compares with that of the Afghans. But wouldn’t it be more realistic to compare our status with those of more advanced countries? Where do we rank, really? Let’s check:

As generally acknowledged, the worse a government treats its people, the more of them it imprisons. According to the World Population List, in 2009 American prisons held 2,300,000 men, women, and children, That’s one-quarter of all the world’s prisoners, although we have only 5 percent of the world’s population. A 2009 NPR report revealed that more than 1,500,000 American children are homeless during at least part of the year. The UN Human Poverty Index, ranking the U.S. on a scale indicating how well societies provide secure, comfortable, and endurable living conditions for their residents, places us at 10th. And finally to cap these grim statistics, Nation Ranking: Quantifying the World of Sovereign States of 2011 places us at 31st on a list addressing life expectancy, infant mortality, health care access, education access, civil rights, press freedom and personal physical safety, among other criteria.

The “Happiness” stipulated in our Declaration of Independence depends on quality of life, the underlying goal of every ballot cast on our biennial elections. How on earth can we be failing so miserably to provide it for us? We are a democracy, as every American insists. So how, under self-government, can we be doing this to ourselves? Could it possibly be our own ethos that’s keeping us so far behind nations we’ve been taught are not as “good” as the United States?

A hard look at the ethos expressed in our recent election outcomes might be instructive. Just what are the prevalent American attitudes toward the least among us? And what real empathy do we feel for the glass ceiling on our women workers; for how our darker-skinned fellows are treated in the fields, in our courts, driving while black, or as they seek to register and vote in our South; or the coldness with which our police periodically roust the homeless hordes surviving in cardboard boxes under bridges?

Does the current Congress majority demonstrate our true ethos in its resolve to kick 13 million needy Americans off their ObamaCare; to gut Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and deport 800,000 young Americans who were brought “illegally” as children to the only homeland they’ve ever known; and to stop funding the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), so that 9 million poor children will soon lose their health care? These political decisions are being made in our name by President Trump and his GOP cohorts. Are they truly expressive of our national ethos?

Every nation earns, by deeds, not rhetoric, its quality-of-life ranking among the industrialized democracies. We’ve earned ours. Our embarrassing (too mild a descriptor) placement is one we’ve earned by trusting Republicans’ complacent insistence that we’re Number One in everything, and that what we need is only more "Retrumplicanism," helped along by Kern’s own Rep. Kevin McCarthy. Many of us, more evidence-insistent, disagree. We can’t prevent their causing a lot of misery in the meantime, but November 2018, will give us a chance to show our disapproval effectively.


Norm Haughness, whose latest book is Democracy: Its Presuppositions, Superstitions, Disappointments, and Feasibility, frets in Tehachapi.