Since the government shutdown, much of the analytical focus has come to rest on the leadership -- or lack thereof -- of Representative John Boehner. After reading a great deal about the grandstanding histrionics of Ted Cruz, I think there's a bigger problem: the end, for all practical purposes, of deference.
Deference has never been an American virtue.
In fact, something like the opposite might be true. In his book on American exceptionalism, Seymour Martin Lipset listed a resistance to defer to authority as one principle that characterizes the ideology of “Americanism,” next to the pursuit of liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism, and a laissez-faire attitude. So self-assertion may be part of our cultural DNA.
Every historical culture had its particular sanctions against blatant self-promotion. For the ancient Greeks, it was the concept of hubris: strive too hard or too far in the pursuit of excellence in that world, and you were likely to tempt the anger of a god or goddess. The early Christians of course emphasized radical humility, self-effacement even to the point of dying for one’s friends. Classical conservative thought prior to the Thatcher/Reagan realignment acknowledged the gradations of social life and prioritized a strong sense of noblesse oblige; within that framework, the rich and powerful knew that they had duties to society, and that sustaining and preserving the fragile order was to a great extent their responsibility.
One can observe, as Frank Bruni does, that Cruz “has eschewed the slow route to Senate prominence, which would have involved building alliances, for the fast track, which means playing the firebrand, playing to the cheap seats and playing to a news cycle that thrills to conflict." And yet Cruz is a man of the moment. He’s not such an outlier. His actions and words remind us that we are counseled everywhere and at every turn in popular culture to be aggressive, that only winners matter, and that every compromise is a loss. His “fast track” acknowledges no principled deference to the more moderate “squishes” in his own party. He’s emblematic, or perhaps symptomatic, of a party whose vision of the old imagery of a delicate social fabric has completely disappeared. (Or rather, that vision continues to be meaningful only in the limited, weaponized form of attacks on the poor and their alleged abuses of the system of so-called entitlements). Ted Cruz combines in an especially virulent way blatant self-promotion and an apocalyptic ideology. But he's indicative of a larger cultural shift in which older gestures of deference have lost their meaning.