Looking for America’s Narrative

George Packer identifies 4 American narratives

I used to think that most Americans played their politics inside the 40-yard lines. It now seems that a minority is huddled in that centrist space as most have gotten themselves bunched up in the end zones.

Increased polarization in American society has been getting a lot of scrutiny lately. It should be a serious concern for all of us. Partisan rancor can threaten the foundations of this 241-year-old experiment we call the United States. Though our two principal factions are called Republicans and Democrats, it increasingly feels like we are turning into something akin to the Protestants and Catholics of Ireland’s 20th century, or the Sunni and Shia of today’s Middle East.

Anymore Democrats and Republicans don’t just disagree, many despise each other. This makes for a depressing state of affairs. “If you go back to the days of the Civil War, one can find cases in American political history where there was far more rancor and violence,” says Shanto Iyengar, a Stanford political scientist. But in the modern era, there are no ifs and buts – partisan animus is at an all-time high.” A recent New York Times story reported that members of the two parties “are more likely today to describe each other as selfish, as threats to the nation, even as unsuitable marriage material” and provided data documenting these shameful attitudes.

As a consequence we have less humility about our views and we accord less respect to differing opinions. Compromise and moderation go unappreciated.

Moderates are caught in a no man’s land between the right (pick your poison – Trumpian populism or the discredited cut-taxes-to-grow-the-economy dogma which still holds sway over congressional Republicans) – and the left with identity politics, multicultural separatism, and disrespect for free speech (particularly on college campuses). I also have a problem with the notion, incubated on the left, that an honest exchange of ideas among people can represent cultural appropriation.

Secretary of Defense James Mattis, one of the more level-headed and less partisan members of the Trump administration, was recently profiled by Dexter Filkins in the New Yorker magazine. Filkins asked Mattis what worried him most in his new position. His answer wasn’t Russia, ISIS or North Korea. It was “The lack of political unity in America. The lack of a fundamental friendliness. It seems like an awful lot of people in America and around the world feel spiritually and personally alienated. . . If you lose any sense of being part of something bigger, then why should you care about your fellow-man?”

The internet and social media are more foe than friend here. Author Dov Seidman bemoans an anger industry enabled by social networks and cyberhacking that is “either sending us into comfortable echo chambers where we don’t see the other or arousing such moral outrage in us toward the other that we can no longer see their humanity, let alone embrace them as fellow Americans with whom we share values.”

In the U.S. the legitimacy of the authority to govern comes from “we the people.” But what happens when there is no “we” any more, when we have atomized ourselves into tribes or loners?

If you want to fully embrace pessimism, our polarized citizenry and dysfunctional government can be viewed as prelude to the failure of our democracy. As went Rome, so can go America. After all two dozen other democracies have already failed since the year 2000 (including three in Europe – Russia, Turkey and Hungary). That’s according to Edward Luce, a financial columnist for the Financial Times, in his new book The Retreat of Western Liberalism. Luce believes that economic growth is the strongest glue holding liberal democracies together. When growth stalls or reverses, the losers look for scapegoats and politics devolves into a zero-sum game. Let us not forget 1933 Germany.

A glue even stronger than economic growth, I would argue, is a national narrative that most of the body politic subscribes to, whether consciously or not. At the moment our national myth is damaged goods.

That myth, which comes down to us in various guises, has revolved around immigration, the frontier and manifest destiny. Novelist Margaret Atwood has argued that whereas the controlling idea of English literature is the island and the dominant theme in Canadian literature is survival, the pervasive symbol of American literature is the frontier.

Most non-Native Americans came here seeking economic opportunity and religious freedom, often in ways that commingled the two. My forebears were no exception. They were mostly impoverished working-class people in the U.K. and South Africa who in the mid-19th century converted to the Mormon religion and immigrated to Utah, some of them literally crossing the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains on foot. Like most American immigrants, their story was a variant of the Exodus narrative. They rejected an oppressive (poverty can read as oppression), corrupt, unjust world, ventured into a wilderness, and created a new promised land. The idea of Manifest Destiny gilded these journeys, giving them the cast of divine providence.

George Packer, in a recent speech reported on by David Brooks in the New York Times, identifies four rival narratives for America today.
1. Freedom-loving America. The libertarian narrative that dominates the G.O.P. America is a land of free individuals responsible for their own fate. The free market is a moral good. This view regards Americans as economic agents, not as citizens who form a mutually-supportive community.
2. Globalized America. The narrative dominant in the high-tech world, it comes with an “exhilarating ideology of flattening hierarchies, disrupting systems, discarding old elites and empowering individuals.”
3. Multicultural America. Americans belong to groups, whose status is largely determined by the sins of the past and present. This narrative dominates American classrooms and encourages identity politics. Packer says it values inclusion but doesn’t answer the question, Included into what? What is the national identity all these subgroups add up to?
4. America First. The narrative Trump campaigned on holds that the U.S. has lost its traditional identity because of contamination by others – foreigners, immigrants, Muslims – and the weakness of elites who don’t care about America because they’ve been globalized.

A fear I have is that that our population has grown so large (325 million today vs. 103 million a century ago) and diverse that we have become unmanageable. The legislative and executive branches of our national government aren’t working so well and all too often we evince contempt for “the other.” Has our population and diversity outgrown the ability of any one narrative to unify us? Research done on primate groups in the wild comes to mind. For example, chimpanzees form groups of up to several hundred members. At some upper limit, influenced partly by resource availability, members then split off and form new groups.

Is it any longer possible for a political leader to unify us? Obama tried and failed. Trump doesn’t even try. His greatest talent may be for pitting groups against each other. If not political leaders then what about clergy and artists? The clergy’s influence has declined as society has moved in secular directions. And often artists are more interested in celebrating diversity and examining what separates us instead of seeking our common humanity.

I do worry. Can our imperfect but grand experiment, spun off from the 18th century Enlightenment, regain its equilibrium? Or will the opening of William Butler Yeats 1919 poem “The Second Coming” prove prophetic? “Turning and turning in the widening gyre / The falcon cannot hear the falconer; / Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”

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