July/August 2021 Issue
image above: Lucy Jones
WN: Wow! The essay is stunning as it is brilliant. At least read my excerpts below. Better though, purchase the book it is excerpted/adapted from: Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal.
It challenges understanding about America’s past and present place in the world in about every way that I know of–and comes out hopeful.
The article’s title is reminiscent of Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation. Click on the title for my review of it. George Packer certainly concurs with the role of “fracturing” by White Evangelicals. But he also looks beyond in hopefulness.
Nations, like individuals, tell stories in order to understand what they are, where they come from, and what they want to be. National narratives, like personal ones, are prone to sentimentality, grievance, pride, shame, self-blindness. There is never just one—they compete and constantly change. The most durable narratives are not the ones that stand up best to fact-checking. They’re the ones that address our deepest needs and desires. Americans know by now that democracy depends on a baseline of shared reality—when facts become fungible, we’re lost. But just as no one can live a happy and productive life in nonstop self-criticism, nations require more than facts—they need stories that convey a moral identity. The long gaze in the mirror has to end in self-respect or it will swallow us up.
Tracing the evolution of these narratives can tell you something about a nation’s possibilities for change. Through much of the 20th century, the two political parties had clear identities and told distinct stories. The Republicans spoke for those who wanted to get ahead, and the Democrats spoke for those who wanted a fair shake. Republicans emphasized individual enterprise, and Democrats emphasized social solidarity, eventually including Black people and abandoning the party’s commitment to Jim Crow. But, unlike today, the two parties were arguing over the same recognizable country. This arrangement held until the late ’60s—still within living memory.
The two parties reflected a society that was less free than today, less tolerant, and far less diverse, with fewer choices, but with more economic equality, more shared prosperity, and more political cooperation. Liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats played important roles in their respective parties. Americans then were more uniform than we are in what they ate (tuna noodle casserole) and what they watched (Bullitt). Even their bodies looked more alike. They were more restrained than we are, more repressed—though restraint and repression were coming undone by 1968.
Since then, the two parties have just about traded places. By the turn of the millennium, the Democrats were becoming the home of affluent professionals, while the Republicans were starting to sound like populist insurgents. We have to understand this exchange in order to grasp how we got to where we are.
Over the past four decades, the four narratives have taken turns exercising influence. They overlap, morph into one another, attract and repel one another. None can be understood apart from the others, because all four emerge from the same whole.
The majority of Americans who elected Reagan president weren’t told that Free America would break unions and starve social programs, or that it would change antitrust policy to bring a new age of monopoly, making Walmart, Citigroup, Google, and Amazon the J.P. Morgan and Standard Oil of a second Gilded Age. They had never heard of Charles and David Koch—heirs to a family oil business, libertarian billionaires who would pour money into the lobbies and propaganda machines and political campaigns of Free America on behalf of corporate power and fossil fuels. Freedom sealed a deal between elected officials and business executives: campaign contributions in exchange for tax cuts and corporate welfare. The numerous scandals of the 1980s exposed the crony capitalism that lay at the heart of Free America.
…Real freedom is closer to the opposite of breaking loose. It means growing up, and acquiring the ability to participate fully in political and economic life. The obstructions that block this ability are the ones that need to be removed. Some are external: institutions and social conditions. Others are embedded in your character and get in the way of governing yourself, thinking for yourself, and even knowing what is true. These obstructions crush the individuality that freedom lovers cherish, making them conformist, submissive, a group of people all shouting the same thing—easy marks for a demagogue.
Rather than finding new policies to rebuild declining communities, Republicans mobilized anger and despair while offering up scapegoats.
Its spirit became flesh in the person of Newt Gingrich, the most influential politician of the past half century. There was nothing conservative about Gingrich. He came to Congress not to work within the institution or even to change it, but to tear it down in order to seize power. With the Gingrich revolution, the term government shutdown entered the lexicon and politics became a forever war. (Gingrich himself liked to quote Mao’s definition of politics as “war without blood.”) His tactics turned the goal of limited and efficient government into the destruction of government. Without a positive vision, his party used power to hold on to power and fatten corporate allies. Corruption—financial, political, intellectual, moral—set in like dry rot in a decaying log.
But for the sinking working class, freedom lost whatever economic meaning it had once had. It was a matter of personal dignity, identity. Members of this class began to see trespassers everywhere and embraced the slogan of a defiant and armed loneliness: Get the fuck off my property. Take this mask and shove it. It was the threatening image of a coiled rattlesnake: “Don’t tread on me.” It achieved its ultimate expression on January 6, in all those yellow Gadsden flags waving around the Capitol—a mob of freedom-loving Americans taking back their constitutional rights by shitting on the floors of Congress and hunting down elected representatives to kidnap and kill. That was their freedom in its pure and reduced form.
A character in Jonathan Franzen’s 2010 novel, Freedom, puts it this way: “If you don’t have money, you cling to your freedoms all the more angrily. Even if smoking kills you, even if you can’t afford to feed your kids, even if your kids are getting shot down by maniacs with assault rifles. You may be poor, but the one thing nobody can take away from you is the freedom to fuck up your life.” . . . Guns and religion were the authentic interests of millions of Americans. Trade and immigration had left some of them worse off. And if the Democratic Party wasn’t on their side—if government failed to improve their lives—why not vote for the party that at least took them seriously?Free America always had an insurgent mindset, breaking institutions down, not building them up. Irresponsibility was coded into its leadership. Rather than finding new policies to rebuild declining communities, Republicans mobilized anger and despair while offering up scapegoats. The party thought it could control these dark energies on its quest for more power, but instead they would consume it.
So the question isn’t who Trump was, but who we are.
The new knowledge economy created a new class of Americans: men and women with college degrees, skilled with symbols and numbers—salaried professionals in information technology, computer engineering, scientific research, design, management consulting, the upper civil service, financial analysis, law, journalism, the arts, higher education. They go to college with one another, intermarry, gravitate to desirable neighborhoods in large metropolitan areas, and do all they can to pass on their advantages to their children. They are not 1 percenters—those are mainly executives and investors—but they dominate the top 10 percent of American incomes, with outsize economic and cultural influence.
They believe in credentials and expertise—not just as tools for success, but as qualifications for class entry. They’re not nationalistic—quite the opposite—but they have a national narrative. Call it “Smart America.”
The cosmopolitan outlook of Smart America overlaps in some areas with the libertarian views of Free America. Each embraces capitalism and the principle of meritocracy: the belief that your talent and effort should determine your reward.
. . . and the individual is the unit of worth in Smart America as in Free America.
…After seven decades of meritocracy, a lower-class child is nearly as unlikely to be admitted to one of the top three Ivy League universities as they would have been in 1954.
The conclusion was obvious: The system was rigged for insiders. The economic recovery [after 2008] took years; the recovery of trust never came.
This hierarchy slowly hardened over the decades without drawing much notice. It’s based on education and merit, and education and merit are good things, so who would question it? The deeper injustice is disguised by plenty of exceptions, children who rose from modest backgrounds to the heights of society.
But it’s this idea of fairness that accounts for meritocracy’s cruelty. If you don’t make the cut, you have no one and nothing to blame but yourself. Those who make it can feel morally pleased with themselves—their talents, discipline, good choices—and even a grim kind of satisfaction when they come across someone who hasn’t made it. Not “There but for the grace of God go I,” not even “Life is unfair,” but “You should have been more like me.”
…The winners in Smart America have withdrawn from national life. They spend inordinate amounts of time working (even in bed), researching their children’s schools and planning their activities, shopping for the right kind of food, learning to make sushi or play the mandolin, staying in shape, and following the news. None of this brings them in contact with fellow citizens outside their way of life. School, once the most universal and influential of our democratic institutions, now walls them off. The working class is terra incognita.
Real America has always been a country of white people.
Under the watchful eye of their parents, the children of Smart America devote exhausting amounts of energy to extracurricular activities and carefully constructed personal essays that can navigate between boasting and humility. The goal of all this effort is a higher education that offers questionable learning, dubious fulfillment, likely indebtedness, but certain status. Graduation from an exclusive school marks the entry into a successful life. A rite endowed with so much importance and involving so little of real value resembles the brittle decadence of an aristocracy that’s reached the stage when people begin to lose faith that it reflects the natural order of things. In our case, a system intended to expand equality has become an enforcer of inequality. Americans are now meritocrats by birth. We know this, but because it violates our fundamental beliefs, we go to a lot of trouble not to know it.
…And because people still live their lives in an actual place, and the nation is the largest place with which they can identify—world citizenship is too abstract to be meaningful—patriotic feeling has to be tapped if you want to achieve anything big. If your goal is to slow climate change, or reverse inequality, or stop racism, or rebuild democracy, you will need the national solidarity that comes from patriotism.
The narrative of Real America is white Christian nationalism.
That’s one problem with the narrative of Smart America. The other problem is that abandoning patriotism to other narratives guarantees that the worst of them will claim it.
…The triumph of popular democracy brought an anti-intellectual bias to American politics that never entirely disappeared. Self-government didn’t require any special learning, just the native wisdom of the people. “Even in its earliest days,” Richard Hofstadter wrote, “the egalitarian impulse in America was linked with a distrust for what in its germinal form may be called political specialization and in its later forms expertise.” Hostility to aristocracy widened into a general suspicion of educated sophisticates. The more learned citizens were actually less fit to lead; the best politicians came from the ordinary people and stayed true to them. Making money didn’t violate the spirit of equality, but an air of superior knowledge did, especially when it cloaked special privileges.
The banks received bailouts, and the bankers kept their jobs [after the financial crisis of 2008.]
From its beginnings, Real America has also been religious, and in a particular way: evangelical and fundamentalist, hostile to modern ideas and intellectual authority. The truth will enter every simple heart, and it doesn’t come in shades of gray. “If we have to give up either religion or education, we should give up education,” said Bryan, in whom populist democracy and fundamentalist Christianity were joined until they broke him apart at the Scopes “monkey trial” in 1925.
…The purity and strength of Americanism are always threatened by contamination from outside and betrayal from within. The narrative of Real America is white Christian nationalism.
[Republicans] wanted government to do things that benefited them—not the undeserving classes below and above them.
This collapse happened in the shadow of historic failures. In the first decade of the new century, the bipartisan ruling class discredited itself—first overseas, then at home. The invasion of Iraq squandered the national unity and international sympathy that had followed the attacks of September 11. The decision itself was a strategic folly enabled by lies and self-deception; the botched execution compounded the disaster for years afterward. The price was never paid by the war’s leaders. As an Army officer in Iraq wrote in 2007, “A private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war.” The cost for Americans fell on the bodies and minds of young men and women from small towns and inner cities. Meeting anyone in uniform in Iraq who came from a family of educated professionals was uncommon, and vanishingly rare in the enlisted ranks. After troops began to leave Iraq, the pattern continued in Afghanistan. The inequality of sacrifice in the global War on Terror was almost too normal to bear comment. But this grand elite failure seeded cynicism in the downscale young.
…The financial crisis of 2008, and the Great Recession that followed, had a similar effect on the home front. . . But those who suffered were lower down the class structure: middle-class Americans whose wealth was sunk in a house that lost half its value and a retirement fund that melted away, working-class Americans thrown into poverty by a pink slip. The banks received bailouts, and the bankers kept their jobs.
The lower [Trump’s] language and behavior sank, and the more the media vilified him, the more he was celebrated by his people.
When Trump ran for president, the party of Free America collapsed into its own hollowness. The mass of Republicans were not free-traders who wanted corporate taxes zeroed out. They wanted government to do things that benefited them—not the undeserving classes below and above them.
…Party elites were too remote from Trump’s supporters and lulled by their own stale rhetoric to grasp what was happening. Media elites were just as stupefied. They were entertained and appalled by Trump, whom they dismissed as a racist, a sexist, a xenophobe, an authoritarian, and a vulgar, orange-haired celebrity. He was all of these. But he had a reptilian genius for intuiting the emotions of Real America—a foreign country to elites on the right and left. They were helpless to understand Trump and therefore to stop him.
It’s the way people talk when the inhibitors are off, and it’s available to anyone willing to join the mob. [“The mob is untruth.”—Søren Kierkegaard]
…If educated professionals considered steelworkers like Baum to be ignorant, crass, and bigoted, then Trump was going to shove it in our smug faces. The lower his language and behavior sank, and the more the media vilified him, the more he was celebrated by his people. He was their leader, who could do no wrong.
Nothing convinced them like Trump’s 30,000 lies.
“Make America great again.” “Drain the swamp.” “Build the wall.” “Lock her up.” “Send her back.” It’s the way people talk when the inhibitors are off, and it’s available to anyone willing to join the mob. Trump didn’t try to shape his people ideologically with new words and concepts. He used the low language of talk radio, reality TV, social media, and sports bars, and to his listeners this language seemed far more honest and grounded in common sense than the mincing obscurities of “politically correct” experts. His populism brought Jersey Shore to national politics. The goal of his speeches was not to whip up mass hysteria but to get rid of shame. He leveled everyone down together.
…The issues Trump had campaigned on waxed and waned during his presidency. What remained was the dark energy he unleashed, binding him like a tribal leader to his people. Nothing was left of the optimistic pieties of Free America. Trump’s people still talked about freedom, but they meant blood and soil. Their nationalism was like the ethno-nationalisms on the rise in Europe and around the world. Trump abused every American institution—the FBI, the CIA, the armed forces, the courts, the press, the Constitution itself—and his people cheered. Nothing excited them like owning the libs. Nothing convinced them like Trump’s 30,000 lies.
No wonder their digital lives seemed more real to them than the world of their parents.
A demagogue can become a tyrant, but the people put him there—the people who want to be fed fantasies and lies, the people who set themselves apart from and above their compatriots. So the question isn’t who Trump was, but who we are.
…. . . and below them, lousy schools, overflowing prisons, dying neighborhoods. The parents didn’t really buy it either, but we had learned to ignore injustice on this scale as adults ignore so much just to get through. If anyone could smell out the bad faith of parents, it was their children, stressed-out laborers in the multigenerational family business of success, bearing the psychological burdens of the meritocracy. Many of them entered the workforce, loaded with debt, just as the Great Recession closed off opportunities and the reality of planetary destruction bore down on them. No wonder their digital lives seemed more real to them than the world of their parents. No wonder they had less sex than previous generations. No wonder the bland promises of middle-aged liberals left them furious.
A more accurate name would be Unjust America, in a spirit of attack rather than aspiration.–[WN: This is largely my take. If we don’t learn from history, we’re destined to repeat its mistakes.]
Call this narrative “Just America.” It’s another rebellion from below. As Real America breaks down the ossified libertarianism of Free America, Just America assails the complacent meritocracy of Smart America. It does the hard, essential thing that the other three narratives avoid, that white Americans have avoided throughout history. It forces us to see the straight line that runs from slavery and segregation to the second-class life so many Black Americans live today—the betrayal of equality that has always been the country’s great moral shame, the heart of its social problems.
But Just America has a dissonant sound, for in its narrative, justice and America never rhyme. A more accurate name would be Unjust America, in a spirit of attack rather than aspiration. For Just Americans, the country is less a project of self-government to be improved than a site of continuous wrong to be battled. In some versions of the narrative, the country has no positive value at all—it can never be made better.
Critical theory upends the universal values of the Enlightenment: objectivity, rationality, science, equality, freedom of the individual. These liberal values are an ideology by which one dominant group subjugates another. . . Critical theorists argue that the Enlightenment, including the American founding, carried the seeds of modern racism and imperialism.
In practice, identity politics inverts the old hierarchy of power into a new one: bottom rail on top. The fixed lens of power makes true equality, based on common humanity, impossible.
Millions of young Americans were steeped in the assumptions of critical theory and identity politics without knowing the concepts. Everyone sensed their power. Not everyone resisted the temptation to abuse it.
The optimistic story of incremental progress and expanding opportunity in a multiracial society collapsed, seemingly overnight. The incident in Ferguson ignited a protest movement in cities and campuses around the country.
What is the narrative of Just America? It sees American society not as mixed and fluid, but as a fixed hierarchy, like a caste system. An outpouring of prizewinning books, essays, journalism, films, poetry, pop music, and scholarly work looks to the history of slavery and segregation in order to understand the present—as if to say, with Faulkner, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” The most famous of this work, The New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project, declared its ambition to retell the entire story of America as the story of slavery and its consequences, tracing contemporary phenomena to their historical antecedents in racism, sometimes in disregard of contradictory facts. Any talk of progress is false consciousness—even “hurtful.” Whatever the actions of this or that individual, whatever new laws and practices come along, the hierarchical position of “whiteness” over “Blackness” is eternal.
There are too many things that Just America can’t talk about for the narrative to get at the hardest problems. It can’t talk about the complex causes of poverty. Structural racism—ongoing disadvantages that Black people suffer as a result of policies and institutions over the centuries—is real. But so is individual agency, and in the Just America narrative, it doesn’t exist. The narrative can’t talk about the main source of violence in Black neighborhoods, which is young Black men, not police. The push to “defund the police” during the protests over George Floyd’s murder was resisted by many local Black citizens, who wanted better, not less, policing. Just America can’t deal with the stubborn divide between Black and white students in academic assessments. The mild phrase achievement gap has been banished, not only because it implies that Black parents and children have some responsibility, but also because, according to anti-racist ideology, any disparity is by definition racist. Get rid of assessments, and you’ll end the racism along with the gap.
Newspapers and magazines known for aspiring to reportorial objectivity shifted toward an activist model of journalism, adopting new values and assumptions along with a brand-new language: systemic racism, white supremacy, white privilege, anti-Blackness, marginalized communities, decolonization, toxic masculinity. Similar changes came to arts organizations, philanthropies, scientific institutions, technology monopolies, and finally corporate America and the Democratic Party. The incontestable principle of inclusion drove the changes, which smuggled in more threatening features that have come to characterize identity politics and social justice: monolithic group thought, hostility to open debate, and a taste for moral coercion.
Law, medicine, academia, media—the most desirable professions—have all contracted. The result is a large population of overeducated, underemployed young people living in metropolitan areas.
The whole atmosphere of Just America at its most constricted—the fear of failing to say the right thing, the urge to level withering fire on minor faults—is a variation on the fierce competitive spirit of Smart America. Only the terms of accreditation have changed. And because achievement is a fragile basis for moral identity, when meritocrats are accused of racism, they have no solid faith in their own worth to stand on.
Just America’s origins in theory, its intolerant dogma, and its coercive tactics remind me of 1930s left-wing ideology. Liberalism as white supremacy recalls the Communist Party’s attack on social democracy as “social fascism.” Just American aesthetics are the new socialist realism.
Each offers a value that the others need and lacks ones that the others have. Free America celebrates the energy of the unencumbered individual. Smart America respects intelligence and welcomes change. Real America commits itself to a place and has a sense of limits. Just America demands a confrontation with what the others want to avoid. They rise from a single society, and even in one as polarized as ours they continually shape, absorb, and morph into one another. But their tendency is also to divide us, pitting tribe against tribe. These divisions impoverish each narrative into a cramped and ever more extreme version of itself.
But a way forward that tries to make us Equal Americans, all with the same rights and opportunities—the only basis for shared citizenship and self-government—is a road that connects our past and our future.
This essay is adapted from George Packer’s new book, Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal. It appears in the July/August 2021 print edition with the headline “The Four Americas.”
Please click on: How America Fractured Into Four Parts