Politics & Policy

Notes towards the Redefinition of a Nation

Statue of George Washington at Federal Hall in New York City (Photo: Fabio Formaggio/Dreamstime)
Much of today’s political polarization can be reduced to a choice between competing narratives.

Not for the first time, Ross Douthat has written a shrewd and sensitive op-ed on the struggle for dominance between the two American nations — not the rich and the poor, but the old and the new. But this is the first time, at least to my knowledge, that he has forecast that the new American nation will overcome the old and establish itself as the real America, though he is still agnostic on how this will happen and, one senses, whether the outcome can be achieved without serious violence.

One of the maddening things about criticizing a Douthat column is they are always so rich in argument that it’s hard to select a quotation that isn’t qualified by a thought elsewhere in the piece. That said, here are his descriptions, slightly rearranged from his column, of the two nations and their conflicting narratives.

The first nation is the uncontested America of the day before yesterday which, as he points out, is still the America of today for millions of Americans:

They still see themselves more as settlers than as immigrants, identifying with the Pilgrims and the Founders, with Lewis and Clark and Davy Crockett and Laura Ingalls Wilder. They still embrace the Iliadic mythos that grew up around the Civil War, prefer the melting pot to multiculturalism, assume a Judeo-Christian civil religion rather the “spiritual but not religious” version.

The other America is based on a rejection of important strands in this tradition:

In its place emerged a left-wing narrative that stands in judgment on the racist–misogynist–robber baron past, and a mainstream liberal narrative that has room for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Alexander Hamilton (as opposed to the slightly more Trumpish genuine article) and Emma Lazarus, but feels unsure about the rest.

As Douthat points out, it was a common and largely undiscussed assumption of both major parties and the elites that serve them that the old America would gradually give ground to the new until a fresh American synthesis was achieved, not without hurt feelings along the way but in the end broadly tolerable to all major social groups.

Within the limits of partisan advantage, therefore, both parties saw it as their responsibility to ensure that this gradual transformation of America’s national identity occurred without violence and undue conflict. Why not? It was inevitable, wasn’t it? But this required, and got, a degree of collusion between the parties that took the form of not strongly opposing policies such as affirmative action and not exploiting popular opposition to high levels of immigration and not following through on election promises to do something on such matters.

It seemed to work quite well until Donald Trump came along and raised these issues. My own guess has been that he blundered into them unsuspectingly, being surprised by the strongly favorable reaction to his early speeches on them, but then making his support for these popular issues his Unique Selling Proposition among GOP candidates. One result was that he was elected U.S. president against tremendous odds. A secondary effect was that he raised the consciousness of the old America, which now rallied to defend its interests, values, and traditions — in a word, its identity. And a third effect was that it outraged and alarmed the beneficiaries of America’s transformation among minorities, feminists, gays, etc., and, still more, its sponsors and engineers among the elites who interpret any expressions of patriotism, nationalism, community pride, religious belief, or sexual discretion as first steps on the road to American fascism.

With this conflict between two versions of American identity now out in the open (and provoking riots in Berkeley and elsewhere), which vision will prevail? And which should?

Douthat is understandably uncertain as to whether there can be an agreed resolution at all. His final paragraph concedes this sadly:

Maybe no unifying story is really possible. Maybe the gap between a heroic founders-and-settlers narrative and the truth about what befell blacks and Indians and others cannot be adequately bridged.

Still, he judges that of the two possible resolutions, the Trumpian “particularist” and “restorationist” narrative of the old America is unlikely to prevail over the “universalist” narrative of a new America, rooted as it is in the civil-rights revolution, the “propositionalist” concept of nationhood, and the recent realities of mass immigration. Take a closer look at both visions, however, and the picture looks much messier.

The universalist vision of new America is weakened by flaws that its dominance of America’s cultural institutions concealed until the election. Its roots in American history before the 1960s are unrelievedly negative, for instance, and it has not dominated the main currents of history since then. It is steadily removing earlier American heroes from their pedestals, but it can boast only one certified American hero in its own pantheon, namely Martin Luther King Jr.

Whites, Hispanics, and Asians all rightly admire King, but the only group of Americans for whom he is a hero on the scale of Lincoln is black America. He is probably not up to the task of sustaining an entire national identity on his shoulders alone. Barack Obama might have provided a second hero for this new America — one appealing powerfully to a rainbow coalition that included whites — but he governed as a sectional and partisan leader who largely failed as president. His personal charisma, which explains his enduring popularity, will inevitably fade as he grows older and departs the scene. That’s our tragedy as well as his.

A second weakness of the new America is that its supporting rainbow coalition is divided far too deeply by ethnicity and ideology to last. Muslims and feminists, Hispanics and Asians, gays and black Christians may be united in the vision but they are often at odds in reality, and that is likely to become clearer as they all get to know each other better.

The universalist vision of new America is weakened by flaws that its dominance of America’s cultural institutions concealed until the election.

If the memory of slavery is to continue to cement the coalition, for instance, black Americans cannot ignore the fact that Muslim participation in the slave trade has a longer history (with less resistance from within Muslim culture) than that of Europe and America. Asians already diverge from Hispanics, blacks, and white feminists over affirmative action, which inevitably imposes negative quotas on them. And Martin Luther King’s devout religious faith makes him a “problematic” hero for gays, feminists, and aggressively secular liberals of all races in the long run.

It sometimes seems that the only cause that unites all these groups is hostility to white America.

And that’s the third weakness: The “universalist” narrative has no real place in it for white Americans, especially white males, except perhaps as permanent penitents for everything that happened before, say, 1968. They are the only group expected to make sacrifices under affirmative action — sacrifices that grow heavier because the protected classes grow steadily through immigration. They are the only permitted butts of ethnic humor. And they are regularly called upon to confess “white privilege” (or be written out of debate) in academic courses hard to distinguish from Communist re-education classes under Mao. As usually happens, moreover, theory limps along after practice to embrace expressions of simple, unqualified anti-white racism (and, in discussions of foreign policy, anti-Americanism too).

This anti-white sentiment disables the new America vision in two ways.

First, it runs up against the demographic fact that many people classed by the census as minority Americans, notably many Hispanics, think of themselves as white and are thought to be white by their neighbors. Many others, notably many Asians, have entered the white/Hispanic/Asian/black/mixed-race mainstream in which racial and ethnic differences lose their sharpness. Official, academic, and cultural authorities do their best to sharpen them again; they sometimes succeed. But the pull of intermarriage and soft social inclusion overrides many of these pressures, with the result that “whites” are a larger and less declining percentage of the population than the census suggests and therefore much harder to demonize or write out of the national story.

Second, a vision of America in which whites are simply environmental despoilers, racial oppressors, capitalist rent-seekers, or masochistic liberals is not only historically absurd but also morally deficient. It clashes with the experience of everyday life and with the decent feelings that ordinary Americans have toward their neighbors. Unless the new America can find a place for the descendants of the original settlers, it will either founder or impose itself uneasily through intimidation, reverse discrimination, and endless propaganda — in short, what was happening until last year and what is now being fiercely contested across the country.

The Old America vision has a greater prospect of prevailing precisely because, as Douthat would wish, it makes an honored place for “the white-male-Protestant-European protagonists to whom, for all their sins, we owe so much of our inheritance,” but not an exclusive place nor even a privileged one. Today the richest Americans are not white Protestants but Asian and Asian–white mixed-race families.

It is a capacious and expanding vision that incorporates a long procession of ethnic and religious groups (Quakers, Catholics, Mormons) that initially faced opposition but were embraced when they had worked their passage morally (did they accept the U.S. Constitution and liberty?) as well as economically.

It’s a realistic vision that doesn’t divide American groups in history into heroes and villains but as people good and bad who had to change to make themselves and America succeed.

It is a progressive vision of people who once suffered hardship, pioneer settlers as well as migrants, but who — given both opportunities and a sense of opportunity — became Americans in surprisingly short order.

The Old America vision seems to me to be a better basis for continued fellowship than a New America vision that rests too much on grievance. Donald Trump deserves credit for placing it back on the political agenda, but he lacks the temperament and skills to unify people around it. We — or I — are therefore left with a paradox. Many millions of Americans live the Old American dream; they believe in it; they exemplify it. But who among them will step forward to argue for it?

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