Politics & Policy

The Fracturing of the American Ideal

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Collectivism in any guise, including its postmodern progressivist variety, has been historically antithetical to a free society.

The idea of the self-constituting citizen, endowed with rights and constrained by law, has been indispensable to the forging of a stable democratic political system in America, legitimizing its institutions and ultimately birthing a cohesive nation bereft of the prerequisite of an underlying common ethnicity. This principle has been the source of America’s unprecedented success for over two centuries.

In contrast, each time in recent history that governments have favored group-based systemic solutions, despotism has followed and, ultimately, the implosion of the state built upon it. And yet this is where America’s elite class seems hell-bent on taking the nation.

The past several decades have witnessed an implacable drive by our leadership class to make group identity the dominant category in our thinking about and practice of politics. Few at the top seem to care how the public is likely to respond to collectivist solutions that not only preference one group of people over another but, in effect, would bury once and for all the quintessentially American assertion that ultimately history can be redeemed only by the individual, for it rests with the content of one’s character and not on government action.

The oligarchization of American elites and the parallel pauperization of the citizenry is the real but uniformly suppressed story behind the country’s ongoing Balkanization, while the preferred narrative has been that alleged racial and gender injustice must be overcome by executive fiat. The relative impoverishment of the American middle class has degraded the power of the citizenry to self-govern and has emboldened an increasingly detached elite to indulge in group-based political experiments, with the reengineering of the nation in accordance with ever-shifting notions of “equity and social justice” the ultimate goal.

Just before the COVID pandemic hit, almost one third of all Americans lived in lower-class households, with the median income of just over $25,000 a year, less than two-thirds the national median. In 2015 the number of middle-class households dipped below 50 percent. With the lockdowns destroying small businesses, it continues to spiral downward. In contrast, in the 1950s, two thirds of American households were comfortably middle-class. Most importantly, while barely half of all households today belong to the middle class, according to Pew, already in 2014 the gap between the earnings of middle-income and upper-income families was the widest ever recorded in American history.

The fading of the middle class has been the predictable byproduct of the corporate off-shoring of our industry and has diminished its influence, a trend accelerated by the persistent disavowal of its values and lifestyles by our nation’s opinion-makers. In a nation where 80 percent of the population has seen its relative economic position decline and, with it, its ability to influence the country’s politics increasingly marginalized, the ruling oligarchy’s continued disregard for their concerns, values, and preferences is a prescription for deepening polarization, political instability, and further unrest.

Collectivism in any guise, including its postmodern progressivist variety, has been historically antithetical to a free society, for it ultimately disempowers and muzzles the individual. The foundational assumption of Marxism has been its preference for group categories as the building blocks of society, in an all-out rejection of the post-Enlightenment and quintessentially American ideal of the self-constituting individual. This radical disavowal of the free citizen in favor of class categories was captured by Lenin’s devotee Vladimir Mayakovsky when he declared that the individual human being was an irrelevance in the modern world, for only the proletariat organized for action by the Communist Party could achieve social justice for all. To this day, Marxist social engineers worldwide recoil from the notion that an individual can make sovereign personal choices and remain empowered by law to shape his or her life. Such a self-constituting citizen — and, by extension, society — directly contradicts the “immutable laws of progress” that in the view of the collectivist, have chartered the course of history.

What makes America’s flirtation with collectivism striking is that race and gender, rather than class, have become the dominant mode of discourse about group grievance, in blindness to the more prosaic reality of what is driving the fracturing of the American nation. For years, Americans have been indoctrinated in their schools and universities, and conditioned through the media they consume, to look at one another not as members of a community of self-reliant citizens bound together by a commitment to individual freedom under the law, a shared national identity, and mutual obligation, but increasingly as a collection of aggrieved groups, each validated by its own grievance — real or imagined — and poised to exact retribution for the misdeeds of generations past.

Today the process of re-racializing American history has nearly reached its climax. We are poised to begin to decompose as a nation along geo-ideological lines, reflecting the territorial alignment of exclusive ideologies, or to witness the triumph of the American Left over a progressively disenfranchised citizenry. If the decline is not stopped soon, the final outcome is likely to repeat the experience of other nations that at some point in their history veered in the direction of group-based social engineering as a pathway to an allegedly more just society.

No one can predict how the abandonment of the American ideal of the individual citizen’s rights under the law will ultimately play out, but one thing is certain: When rhetoric and reality fundamentally misalign, chaos reigns.

Andrew A. Michta is the dean of the College of International and Security Studies at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies. The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies, the U.S. Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

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