David Brooks May 26, 2017, New York Times
image from article
America has always been a divided, sprawling country, but for most of its history it
was held together by a unifying national story. As I noted a couple of months ago, it
was an Exodus story. It was the story of leaving the oppressions of the Old World,
venturing into a wilderness and creating a new promised land. In this story, America
was the fulfillment of human history, the last best hope of earth.
That story rested upon an amazing level of national self-confidence. It was an
explicitly Judeo-Christian story, built on a certain view of God’s providential plan.
But that civic mythology no longer unifies. [JB emphasis] American confidence is
in tatters and we live in a secular culture. As a result, we’re suffering through a
national identity crisis. Different groups see themselves living out different national
stories and often feel they are living in different nations.
In a superbly clarifying speech to the think tank New America, the writer
George Packer recently argued that there are four rival narratives in America today.
First, there is the libertarian narrative that dominates the G.O.P. America is a land of
free individuals responsible for their own fate. This story celebrates the dynamism of
the free market. Its prime value is freedom. Packer wrote that “the libertarian idea in
its current shape regards Americans as consumers, entrepreneurs, workers,
taxpayers — indeed everything except citizens.”
Second, there is the narrative of globalized America. This is the narrative
dominant in Silicon Valley and beyond. “We’re all lifelong learners and work for the
start-up of you, and a more open and connected world is always a better world.” This
story “comes with an exhilarating ideology of flattening hierarchies, disrupting
systems, discarding old elites and empowering individuals.”
But in real life when you disrupt old structures you end up concentrating power
in fewer hands. This narrative works out well for people who went to Stanford, but
not so well for most others.
Third, there is the story of multicultural America. “It sees Americans as
members of groups, whose status is largely determined by the sins of the past and
present,” Packer observed. “During the Obama years it became a largely unexamined
dogma among cultural elites.”
The multicultural narrative dominates America’s classrooms, from elementary
school through university: “It makes the products of these educations — the students
— less able or less willing to think in terms larger than their own identity group — a
kind of intellectual narcissism — which means they can’t find common ground or
effective arguments that can reach people of different backgrounds and views.”
As Packer noted, it values inclusion but doesn’t answer the question, Included
into what? What is the national identity all these subgroups add up into?
Finally, there is the narrative of America First, the narrative Donald Trump told
last year, and which resonated with many voters. “America First is the conviction
that the country has lost its traditional identity because of contamination and
weakness — the contamination of others, foreigners, immigrants, Muslims; the
weakness of elites who have no allegiance to the country because they’ve been
This story is backward-looking and pessimistic. In practice, Packer concluded,
“This narrative has contempt for democratic norms and liberal values, and it has an
autocratic character. It personalizes power, routinizes corruption and destabilizes
the very idea of objective truth.”
Personally, I don’t think any of these narratives is a viable basis for successful
governance in the 21st century. I’ve just read Michael Lind’s fascinating essay “The
New Class War” in American Affairs, and under its influence I’d say the future of
American politics will be a competition between two other stories, which are sort of
descended from the existing four.
The first is the mercantilist model, which sees America not as the culmination of
history but as one major power in competition with rival powers, like China, Russia,
Europe and so on. In this, to be American is to be a member of the tribe, and the
ideal American is the burly protector of his tribe.
America’s government and corporations should work closely together to
“protect our jobs” and beat back rival powers. Immigration and trade should be
closely controlled and foreign entanglements reduced. America’s elites would have
an incentive to share wealth with America’s workers because they need them to fight
off their common foes.
The second is the talented community. This story sees America as history’s
greatest laboratory for the cultivation of human abilities. This model welcomes
diversity, meritocracy, immigration and open trade for all the dynamism these
things unleash. But this model also invests massively in human capital, especially
the young and those who suffer from the downsides of creative destruction.
In this community, the poor boy and girl are enmeshed in care and cultivation.
Everything is designed to arouse energy and propel social mobility.
The mercantilist model sees America as a new Rome, a mighty fortress in a
dangerous world. The talented community sees America as a new Athens, a creative
crossroads leading an open and fundamentally harmonious world. It’s an Exodus
story for an information age.