Psychology Magazine

Four Americas

By Deric Bownds @DericBownds

I want to recommend that MindBlog readers have a look at George Packer's essay in the Atlantic presenting a condensed version of arguments in his new book, Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal. Below, I pass on an even more condensed version in a few clips from the Atlantic article: 

1 - Free America

Call the first narrative “Free America.” In the past half century it’s been the most politically powerful of the four. Free America draws on libertarian ideas, which it installs in the high-powered engine of consumer capitalism. The freedom it champions is very different from Alexis de Tocqueville’s art of self-government. It’s personal freedom, without other people—the negative liberty of “Don’t tread on me.”...The conservative movement began to dominate the Republican Party in the 1970s, and then much of the country after 1980 with the presidency of Ronald Reagan.
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.”
2 Smart America
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 dominate the top 10 percent of American incomes, with outsize economic and cultural influence...After the 1970s, meritocracy..., a system intended to give each new generation an equal chance to rise, created a new hereditary class structure. Educated professionals pass on their money, connections, ambitions, and work ethic to their children, while less educated families fall further behind, with less and less chance of seeing their children move up...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.
In the early 1970s, the party became the home of educated professionals, nonwhite voters, and the shrinking unionized working class. The more the party identified with the winners of the new economy, the easier it became for the Republican Party to pull away white workers by appealing to cultural values...these two classes, rising professionals and sinking workers, which a couple of generations ago were close in income and not so far apart in mores, no longer believe they belong to the same country. But they can’t escape each other, and their coexistence breeds condescension, resentment, and shame...Smart Americans are uneasy with patriotism. It’s an unpleasant relic of a more primitive time, like cigarette smoke or dog racing. It stirs emotions that can have ugly consequences. The winners in Smart America—connected by airplane, internet, and investments to the rest of the globe—have lost the capacity and the need for a national identity, which is why they can’t grasp its importance for others...abandoning patriotism to other narratives guarantees that the worst of them will claim it.
3 - Real America
Real America is a very old place. The idea that the authentic heart of democracy beats hardest in common people who work with their hands goes back to the 18th century. It was embryonic in the founding creed of equality. “State a moral case to a ploughman and a professor,” Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1787. “The former will decide it as well, and often better than the latter, because he has not been led astray by artificial rules.” Moral equality was the basis for political equality...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...The overwhelmingly white crowds that lined up to hear Palin speak were nothing new. Real America has always been a country of white people...
From its beginnings, Real America has also been religious, and in a particular way: evangelical and fundamentalist, hostile to modern ideas and intellectual authority...Finally, Real America has a strong nationalist character. Its attitude toward the rest of the world is isolationist, hostile to humanitarianism and international engagement, but ready to respond aggressively to any incursion against national interests...Ever since the age of Reagan, the Republican Party has been a coalition of business interests and less affluent white people, many of them evangelical Christians. The persistence of the coalition required an immense amount of self-deception on both sides.
When Trump ran for president, the party of Free America collapsed into its own hollowness...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...More than anything, Trump was a demagogue—a thoroughly American type, familiar to us from novels like All the King’s Men and movies like Citizen Kane. “Trump is a creature native to our own style of government and therefore much more difficult to protect ourselves against,” the Yale political theorist Bryan Garsten wrote. “He is a demagogue, a popular leader who feeds on the hatred of elites that grows naturally in democratic soil.” 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.
4 - Just America
In 2014, American character changed....A large and influential generation came of age in the shadow of accumulating failures by the ruling class—especially by business and foreign-policy elites...My generation told our children’s generation a story of slow but steady progress...If anyone doubted that the country was becoming a more perfect union, the election of a Black president who loved to use that phrase proved it...Of course the kids didn’t buy it. In their eyes “progress” looked like a thin upper layer of Black celebrities and professionals, who carried the weight of society’s expectations along with its prejudices, and below them, lousy schools, overflowing prisons, dying neighborhoods...Then came one video after another of police killing or hurting unarmed Black people. Then came the election of an openly racist president. These were conditions for a generational revolt.
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.
In the same way that libertarian ideas had been lying around for Americans to pick up in the stagflated 1970s, young people coming of age in the disillusioned 2000s were handed powerful ideas about social justice to explain their world. The ideas came from different intellectual traditions: the Frankfurt School in 1920s Germany, French postmodernist thinkers of the 1960s and ’70s, radical feminism, Black studies. They converged and recombined in American university classrooms, where two generations of students were taught to think as critical theorists.
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. All relations are power relations, everything is political, and claims of reason and truth are social constructs that maintain those in power...But in identity politics, equality refers to groups, not individuals, and demands action to redress disparate outcomes among groups—in other words, equity, which often amounts to new forms of discrimination. 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...By the turn of the millennium, these ideas were nearly ubiquitous in humanities and social-science departments. Embracing them had become an important credential for admittance into sectors of the professorate...In turn, these scholars formed the worldview of young Americans educated by elite universities to thrive in the meritocracy.
Millions of young Americans were steeped in the assumptions of critical theory and identity politics without knowing the concepts...Here is the revolutionary power of the narrative: What had been considered, broadly speaking, American history (or literature, philosophy, classics, even math) is explicitly defined as white, and therefore supremacist...The most radical version of the narrative lashes together the oppression of all groups in an encompassing hell of white supremacy, patriarchy, homophobia, transphobia, plutocracy, environmental destruction, and drones...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.
...another way to understand Just America is in terms of class. Why does so much of its work take place in human-resources departments, reading lists, and awards ceremonies? In the summer of 2020, the protesters in the American streets were disproportionately Millennials with advanced degrees making more than $100,000 a year. Just America is a narrative of the young and well educated, which is why it continually misreads or ignores the Black and Latino working classes. The fate of this generation of young professionals has been cursed by economic stagnation and technological upheaval. The jobs their parents took for granted have become much harder to get, which makes the meritocratic rat race even more crushing. 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 historian Peter Turchin coined the phrase elite overproduction to describe this phenomenon. He found that a constant source of instability and violence in previous eras of history, such as the late Roman empire and the French Wars of Religion, was the frustration of social elites for whom there were not enough jobs. Turchin expects this country to undergo a similar breakdown in the coming decade.
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All four of the narratives I’ve described emerged from America’s failure to sustain and enlarge the middle-class democracy of the postwar years. They all respond to real problems. 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.
In Free America, the winners are the makers, and the losers are the takers who want to drag the rest down in perpetual dependency on a smothering government. In Smart America, the winners are the credentialed meritocrats, and the losers are the poorly educated who want to resist inevitable progress. In Real America, the winners are the hardworking folk of the white Christian heartland, and the losers are treacherous elites and contaminating others who want to destroy the country. In Just America, the winners are the marginalized groups, and the losers are the dominant groups that want to go on dominating.
I don’t much want to live in the republic of any of them...I don’t think we are dying. We have no choice but to live together—we’re quarantined as fellow citizens. Knowing who we are lets us see what kinds of change are possible...Meanwhile, we remain trapped in two countries. Each one is split by two narratives—Smart and Just on one side, Free and Real on the other. Neither separation nor conquest is a tenable future. The tensions within each country will persist even as the cold civil war between them rages on.

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