This is a long and thoughtful article on the decline of the USA from the perspective of a good liberal Democrat. It’s worth reading, if only to see how completely the author manages to miss the point while rather comprehensively, for the most part, describing the Four Americas as he sees them.
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.
The dead end of Just America is a tragedy. This country has had great movements for justice in the past and badly needs one now. But in order to work, it has to throw its arms out wide. It has to tell a story in which most of us can see ourselves, and start on a path that most of us want to follow.
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. 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.
All four narratives are also driven by a competition for status that generates fierce anxiety and resentment. They all anoint winners and losers. 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.
It’s common these days to hear people talk about sick America, dying America, the end of America. The same kinds of things were said in 1861, in 1893, in 1933, and in 1968. The sickness, the death, is always a moral condition. Maybe this comes from our Puritan heritage. If we are dying, it can’t be from natural causes. It must be a prolonged act of suicide, which is a form of murder.
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. Countries are not social-science experiments. They have organic qualities, some positive, some destructive, that can’t be wished away. Our passion for equality, the individualism it produces, the hustle for money, the love of novelty, the attachment to democracy, the distrust of authority and intellect—these won’t disappear. A way forward that tries to evade or crush them on the road to some free, smart, real, or just utopia will never arrive and instead will run into a strong reaction. 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.
It’s fascinating how concepts such as “immigration” and “offshoring” and “real wages” and “1965 Naturalization Act” and “surveillance society” don’t even enter into the thought processes of the liberal attempting to understand the current situation. And it’s informative to see that despite this, even the self-styled Smart American can see that the situation is untenable.
It’s impossible to resolve the situation through dialogue because all of the assumptions upon which the dialogue is based are fake. The Smart Americans are not that Smart and their beloved credentials are fraudulent. The Free Americans are not Free. Many of the Real Americans are not actually Americans, and the Just Americans are neither just nor are most of them even actual Americans.