Politics Is a Contest of Stories — These 4 Are Tearing Us Apart
Do you live in Free America, Smart America, Real America, or Just America? Yes, you do.
I came across a piece in the current issue of The Atlantic I’ve been thinking about ever since. It’s an attempt to map the fault lines in American politics right now as the product of fractures in the society as a whole, and it begins with this profound insight:
Nations, like individuals, tell stories in order to understand what they are, where they come from, and what they want to be. National narratives, like personal ones, are prone to sentimentality, grievance, pride, shame, self-blindness. There is never just one — they compete and constantly change. The most durable narratives are not the ones that stand up best to fact-checking. They’re the ones that address our deepest needs and desires.
The article goes on to explain the four American stories competing for control, and the four camps that subscribe to them. It traces the roots and evolution of each, their dependencies and conflicts, factual foundations and dark sides, and — at least at a high level — their implications for the future. It’s a long piece, in classic Atlantic fashion. But there’s very little fat on it.
The first, and most influential over the last 50 years or so, is that of Free America. Free America is living a story where government bureaucracy and well-intended liberal meddling are the source of all our problems. They want to cripple both, in a way that liberates what they see as the inherent enterprise, diligence, and fundamental goodness of the American spirit as the keys to realizing the potential of our City on a Hill.
Free America draws a straight line between the “Don’t tread on me” ethos of the founding in 1776 to the mob of freedom-loving Americans taking back their constitutional rights by shitting on the floors of Congress and hunting down elected representatives. They’re mostly working class people, many of whom have lost out in an economy shaped by emerging technology, international labor competition, inaccessible healthcare, and an accelerating shift away from fossil fuels. Facing those challenges alone has only hardened their belief that government can’t or won’t help them. As a character in the novel, Freedom, puts it: “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.”
The second story, the one likely most familiar to readers of The Atlantic, is that of Smart America. Smart America believes first and foremost in meritocracy, and sees the role of government as one of ensuring basic fairness in the competition of modern life. Perhaps not by coincidence, these people have certain material advantages in that competition, and it’s a game they get up every day ready to play.
I live in Smart America, as I expect you might. Here’s how the piece sees us:
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…, scientific research, design, consulting, financial analysis, [etc.] They go to college with one another, intermarry, gravitate to desirable neighborhoods in large metropolitan areas, and do all they can to pass on their advantages to their children… They’re at ease in the world that modernity created. They were early adopters of things that make the surface of contemporary life agreeable: HBO, Lipitor, MileagePlus Platinum, the MacBook Pro, grass-fed organic beef, cold-brewed coffee, Amazon Prime. They welcome novelty and relish diversity… They believe in credentials and expertise — not just as tools for success, but as qualifications for class entry.
If that feels on target — and it does to me — get ready for the dark side:
The winners in Smart America have withdrawn from national life. They spend inordinate amounts of time working (even in bed), researching their children’s schools and planning their activities, shopping for the right kind of food, learning to make sushi or play the mandolin, staying in shape, and following the news. None of this brings them in contact with fellow citizens outside their way of life. School, once the most universal and influential of our democratic institutions, now walls them off… [Smart America has] lost the capacity and the need for a national identity, which is why they can’t grasp its importance for others.
Those “others” include the group living in a third story, among the most aggrieved and intensely felt of the four. They’re Real America, a term coined by Sarah Palin, who the author sees as a kind of proto-Trump. According to the piece,
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.’
Real America is hostile toward anything that subordinates their inherent wisdom to credentialed expertise. The hostility toward aristocracy present at America’s birth has metastasized in them into a general suspicion of educated sophisticates. For them, more learned citizens are actually less fit to lead; the best politicians come from ordinary people, and stay true to their values. A particular kind of religion is central to these values, that of the evangelical and fundamentalist, hostile to modern ideas and to intellectual authority. Real America believes the truth will enter every simple heart, and that it doesn’t come in shades of gray. “If we have to give up either religion or education,” said William Jennings Bryan in the 1920’s, “we should give up education.” The Scopes Monkey Trial pushed his views out of fashion for a while. But they’re back in a way that suggests they never really left.
Real America has a strong nationalist character, and it’s a brand of nationalism that is unmistakably white, and Christian. 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 our national interest. For Real America, the purity and strength of Americanism are always threatened by contamination from outside, and betrayal from within.
Which brings us to the fourth narrative, that of Just America. Just America is concentrated among the young, what the piece calls “a large and influential generation [that] came of age in the shadow of accumulating failures by the ruling class — especially by business and foreign-policy elites. This new generation had little faith in ideas that previous ones were raised on: All men are created equal. Work hard and you can be anything. Knowledge is power… Democracy and capitalism are the best systems… America is the leader of the free world.”
My generation — Gen X — told its children a story of slow but steady progress. America had slavery, and genocide, and internment, and other crimes, to answer for, to be sure — but it had answered, and with the civil-rights movement, the biggest barriers to equality had been removed. If anyone doubted that the country was becoming a more perfect union, the election of a Black president who loved that phrase surely must have proven it. Maybe we had to squint to believe these things. But our kids don’t buy it.
To them “progress” looks 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. The… children [of] stressed-out laborers in the multigenerational family business of success, bear the psychological burdens of the meritocracy. Many… entered the workforce loaded with debt, just as the Great Recession closed off opportunities and the reality of planetary destruction bore down on them. No wonder their digital lives seemed more real to them than the world of their parents… No wonder the bland promises of middle-aged liberals left them furious.
It’s in that light that one video after another of police killing unarmed Black men begins to shape the story of America. In parallel came the killings visited on their generation from Sandy Hook Elementary to Marjorie Stone Douglass High School, and a government unwilling or unable to protect them. The election of an openly racist, anti-immigrant, anti-science, anti-non-normative sexuality and gender president added insult to injury, setting the stage for the generational revolt that unfolded through the COVID crisis.
Which brings us to where we are. Today we live in a nation where Free America — living a story told by Reagan — and Real America — living a story told by Trump — are aligned against Smart America — living a story told by Obama — and Just America, living a story still in need of being told, by a leader who has yet to emerge. What seems clear is that one will.
What also seems clear is that we’re not going to heal the divisions in our politics from within one of these stories, so it’s important we at least listen to them all. What happens after that is anybody’s guess.
For more read George Packer’s excellent piece, How America Fractured Into Four Parts, in the current edition of The Atlantic.