June 27, 2021 (from www.rationaloptimist.wordpress.com)
Some people see America divided in two. George Packer sees four Americas. He’s a leading journalist and author, whose new book, Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal, is distilled into an essay in The Atlantic.*
The 2016 election shattered my understanding of this country. I’ve since struggled to rebuild it. Packer offers some good insights. He actually pinpoints 2014 as the year America’s character changed. Though that refers to only one of what he sees as really four stories. Four different mentalities that have evolved, each sparking reverberations in the others. He labels them Free, Smart, Real, and Just America.
Free America originally wove together Enlightenment libertarianism with traditionalist conservatism. Opposing big bossy government; “speak[ing] to the American myth of the self-made man and the lonely pioneer on the plains.” This became the Republican party’s ideology.
Packer says “libertarians made common cause with segregationists, and racism informed their political movement from the beginning,” with the 1964 Goldwater campaign. That raised my hackles. I was active in that effort and didn’t observe racism being part of it. We had other ideological fish to fry. Though we did welcome any support we could get, including from segregationists who had their own reasons.
That was then. Packer says that after Reagan, “Free America’s” leadership went downhill. Gingrich being the key political figure of the era, turning politics into scorched-earth war. Then from Gingrich to Cruz to Hannity, “with no bottom.” Government was still the bête noire, but this was no longer a matter of Enlightenment philosophy, but rather of tribal blood-and-soil white caste assertiveness. Republicans “mobilized anger and despair while [only] offering up scapegoats. The party thought it could control these dark energies . . . instead they would consume it.” Culminating in January 6.
Smart America — a core of today’s Democratic party — refers to a relatively new elite class of educated professionals, whose cosmopolitanism somewhat overlaps with Free America’s libertarian streak. Both have a meritocratic ethos, believing talent and effort should determine reward, thus both having limited sympathy for the underclass. Packer says meritocrats no longer feel part of the same country — Smart America having withdrawn, as it were, into its gated communities, disengaged from some larger national project. Seeing patriotism as vulgar, thus leaving it the province of yahoos.
Sarah Palin embodied what Packer labels Real America (which is how it sees itself). Its anti-intellectualism has deep antecedents, standing in opposition to the elites of Smart America. Which, Packer says, discredited themselves with the Iraq mess and then the 2008 financial crisis. “Real America” also reviles “other” people it sees as both alien and unworthy. Its heart is white Christian nationalism (with Christianity more salient as a tribal cultural signifier than as a religious creed).
Those “Real Americans” seized upon Trump as their voice, which he channeled with (I’d say unwitting) “reptilian genius.” If the elites considered them ignorant, crass, and bigoted, “then Trump was going to shove it in [their] smug faces.” Thus did his vileness actually, perversely, work for him.
Free and Real America seem hard to disentangle today; the latter having really subsumed the former. Smothering its principled antecedents, now confined to an impotent rump of Republicanism.
Packer fingers 2014, the year of Ferguson, as a hinge point, a sort of coming-out party for his fourth cohort — Just America — as in “social justice,” with its abiding idea really being Unjust America. Upending universal Enlightenment values of rationalism in favor of a subjectivity seeing everything in terms of power relationships and modalities of oppression (gosh, I’m starting to sound like them). We know by now how insufferably intolerant these “woke” people can be, trolling everywhere for pretexts to assert putative moral superiority over others. (An analog of sorts to white supremacism.) Which, Packer says, does nothing to actually address the kinds of societal problems they spout about.
While Packer divides us into the four groups, the fourth doesn’t seem on a par with the rest, which comprise big population segments. Just America, for all its shrillness and undeniable cultural intimidation, is actually only a small minority. Meantime Packer ultimately sees a dichotomy, putting Free and Real America together in one bucket, Smart and Just America in another. That latter linkage is dubious.
I see the real divide as between, on one hand, Trump cultists in an ugly alternate reality together with the hard left “woke” totalitarians — Crazed America — and, on the other hand, contrastingly reasonable and rational folks of good will. Sane America. Among whom differences of opinion are comparatively benign.
Anyhow, Packer says the societal division “emerged from America’s failure to sustain and enlarge the middle-class democracy of the postwar years.” (Actually the picture is much more complex than the conventional wisdom of a “disappearing middle class” would have it.) Packer holds that each of his four groups “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.”
I found that too a bit forced. However, says Packer, they all impinge upon each other, pitting tribe against tribe vying for status, pushing each into ever more extreme versions of themselves.
But he says America isn’t dying. We have no choice but living together. And 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.”
Those words sound like platitudinous moonshine. And his concluding ones contradict them: “we remain trapped in two countries . . . the tensions within each country will persist even as the cold civil war between them rages on.”
That’s closer to reality. The “crisis” of Packer’s book title is clear enough; the “renewal” part much less so.
* https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2021/07/george-packer-four-americas/619012/. All quotes are from the essay. (I thank Robyn Blumner of the Center for Inquiry for pointing me to it.)