If you have 45 minutes to ponder the state of this great nation over the upcoming Independence Day weekend, I recommend “How America Fractured into 4 Parts,” by George Packer, published by The Atlantic in Medium. If you don’t have kind of time, I offer these Cliff Notes to a useful perspective on our country’s status.
The melting pot that is the United States of America has devolved into that picky eater who separates his food into discrete piles, and freaks out when runny egg seeps under his bacon or a single grain of rice infiltrates his beans. Each of us falls, with scary precision, into one of four camps. Each camp crafts a narrative that stakes legitimate claim as rightful owner of the 21st century American dream. Yet each dismisses all others as immoral or unpatriotic, ignorant or communist. In truth, each faction is a little bit right, a little bit wrong, and all whole lot obstructive.
Free Americans are the ideological descendants of libertarian backlash to the New Deal that gathered steam under Barry Goldwater, came to full flower under Ronald Reagan, and flourishes as today’s dominant politics insomuch as every policy discussion gets couched in terms set by Free Americans. The individual is supreme. His rights are paramount. The only good government is less government. And that extends to corporations, who fill campaign coffers in exchange for unfettered freedom.
Smart Americans are highly educated citizens who feast upon the bounty of a knowledge/technology-based economy. We are the coastal elites (plus university-town pimples on the landscape like Austin, Texas; Lawrence, Kansas; and Madison Wisconsin). Smart Americans are affluent and motivated, albeit removed from fundamental economic tasks like growing food or manufacturing objects. Globalists rather than nationalists for the simple reason that globalism serves us well. We consult and program and hedge-fund under the delusion of meritocracy’s inherent equity, without admitting that the operating systems are stacked in our favor. We have the answers—and the economic success—that proves we’re right; we can’t fathom why others don’t climb aboard. (I use the pronoun ‘we’ for this faction, since both George Packer and I are, for better or worse, Smart Americans.)
Real Americans consider themselves the backbone of our nation. Rural, in spirit if not in fact. Religious, of an evangelical slant. Traditional in their values, especially those that evoke a white, agrarian past. Hostile to modernity. Allergic to intellectual authority. These are the Americans who catapulted Donald Trump to the Presidency. But Trump didn’t invent this faction; he’s simply a master of tapping into their long-standing suspicions. More than a century ago, populist William Jennings Bryan said, “If we have to give up either religion or education, we should give up education.” Sentiment that echoes the priorities of Real Americans today.
Just Americans—or perhaps they should be labelled Unjust Americans—are typically younger, disenfranchised citizens weaned on critical race theory and identity politics. Mr. Packer dates their emergence to 2014, when Michael Brown’s death became an indictment of our system rather than of bad apples. Just Americans reframe our entire history through the lens of racism. And though that perspective has been long discounted, it alone offers a monocular vision of a complex nation. When society is conceived as a collection of conflicting group identities, there’s no accounting for an individual’s responsibility and motivation. Thus, in direct contrast to Free Americans, Just Americans repudiate our central myth of rugged individualism. The circle of ideological conflict is complete.
Today, Free Americans and Real Americans have an uneasy political alignment, as do Smart Americans and Just Americans. Mr. Packer does not see those affiliations as fixed. However, as his article is centered on describing the state of ourselves—now—rather than speculating how we will evolve, he does not suggest how affiliations might morph and change. His concluding tone remains optimistic, perhaps even Pollyannaish: we’re all in this together and will eventually figure out how to move in sync.
I’m unconvinced of Mr. Packer’s optimism. But it’s summertime, and the living is easy, and our flags are flying high. So enjoy! Own whatever faction of American politic suits you best, but please acknowledge our fellow citizen’s claims. And strive to get along. Whether Free or Smart or Real or Just, we need each other so much more than we’re willing to admit.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
Note: All images courtesy of Lucy Jones and Atlantic Magazine.