I am grateful for the failure of the despicable Capitol insurrection of January 6, which one seasoned diplomat has referred to as an attempted “self-coup” by Donald Trump. That’s much more serious than just a riot by Trump supporters, suggesting an intentional (if idiotic) plan to overthrow the United States government.
No doubt Trump would be happy to try again in the future if he has a chance. To discourage it, the former president and those he inspired to violently attack Congress while performing its Constitutional duties should be prosecuted in court to the fullest extent of the law.
Punishing the guilty is necessary but it’s not enough to solve the problems behind the insurrection. It’s not just media hype — Americans really are more polarized about politics than they have been since the 1960s, or even the 1860s. Like those eras, we’ve already suffered from a frightening attack on the American republic. We must work hard to make sure that the Capitol insurrection doesn’t turn into a pandemic of political violence that could mean the end of the American Experiment in democracy. No matter how flawed, our heritage of self-government remains precious.
According to veteran political journalist George Packer, toxic polarization goes beyond the traditional divides of right-left or urban-rural. Instead, what separates Americans is the varying stories that we tell about the nation and our place in it. Those stories give meaning to our lives. But if taken too seriously, the stories can justify crushing people who believe in competing stories.
For example, I’m a member of “Smart America.” My membership in this group with its own story about a tech-savvy economy doesn’t give me any special claim to intelligence. It’s more about what I assume about how American society works and how it should work.
College graduates like me who make our living sitting in front of screens all day tend to put faith in education, technology, and meritocracy. Though we recognize that the system isn’t entirely fair, especially when it comes to race and gender, Smart Americans still tend to believe that most people can succeed if they just get an education and put it to good use in a 21st-century job. This affects our politics: Since we think that government should give everyone access to the education they need to be smart while also solving problems of past stupidity like racial and gender inequities and climate change, we usually vote Democratic. It’s the party of Smart America.
But three other big groups of Americans aren’t part of Smart America and they don’t accept its values. They have different values that make them think and vote differently. In his new book Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal, Packer explains that people need a narrative about their world to make sense of it. The nation-state is the most relevant unit of that world for most people to create a story about, and so that Americans have divided into four groups, each with their own story about the purpose of the nation: Free America, Smart America, Just America and Real America.
If we can understand the stories of people who disagree with our worldview, our fellow Americans will seem less deluded or malicious and more human. That will give us a better chance to work together on areas of common agreement (Yes: believe it or not, there still are things we could all agree on, if only we could stop yelling at each other long enough to talk about real problems).
1. Free America
Free America is the story of libertarians on the center-right who took over the Republican Party with the election of Reagan in 1980 and whose philosophy of free markets and small government has dominated politics ever since. Their money comes from industries like fossil fuel extraction but also finance and real estate. With the appearance of Sarah Palin and the election of Trump, the power of Free America to guide the right, led by libertarian rich guys like the Koch brothers, started to wane. When it comes to telling the story of how America’s past affects the present, they like the Trump Administration’s 1776 Project of steady progress over time towards freedom and prosperity.
2. Smart America
Technocrats on the center-left who dominate the new economy of Silicon Valley, biotech and finance believe that anyone can get ahead with enough education and creativity. Unfortunately, meritocracy has begun to fail many Americans, degenerating into a new old-boy network of elite colleges and Wall Street firms that excludes most newcomers and gives a huge advantage to the children of the already successful. But Smart America still blames people in “outmoded” industries like manufacturing or coal mining for their own economic troubles, which earns the Smarties scorn as snobby coastal elites who hold ordinary working folks in contempt.
Smart Americans dominate academia and the media, where they have spread the ideas of “critical theory” for the last few decades. Such ideas have recently broken out into the larger society and created a class of young people who have started to revolt against the meritocratic orthodoxy of Smart America. Not surprisingly, most Smart Americans don’t care much about American history. Proud “citizens of the world,” Smart Americans are frequent fliers who are as comfortable in Paris, Mumbai or Seoul as they are in Brooklyn or Oakland. They’re not emotionally tied to the United States and they’re less interested in the past than in the future. As Elon Musk, Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos race each other to get to outer space, Smart Americans may smile at the vanity of billionaires, but they’re still cheering them on.
3. Just America
The children of Smart America enjoy the benefits of expensive higher education but fewer and fewer of its economic benefits, as the professional careers they expected have started to disappear. Frustrated at their inability to dominate the middle class as their parents generation did, Just Americans have soured on the promises of meritocracy.
But instead of promoting a new economy where all ordinary Americans would thrive, the angry young people of Just America, who are mostly white, have fixed on the issue of race, or as they put it, “racial equity.” They’re much more interested in history than their parents in Smart America, but in a mostly negative way. They’re eager to tear down Confederate statues (and then go on to Washington, Lincoln and even Frederick Douglass) but young justice activists don’t see the point in putting up any better statues in their place. Just Americans agree with the New York Times 1619 Project that the United States was founded on the evil of stealing land from indigenous peoples to work with enslaved Africans, a heritage of injustice that has poisoned the whole American project and makes our future prospects bleak. While certainly necessary to reexamine race, Packer finds that the Just America position that the U.S. is the world’s uniquely most unjust nation and that things will never get any better in the future than they were in the past, is self-limiting.
4. Real America
White Americans living largely in rural areas who were displaced from well paid factory jobs by globalization are as frustrated at their economic decline as Just Americans are. Real Americans have genuine grievances about the economy, but rather than organize to boost unions or promote other practical ideas to empower the working class, Just Americans have retreated into the emotional satisfaction of racial nationalism. They want to take pride in the places where they were born and raised, but those places are increasingly decrepit. So they wind up taking pride in identities of race and religion, veering off into white supremacy and fundamentalist Christian theocracy. As Packer puts it, Sarah Palin was their John the Baptist and Trump is their Savior. Ironically, the right-wingers of Real America share with the left-wingers of Just America (who Real Americans denounce as “Antifa”) a distrust of mainstream American values including meritocracy and progress.
Like Just America, Real America is also pessimistic. Their vision of the future includes very little actual economic improvement but is focused on winning symbolic victories on such social issues as abortion, religion and guns — all, essentially, to provide the only pleasure they think they can get out of today’s society, “owning the libs.” After decades of disappointment and disrespect from governing elites, Just Americans have concluded that national ideals about rewards for hard work are bunk and that there’s little hope for positive change.
Each Story Is Right but Limited
Packer wouldn’t want to live in the republic run by any of these narratives and the groups who promote them, but he also sees that each story offers something necessary to make changes in America’s political economy to solve real problems.
He thinks we all need to come together under an umbrella of concern for our country that qualifies as patriotism, properly defined and taken back from demagogues. The idea that any of these narratives can achieve ultimate success over the others is illusory. So, we might as well just accept that our fellow citizens will disagree on many issues. Instead of hoping to crush them politically, we should find areas of common ground and ways to work together.
Packer wants a synthesis of the most valuable parts of each group’s story, integrating personal freedom and reward for entrepreneurial initiative (Free America), with real meritocracy through education that’s open to all (Smart America) that includes both fixing the discrimination that makes things unfair for Black Americans (Just America) and a commitment to place and class fairness (Real America).
Packer concludes his book with examples of three lesser-known leaders from the past who managed to make the synthesis that Packer thinks we need today: anti-slavery Civil War-era newspaperman Horace Greeley, New Deal labor leader Frances Perkins and civil rights leader Bayard Rustin. Each was an activist for a cause, but none of these figures were dogmatic.
Packer doesn’t expect anybody to give up their group narrative of how America should be and what kind of people should be the winners, and who should be the losers. But he does hope that we might all soften our attachment to these stories, which are, after all, limiting fictions. The reality is more optimistic, if less dramatic, than any of the stories would claim: we can all win something if we get used to the idea of not winning everything.
Getting to that looser, more accepting state of mind will take more than thought exercises, it will take exercises in practical democracy. That means getting out of our groups and working together on less contentious issues, probably mostly local ones like schools or quality of life. “Study after study shows that antagonistic groups begin to lose their mutual hostility and acquire trust when they have to work together, as long as they’re engaged in a specific project, with outside help,” Packer writes.
If bringing people together to build a school or perform a play can reconcile Israelis and Palestinians, Bosnian Serbs and Muslims or Irish Catholics and Protestants, then maybe working on projects together might be just the ticket to help Just Americans and Real Americans begin to see each other as people and not as monsters, respect the right to disagree and then start cooperating on what they can agree on.