I recently watched a profoundly insightful lecture by New Yorker journalist and author George Packer at the University of California-Berkeley on “American Identity in the Age of Trump.” Packer’s lecture—which had previously been featured in a David Brooks column in the New York Times—provides a useful historical account of the deterioration of American politics, and how it wrought Trumpism. By exploring the different American stories jockeying for supremacy today, Packer gives us the tools we need to craft an identity to restore our democracy.
Packer’s theme is that American identity has collapsed amid polarization—that on an individual and community level, American life has grown ever more isolated, shrinking the common bonds we share as a national community.
He points to data showing a correlation between rising polarization, inequality, and immigration since the 1970s. “A smaller pie,” he argues, “divided into less and less equal slices among people who look less and less alike drives us toward cynical and hateful extremes.”
This sense of alienation has been driven by disillusionment with our institutions—not least of which include our political parties, according to Packer. Over the course of the twentieth century, the Democrats were the party of the “fair shake,” while the Republicans were the party of “getting ahead,” as he puts it. The parties more or less neatly aligned with workers and business, respectively.
That dichotomy gradually broke down in unpredictable ways. On the left, after the bloody 1968 convention, Democrats reformed their nominating process. This weakened the influence of entrenched labor interests, and gave more voice to the “new politics” of the day, with its emphasis on civil rights, the environment, and resisting militarism. This generation was proceeded by the Atari Democrats and Bill Clinton of the 1980s, with its own emphasis on embracing globalization and promoting education as a cure-all elixir. The Democratic Party, in short, became steadily detached from the concerns of working people over the last fifty years.
Over the same time period, the Republican Party has by and large been a “shaky marriage” between the rich and downscale whites. The GOP odd couple became a (white) workers’ party led by the Kochs, and stained by nihilism fed by rage, according to Packer. In 2008, the possibility of vice president Sarah Palin stirred political excitement in a segment of the Republican base that had long felt forgotten. That excitement was populism, which slowly seized Republican politics.
Palin’s populism turned working-class whiteness into a breed of identity politics. She doubled down on anti-institutional and anti-intellectual strains that had percolated in conservative politics for generations, amplifying them into all-out contempt for “lamestream” institutions, beaming ignorance as a point of pride. She tacked on infatuation with her own celebrity and unrestrained narcissism for good measure, as Packer puts it. With this combination, Packer says, “Palin was John the Baptist for Donald Trump.”
Packer alleges that our institutions stopped meeting the aspirations of those at the bottom, while those at the top stopped believing in interests larger than their own. His 2013 book The Unwinding traces the lives of several individual Americans over thirty-five years, as their senses of isolation and alienation deepened on the back of broader political and economic shifts in American life. It’s a book that describes the early warning of something like Trumpism. Packer says—“a democracy where no center holds.”
Packer met an Ohio steelworker who found Trump’s insults refreshing, saying that Trump’s ugliness is a “mirror of how they see us”—turning the tables on those elites who defile Middle America as flyover country populated by uncouth rubes. The lower Trump’s language and behavior sank, Packer observed, the more the press vilified him, and the more he was celebrated by his tribe. It’s a trend that has carried on into the Oval Office: the more he demonstrates manifest unfitness and danger to the office, the more the press hollows, and the more his Republican base rallies around him.
To Packer, Trump has revealed what has been true all along. Republican voters are not small-government principled conservatives who read the Wall Street Journal editorial page and belong to the Federalist Society. They want government to do things that benefit them, and not people who don’t look like them. The party’s most energized elements, Packer says, “are driven by violent opposition to changes in color and culture to the country they once knew.”
The election in 2016 was in part about economic anxiety—not necessarily economic hardship. Trumpism succeeded in places with low levels of mobility, little hope, and lost faith in the success of their communities. (Of course, these attitudes tend to correlate with and be informed by harsh attitudes on gender and race, as well.)
Put together, the election was about alienation, Packer concludes. It had very little to do with actual policy. Hillary Clinton came armed with pages and pages of policies and white papers aimed at making the economy more responsive to working people, breaking up economic monopolies, and more. When he interviewed Clinton just before the presidential election, Packer suspected none of her ideas would break through to voters. “She’s a lifelong institutionalist at a time of bitter distrust in institutions, a believer in gradual progress faced with violent impatience,” he wrote at the time.
In short, the traditional partisan divide between the “fair shake” and “getting ahead” has broken down. “The essence of American politics today is tribalism,” Packer says. He points to Richard Rorty’s influential tract Achieving Our Country, which tells us that politics is a contest of narratives. Different narratives of the American story have always jockeyed for supremacy in our politics. But to Packer, the narratives that dominate public debate today have become increasingly balkanized and splintered.
Packer sees four dominant narratives in America today:
- Libertarian America. This narrative emphasized individual freedom and free markets. It’s the narrative of Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek; of Ronald Reagan, Paul Ryan, and the Republican establishment. “The libertarian idea regards Americans as consumers, entrepreneurs, and taxpayers—everything but citizens,” Packer says. There’s little respect for self-government to meet our needs, which is why Ryan sits back and lets Trump trash our democracy for the sake of tax cuts for the rich.It’s also a shell narrative with little actual support in the real world. Packer calls the libertarian narrative a “head without a body”—the ideology of the donor class and conservative think tank bubble, with little resonance among actual Republican voters.
- Cosmopolitan America. This is the narrative of meritocracy and globalization. It’s the narrative that embraces modernity and technological change, thrilled by the prospect of disrupting old system and flattening hierarchies. This narrative prevails in Silicon Valley and educated urban professionals. It’s the legacy of the New Democrats that occupied the Democratic establishment from the 1980s on through the bridge to the twenty-first century.
- Diverse America. This is the narrative of social justice that focuses on remedying histories of oppression and celebrating America’s pluralism. It sees Americans as members of groups, each with their own stories and historical perspectives. Packer sees Diverse America and Trump each reacting to one another. Trump deliberately picks fights with subscribers to this narrative (indeed, its largely the narrative that Hillary Clinton ran on in 2016), and shrewdly sees it as his ally—as the progressive the progressive mirror of “America first.”
- America First. This is the narrative of Trumpism. Its one that pits true patriots against their victimizers: disloyal coastal elites. It’s the narrative of the heartland, of Palin’s “real America”: white, Christian America.
Each narrative brings forward a set of winners and losers. Libertarianism has its makers and takers, in the words of Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney. Cosmopolitanism has urbane meritocrats and Trump’s beloved “poorly educated” white working-class. Diverse America pits group against group. And America First pits “real Americans” against elites.
Packer thinks that none of these narratives will suffice to forge a true American community. He does not offer a fifth competing narrative, but instead offers an aspiration that we define national identity in the most inclusive terms possible, turning away from tribalism and toward broadly shared citizenship.
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To my mind, a narrative that turns back polarization and unites a true American community must be one that actually values such a community. That narrative must build upon what is right and good about our existing narratives, while doing away with their zero-sum spoils and losses.
Each narrative has something compelling to offer. Americans have always believed in individual freedom and autonomy—just not the narrow anti-government strain offered by today’s libertarian right. America has always been a country that embraces innovation like globalization and technology—but cushions must be set in place to withstand the disruptions of those forces. America is a nation of immigrants, and is exceptional precisely because it undertook an experiment to prove self-government by heterogeneous groups can actually work—a belief that people of different faiths, ethnicities, and backgrounds can come together and form one community, not siloed tracts of black, white, and brown. And America has always been a proud, patriotic country. At its best, that patriotism is an inclusive celebration of shared American values. But at its worst, it can mutate into an exclusionary chest-thumping assertion of an ultra-limited claim over “true” American heritage.
Perhaps we can retain these compelling features of Packer’s four narratives, while sanding off the downsides to create an American identity that doesn’t presuppose winners and losers. That would create a new narrative that doesn’t accept or encourage a winner-take-all society between makers and takers, or between Ivy Leaguers and high school graduates. And it would strive for something bolder than a politics of factionalism based on either intergroup rivalry or resentful mono-cultural purity.
Such a narrative might expand upon Packer’s hope for inclusive common citizenship. It would be a narrative that relies on communitarian values and social democracy to achieve greater dignity and self-determination for all. The politics that undergirded the era of progressivism from Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal on through Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society do not fit neatly within Packer’s four narratives. The proud American identity of this era, and the national aspiration of broadly shared uplift and prosperity, ought to be resurrected today.
Of course, racial and cultural politics ultimately unwound that common identity. Lest we circle back to Packer’s descent into polarization from the ‘70s onward, we must update the New Deal politics to eliminate its exclusions. Fortunately, much of that work has already been done by none other than Barack Obama, who relentlessly cast the American story as one of steady progress, where groups rise up against legacies of oppression to demand a place in the American community—a current always churning toward broader citizenship.
The four American narratives that prevail today are products of our long descent into polarization. To escape that spiral, we must transcend the narratives that define our current politics. A narrative that is both new and old, that harkens back to America’s heyday as a secure middle-class nation while pointing forward toward America’s future as a dynamic multicultural democracy, may just be what we need to reverse our long unwinding.