George Packer has a thought provoking new article in The Atlantic which is adapted from his new book, Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal. It is worth the time to read because Packer’s analysis nicely dovetails with topics and themes which we discuss all the time on this website.
“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. Americans know by now that democracy depends on a baseline of shared reality—when facts become fungible, we’re lost. But just as no one can live a happy and productive life in nonstop self-criticism, nations require more than facts—they need stories that convey a moral identity. The long gaze in the mirror has to end in self-respect or it will swallow us up. …
Since then, the two parties have just about traded places. By the turn of the millennium, the Democrats were becoming the home of affluent professionals, while the Republicans were starting to sound like populist insurgents. We have to understand this exchange in order to grasp how we got to where we are. …
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, computer engineering, scientific research, design, management consulting, the upper civil service, financial analysis, law, journalism, the arts, higher education. 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 are not 1 percenters—those are mainly executives and investors—but they dominate the top 10 percent of American incomes, with outsize economic and cultural influence. …
The narrative of Free America shaped the parameters of acceptable thinking for Smart America. Free trade, deregulation, economic concentration, and balanced budgets became the policy of the Democratic Party. It was cosmopolitan, embracing multiculturalism at home and welcoming a globalized world. Its donor class on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley bankrolled Democratic campaigns and was rewarded with influence in Washington. None of this appealed to the party’s old base. …
I’m exaggerating the suddenness of this new narrative, but not by much. Things changed astonishingly quickly after 2014, when Just America escaped campuses and pervaded the wider culture. First, the “softer” professions gave way. Book publishers released a torrent of titles on race and identity, which year after year won the most prestigious prizes. Newspapers and magazines known for aspiring to reportorial objectivity shifted toward an activist model of journalism, adopting new values and assumptions along with a brand-new language: systemic racism, white supremacy, white privilege, anti-Blackness, marginalized communities, decolonization, toxic masculinity. Similar changes came to arts organizations, philanthropies, scientific institutions, technology monopolies, and finally corporate America and the Democratic Party. The incontestable principle of inclusion drove the changes, which smuggled in more threatening features that have come to characterize identity politics and social justice: monolithic group thought, hostility to open debate, and a taste for moral coercion. …
The rules in Just America are different, and they have been quickly learned by older liberals following a long series of defenestrations at The New York Times, Poetry magazine, Georgetown University, the Guggenheim Museum, and other leading institutions. The parameters of acceptable expression are a lot narrower than they used to be. A written thought can be a form of violence. The loudest public voices in a controversy will prevail. Offending them can cost your career. Justice is power. These new rules are not based on liberal values; they are post-liberal. …”
Packer divides the country into four distinct social classes with four competing national narratives: Free America, Real America, Smart America and Just America.
In my view, two of these groups are unlike the others and one in particular is distinct from the rest. “Free America” is the small business bourgeoisie and represents White middle class conservatives and libertarians.
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