I begin with “Free America”, which really became into political power in the late ’70s and early ’80s, with Ronald Reagan, and with essentially a narrative of free markets, of strongly pro-business, low taxes, deregulation, get the government out of my life, you know the whole … It’s essentially the Reagan rhetoric which was so eloquent and so … I listened to some of his speeches from the 1980 campaign and even though I didn’t vote for him, I found them quite mesmerizing. He made that America sound like, as he put it, “The shining city on the hill of the Puritans”.
Of the four narratives, Free America has been the most potent politically. It dominated our politics. It set the terms of debate. It changed what you could talk about and what you couldn’t, and really had an effect on the Democratic Party as well as on the Republican Party. I would say by the early 2000s, it was becoming clear that for all the appeal of freedom, which really mostly meant free markets in the Reagan rhetoric, had not delivered on the promise of widespread prosperity and instead had led to winners and losers that were really fairly extreme.
To an ownership class, an investment class, a corporate class that was doing better and better, and it seemed that no matter whether it was recession or boom, whether it was a Republican or Democrat in the White House, the rich kept getting richer. And the hollowing out of many communities that had depended on either industry or agriculture, like Dean Price’s Western North Carolina, falling further and further behind, again, no matter the state of the economy or of our politics. And this was obviously connected to globalization, technological change, the replacement of the industrial economy by the information economy. But in the end, the Reagan recipe did not produce the shining city on the hill. And in each of the four narratives, there’s the promise, there’s the appeal, and then there’s the failure.
The second, I call “Smart America”. That’s essentially the America I grew up in and live in. That is the America of the educated professional class of the meritocrats, as they’re called. And I think Bill and Hillary Clinton are probably, and Barack Obama, are the evangels of Smart America, and the examples of Smart America because they all came from humble beginnings, and through education and intelligence and ambition and energy and talent, they rose to the heights.
Meritocracy sounds like a fair system because it says you will advance as far as your talents and efforts can take you, and to the best, to the most energetic, to the smartest go the rewards. The problem with meritocracy has been that it has become a kind of class system rather than a system of equal opportunity. As social mobility has declined, as your birth becomes more and more the determinant of your destiny in this country, and our rates of social mobility, which used to far exceed Europe’s are now below Europe’s. So, the American dream of rising and the passing on to the next generation have not been achieved in the last two decades.
Meritocracy has become a form of aristocracy, where educated professionals pass on to their children all the advantages, the connections. They speak 10,000 words a day, they play Beethoven to three-year-olds, they get them into the right preschool, they have the right test prep tutors, they get them into the right US News and World Report rated colleges and into the right professions — generally, law, finance, medicine, media. This has become an aristocratic system in which these advantages are passed on from generation to generation. You are born a meritocrat today. You don’t become one.
And the chances of a poor American getting into a top Ivy League college are no better today than they were in 1954, after all the efforts, all the opening of those colleges to a more diverse group of candidates. So, Smart America has also failed on its promise, and because of those failures, the other two narratives, Real and Just America are expressions of disillusionment and of alienation from the promise of American life, from the optimistic narratives.
“Real America” is a phrase Sara Palin used in 2008, on a campaign stop very near Dean Price’s hometown in North Carolina. It was actually to a group of donors and what I’ve learned watching politics over the years is candidates only tell the truth to their donors. Hillary Clinton talked about deplorables to her donors. Mitt Romney talked about the 47% takers to his donors. Barack Obama talked about guns and religion to his donors. Sara Palin talked about the Real America to her donors. And what she meant, I think, was the kind of people who were in that region and basically, she meant white Christian working people, and she described them as the patriotic hardworking people who grow our food and teach our children and fight our wars.
And she was distinguishing them from people in the cities, from people on the coasts, from Smart Americans, elites, who somehow are less real, somehow are less the kind of people who are the heart and backbone of the country. So, it was a sort of divisive phrase that, I think, captured a picture of who is American and who has less of a claim. And for me, Sara Palin was John the Baptist to Donald Trump. She led the way. She created a kind of identity for a new politics. It was really not Reaganism any longer. It did not speak the language of endless opportunity based on entrepreneurial activity.
It was more pessimistic. It was about America in decline, America being taken over by immigrants, by the wrong kind of people, and the need for to get back to an America that was the Real America. And that, I think, became Trump’s potent argument for why Hillary Clinton should be rejected by the American people. She had failed the Real Americans.
The last of the narratives I called “Just America”, and those were the young people in the streets last summer. Those are… It’s a generational rebellion against me, against my generation, the boomers, against the parents, the Smart Americans who promised that if you work hard and go to the right school you’ll have a good life.
And younger people today look at the country and say, “This is not a just country. In fact, we’ve been born in injustice. We, in some ways, were conceived in original sin, the sin of slavery. And we have made very little progress and we will not make progress until we confront the darkness at the heart of America and somehow extirpate it.” So, like Real America, Just America is a more pessimistic narrative that seems to have the upper hand because so many Americans today feel that the country is in decline and had become disenchanted with the promises of 1776 and 1863. And so, Just America, I think of as a kind of generational rebellion.
And in many ways, Just and Real America which are, of course, politically at odds, if not at war with each other, have things in common. They tend toward the extremes. They tend to reject ordinary politics as being somehow corrupt and worthless. And they moralize politics. They want politics to be public morality, the public version of what they think of as morality, which is actually how Robespierre defined politics, public morality, which led to the guillotine. So, there’s a kind of retributive and punitive quality on both sides of that divide and those narratives have, I think, led us to a pretty dangerous impasse where we can’t talk to each other any longer across lines of ideology and identity.