As I reflect back on my teen years in the 1960s, I struggled mightily then to make sense of what it meant to be an American in light of the assassinations of JFK, MLK, and RFK, the civil rights movement, the rise of Black power and identity politics, Vietnam and the draft, college demonstrations, the drug culture and free sex, the ’68 Chicago Democratic National Convention, Nixon’s election, and McGovern’s electoral disaster, the deep divisions between the ethos of the GI generation and us Boomers, and between the political left and right. Those were hard times. Today, it feels no different. I’ll spare you the list of events over the last two decades. You’ve lived them as have I.
A recently published book by The Atlantic journalist George Packer called Last Best Hope – America in Crisis and Renewal asks how we got where we are today and how we can get out of it. He begins by characterizing four American narratives that increasingly have divided and alienated Americans one from another: “Free America,” “Smart America,” “Real America,” and “Just America.” He posits the view (citing Walt Whitman, Alexis De Tocqueville, and Bayard Rustin) that we have to reclaim “Equal America” as the guiding idea of our national identity – moral equality, civic equality, and equality of opportunity.
“Free America…draws on libertarian ideals, which it installs in the high-powered engine of consumer capitalism” with an attitude of “don’t tread on me.”
“Smart America …welcomes novelty and relishes diversity. They believe that the transnational flow of human beings, information, goods, and capital ultimately benefits most if not all people around the world….Smart America values a meritocracy, credentials and expertise, and is cosmopolitan.”
“Real America…is the authentic heart of democracy and beats hardest in common people who work with their hands.”
“Just America…sees a straight line that runs from slavery and segregation to the second-class life so many Black Americans live today – the betrayal of equality that has always been the country’s great moral shame, the dark heart of its social problems.”
All four narratives, Packer explains, “are driven by a competition for status – the consequence of this broken promise [of equality] – that generates fierce anxiety and resentment…. In Free America the winners are the makers, and the losers are the takers who want to drag the rest down in perpetual dependency on a smothering government. In Smart America the winners are the credentialed meritocrats, and the losers and the poorly educated who want to resist inevitable progress. In Real America the winners are the hardworking folk of the white Christian heartland, and the losers are the treacherous elites and contaminating others who want to destroy the country. In Just America the winners are the marginalized groups, and the losers are the dominant groups that wanted to go on dominating.” (p. 139)
Packer describes well the multiple crises facing America today. He presents the four narratives, explains how each developed and the cross-over effects of one or more, and critiques them all thereby laying the groundwork for his prescription for “Equal America.”
I found the 210-page book enlightening – at times uplifting – and I recommend it. For a thoughtful and critical review, read William Galston of the Brookings Institution in The Washington Post – “The Search for balance among four Americas” (June 11, 2021).