David Brooks wrote an interesting column in the NYT a few days ago. He doesn’t believe the constant flow of unfavorable news about the Trump administration will have much effect on the loyalty of his base. Facts aside, Trump knows how to appeal to the myth of who they want to be (again), and they love it. No longer to be looked down on by the educated, liberal elite who are “clueless idiots full of drivel,” Trump affirms for them that they, the regular (white) people, are the true source of American “virtue, wisdom and toughness.” It’s a powerful myth even if one that never worked, not even for those who want to believe in it, and it’s far from a unifying myth for all Americans. Unifying myths are rare, but we’ve had a few that helped the nation surge ahead as one, or at least offering the illusion of being unified. The most powerful of them worked for sixty years or so, but they work no longer. Do we need a new one, if such a thing is even possible? Is it?
The nation got along without a dominant unifying myth for over a century. During that time it played with dozens of competing myths about what it means to be American, and fought a vicious civil war in the process. Unity of identity has not been a dominant feature of the American character.
Excluding revolutionary America, the idea of a nationally unifying myth is fairly recent. The Spanish American War tried but sputtered out. WWI rallied America to action, but never quite unified it. The Great Depression was a shared experience, but not a unifying one. WWII unified Americans as they had never been before. We were the arsenal of freedom, fighting not only for America, but for the whole world of free peoples. Virtue, courage and victory led into a second unifying myth in the post war years of a culturally homogenized (white) middle class nuclear family living in a modest three bedroom house as the standard around which American unity revolved. Dad worked, mom raised children. Ideal neighborhoods had parks, a few shops, local schools and several churches. Downtown was not too far away, the very center of community life. If not every neighborhood or downtown lived up to the ideal, it remained the ideal. Strive as you are able to be more like it. Each year was believed to provide a better opportunity for the prepared man than had the previous. Communists were held at bay. American capitalism dominated other world economies. We began to believe that America was what it had been divinely destined to become, and that it always would be. Those not participating, or denied the right to participate, were told that no matter what obstacles lay in their way, living into the myth was the only true path to achieving the American dream.
That long sixty year episode of two successive unifying myths gave us the expectation that we should be unified in our understanding of what it means to be American. It ended not with a whimper, but in a series of loud bangs, undermined from many sides. Civil Rights, Vietnam, Women’s Rights, Global Economic Recovery, 9/11, and worst of all, Obama, that uppity black man from crime ridden Chicago by way of Hawaii with irregular parentage and an Islamic sounding name who dared to be president not once but twice. Trump, taking advantage of the anti-Obama tea party movement, promised to make things right again, and that promise counted for everything. He was lying, but his snake oil sold well in spite of all the fact checkers, so why not keep on selling it? Like many hucksters, I think he half believed in his own product.
If the old unifying myth has crumbled, and Trump’s tea party inspired re-creation is a duct-taped cardboard mockery of a workable myth, what are the possibilities that a new unifying American myth can be constructed on the foundation of our highest ideals? Just a guess, but I suspect they’re limited. The idea of a single unifying myth requires the full integration of all persons into a shared understanding of what the American dream should be, which cannot be centered on the white middle class. Not everyone wants to be fully integrated into something that demands they give up too much of their ethnic, racial, or cultural heritage. We tried that, and it made for complicated issues of social injustice. What may work is a mosaic of interconnected myths that together form an integrated pattern depicting an America image in which diverse elements are mutually honored, none dishonored, and all have equitable access to the good life, whatever that may be. Hawaii, sans tourists, may come closest to achieving that new kind of multivalent unifying myth, achieved imperfectly, and not without difficulty and conflict. Societal perfection is not yet ours to have, but we can move in that direction.
Can it be done? Maybe. It would require the so called white population, especially males, to surrender the systemic preferences they’ve enjoyed for several centuries. It won’t be easy. Most deny they ever had preferences. It’s hard to give up something you believe you never had. White women who’ve fought the feminist fight must give up the idea that they own it, and are naturally gifted to lead it. Black activists have to give up the idea that honestly facing America’s racist history requires personal mea culpas from every white person. The story of American Indians must be told from in their voice. The entire nation must be well informed about the way every indigenous and minority group has been treated, not to generate guilt, but to acknowledge the reality of it, and then get on with life, intentionally addressing remaining imbalances in mutually acceptable ways. Doing that without denigrating the magnificent achievements embedded in our history won’t be easy.
Writing as a privileged white male who has enjoyed and made the most of it, I’m reminded of the first time I gave any serious thinking to giving up some of it. It was in the late 60s and early 70s when women entering the professional workplace challenged the right of men to all the good jobs. Men had to support families, it was said, while women were in it just for themselves. Besides, it’s hard enough to compete for positions against a crowed field of qualified men; if the field is doubled with women, my chances of success will be cut in half. Who wants that? Like anyone with an edge in the marketplace, if you’ve got an edge you want to keep it. As it turned out, two things happened. The added competition improved everything. Women had a hard time of it, given the amount of self-serving, self-justified obstacles put in their way. It’s a dynamic destined to be repeated many times, in many ways, by every group inching their way toward whatever they think the American Dream is.
As attractive an idea as a new unifying myth might be, human selfishness prefers to make it all about me and my people. The tea party movement may be a burlesque like example, but its success at messing things up should not be taken lightly. Something like it can come from any quarter.
What can ease the way? Multilingual education starting as early as possible, and never stopped. American history that teaches the whole story, but without imposing guilt for historical events on current generations. They have enough of their own to carry, thank you. Community celebrations of every sort of ethnic and cultural heritage to which all are invited, and none excluded. Sex. There’s nothing like intercultural, interracial families to break down barriers. Their creation is generally initiated through sexual attraction dressed in romance. Legal reform. The statue books are filled with laws, subtle and not so subtle, that imposed obstacles on various groups we no longer publicly suppress, but once did. Congressional redistricting. Enough said about that. You may have ideas to add. Go for it. In any case, it’s possible, I think desirable, but not easy. We shall see what happens.