A Unifying American Narrative

A few days ago, David Brooks wrote an op-ed in the NYT noting that Trump and Trumpsters have a simple but effective narrative about what America is and who Americans are, but mainstream conservatives and liberals don’t.  They sprinkle well researched positions on issues all over the place, each of them important, but they don’t weave a cohesive narrative that sells well to a public that needs to grasp it in 240 characters or less.  Brooks wrote in part that: “Trump’s blood-and-soil nationalism overturns the historical ideal of American nationalism, which was pluralistic – that we are united by creed, not blood; that our common culture is defined by a shared American dream – pioneers settling the West, immigrants crossing an ocean in search of opportunity, African-Americans rising from slavery toward equality.”

Liberals, and some traditional conservatives, are accused of divisiveness because of their overt appeals to different ethnicities.  So called identity politics has been ridiculed by the right wing as undermining the unifying theme that describes America, and which has served the nation well since its inception.  Their unifying theme describes everything from the point of view of a mythical white middle class.  It has changed in many ways over the years, but it’s always been anchored by whatever was deemed to be white, male, and middle class.  Everyone else was expected to adopt it as their own if they wanted to be accepted as true Americans.  They say liberal appeals to other ethnicities as if they were equal to it is disruptive, threatening, and bereft of a center that can hold.

To win back America, liberals and traditional conservatives need an attractive unifying narrative of a pluralistic America populated by people from a wide variety of ethnicities and cultures.  It would be a narrative portraying an ideal, not a reality, but ideals are what progressive political reality starts with.  Ideals define what we honor and spire to become, knowing it’s a journey from where we are.  The new narrative must preserve a respected place for Trump’s white base, but not one of privilege exceeding that of others.  The old white, male, middle class narrative was not all bad.  It contributed much to the well being of the nation, and should not be demonized for its shortcomings and failures.  But neither should it be exalted to a place of unwarranted privilege.  It served its purpose and must step aside for what comes next.

What does come next?  Or to put it another way, what should come next if we’re to be faithful to the ideals of the noble experiment that gave birth to the nation?
“We hold these truths to be self evident, that all [persons] are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

“We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and to our posterity, do ordain and establish this constitution of the United States of America.”

These preambles to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution provide a vocabulary that can accommodate the needs of a pluralistic 21st century nation far removed from conditions existing when they were written.  From them can be constructed conservative and liberal narratives of shared values  able to speak to one another in cooperative ways.  It’s not an entirely new thing.  From time to time events have moved the nation closer to the ideal of being united by “creed and not blood.”  It happened during WWII in a sort of ‘fake it til you make it’ kind of way.  Movies and news coverage made much of an American Way that united all races and faiths in the fight for freedom.  Twenty years later, the civil rights legislation of the 1960s established a legal framework to give it enforceable reality.  We have not lived into that ideal, but it is the foundation on which to build. 

Being an old guy, some of my ideas are grounded in ancient learning.  For instance, back in 1974 the economist John W. Kendrick wrote about Total Factor Productivity in which the nation’s future prosperity rested on investments in intangible capital.  By that he meant integrated public and private investment in research and development, education, health, and job safety (which, in today’s environment, might be expanded beyond jobs).  He also favored policies facilitating mobility of labor and capital between economic sectors.  To be sure, the nation also needs massive investment in tangible infrastructure, so it’s not an either/or proposition.  But giving priority to these intangibles would benefit every “tribe,” strengthening the interdependent bonds between them.  It would be a far cry from today’s presumed descent into combative tribalization of winners and losers.  It would move the conversation away from the worship of radical individualism without giving up the value of individual rights and accountability.  It would be a huge step away from Trump’s delusional plan to restore old time industrial jobs in a self sufficient country walled off from the rest of the world.  To the contrary, it would be a form of nationalism comfortable in a global economy of which it is a fully participating member.

Liberals might prefer a version of it with a greater emphasis on the public sector in public/private partnerships.  Conservatives might prefer the reverse.  Liberals would insist on those most in need getting the resources they need for success in life.  Conservatives would assure that individual effort be rewarded according to its value added.  Both would demand accountability.

There’s nothing perfect in any of this, but it could become the narrative that Brooks believes is needed if Trumpism, and its slide toward fascism is to be stopped.

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