The American Way is a phrase that came into popular use during the 1930s to describe what was believed to be the unique American character. It was interpreted differently by different people who used common adjectives about American individualism working collaboratively to ensure freedom, opportunity, the virtue of hard work, and commitment to the greater good of city, state and nation. After WWII The American Way was expanded to include the American Dream of middle class prosperity that would become even better with each passing generation. It all added up to American exceptionalism, which had some justification. After all, the first two post war decades saw the United States as the only major economy that had not been blown to smithereens.
We pretended not to be class conscious but when I actually studied this stuff fifty years ago, it was obvious that America was divided into economic classes often described as: upper upper class, lower upper class, upper middle class, middle class, lower middle class, upper lower class and lower lower class. The classifications remain a useful model that has been used to attribute particular social values and life styles to each group. The various schemes over simplify the dynamics of real life but established archetypes that continue to dominate public perception of how society is structured.
The core values of the post war American Way were centered on the virtues and social values of a vaguely middle or upper middle class. The virtues and social values of lower or higher class were described by how they deviated from this mythical core. It was assumed that lower classes, properly motivated, would aspire to rise in their status, and higher classes would be reminded from whence they rose. The public internalized all of this not through the work of scholars but through magazines and television. Norman Rockwell’s magazine covers illustrated The American Way as basic goodness and wholeness. Television series such as the Nelsons, Cleavers, My Three Sons, Dr. Welby, and even Bonanza provided the needed sets, characters, role models, and status to drive home the message.
The whole thing defined as the American Way was a singularly White Only American Way. Immigrants were expected to assimilate into the White cultural ethos because that’s what it meant to become an American. Although not expected to succeed, minorities were expected to do the best they could to assimilate yet always remember their place, which, at best, could be only a subordinate imitation of White society.
The civil rights and Vietnam era disrupted everything. Minorities were not content to remain subordinate to White society. Part of the public became dissatisfied and distrustful of established institutions. Another part redoubled their dedication to them. Achieving The American Dream became increasingly difficult following the Reagan administration as more became wealthy, more were stuck with no where to go, and more became poor. White birth rates plummeted, contributing to a change in demographics that made it increasingly clear that Whites would soon become a plurality, but not a majority. Whatever the American Way was it could no longer be defined by the social values of a mythical White Middle/Upper Middle Class.
Ir became an intolerable change in fortune for right wig Whites who under various banners (tea party MAGA, white supremacy, and little “Greene” women) are doing what they can to turn back the clock and prevent it from moving forward. No matter how nostalgic it may appear no one can go back in time. One can only go ahead. In trying move forward by going backward only creates chaos leading to exploitation by opportunists of the worst kind. Clearly the old American Way has collapsed and if the nation is not to collapse into chaos along with it, a new American Way will have to be born. What will it look like?
I can only guess but think I know the primary sources from which it will come. It will come from strong voices contributing the stories, cultures, languages, economic social and political ideals of Black Americans, American Indians, Latino Americans and Asian American. Their voices will not replace the old American Way but use it as the foundation for new construction. They will not be anti-White, but neither will they accept a subordinate position. The new American Way will look very much like the old, except for their full ownership and commitment to equity of justice and opportunity. The new American Way will be truly American, not derivative of centuries old European colonial ways. American English will become even more littered with words and phrases from other American cultures. American history will not erase or demean the history we’ve learned, but neither will it be romanticized. The teaching of American history will include the stories of other cultures as recorded in their own voices. Assimilation will mean becoming comfortable living in a nation of distinct and mutually respectful cultures. Intermarriage will be common, mix things up, but not homogenize cultural ways.
It will not create an American Garden of Eden. After all, humans are human so there will be conflicts and the usual menu of misbehaviors. Nevertheless, the crazies so prominent today will have been assigned to the trash bin of history, with their nasty successors’ whining little voices lurking about the edges. In short, the United States of America will be more united than ever, and come closer to the finest ideals of its founding. It can if it has the will to do so.