Status redistribution and American exceptionalism
“It occurs to me that there’s an obvious link here with the idea that the contemporary populist right is heavily driven by ressentiment—and that a lot of our current politics has less to do with actual policy disagreements than with resolving status anxieties. You can think of patriotism as a kind of status socialism—a collectivization of the means of self-esteem production. You don’t have to graduate from an Ivy or make a lot of money to feel proud or special about being an American; you don’t have to do a damn thing but be born here. Cultural valorization of “American-ness” relative to other status markers, then, is a kind of redistribution of psychological capital to those who lack other sources of it.
You can gin up bogus reasons why it might matter from a policy perspective when the president says something that can be construed as “apologizing for America,” or doesn’t engage in a lot of symbolism that’s supposed to signal commitment to “American values”—but none of them have ever made much sense. The conventional take is that it’s really about markers of tribal affinity, but we can go a step further: Maybe it’s more precisely that people want high-status figures to invest in building the brand of their shared identity—a sort of status redistribution as noblese oblige.”
That’s Julian Sanchez. I like the concept of status redistribution, but it’s not as catchy as ‘epistemic closure’. Still, I think it’s a very helpful way of thinking about American exceptionalism.
Then again, I wonder if Americans need this sort of thinking in order to be a culturally cohesive society? We don’t have the historical bonds many European countries share. We are a nation of immigrants, both culturally and racially diverse. In some ways, having a common sense of American greatness is a good way to unite people of differing ideological or cultural stripes. It’s a really good way to help assimilate immigrants since what sits at the heart of American exceptionalism is not so much a racial identity but a national identity that recognizes opportunity and merit (often unrealistically). Maybe this status socialism, however gaudy it can be at times, however much it makes our leaders pander to our American-ness, is actually a pretty important part of the American success story not only in terms of our economic success, but our ability to integrate and get along with one another.
And maybe learning how to harness it is an important political tool that conservatives have simply been better at for the last few decades, just as they’ve learned to harness the language of liberty better than liberals have.