Loyalty to a family or a clan is probably an evolutionary adaptation necessary to keep from ending up in a lion’s lunch pail. Why people similarly devote themselves to a national identity is harder to explain but it’s one of those things that political scientists enjoy exploring. Benedict Anderson call national identity an “Imagined Community” – a way of placing oneself inside of a fuzzy mass that fills in the gaps without the bonds of kinship. Our imagined community is myth that requires some strong juju to hold it together. We collectively imagine what it “means” to be an American.
Our myth is inclusive – or at least it used to be. You can be American regardless of race, color or creed. We honor the “all American” myth in the breech for many marginal groups. Yet as the gluten in our American baguette it has served its purpose. We are Americans merely because we imagine ourselves part of a common project. Indeed, one of the mysteries of America is how it has remained cohesive while folding its arms around regional and ethnic cultures – something it does far better than it’s European cousins.
What “American” means has always been a high stakes game. I believe that activists fight hard for minority rights in our system because they feel this American identity strongly, and hence they feel the dissonant sting of inequality. On-line groups argue endlessly about what activities and ideas are “American” or “Un-American”. The myth includes the presumption that anyone can be an American, even as it argues that certain things are or are not American.
When the Trump administration began separating families at the border, the most common refrain was “this is not American”. Folks on both sides of the immigration issue were appalled. Some commentators sensitive to history noted that oppression of minorities and out groups is a historical fact both distant and recent, but they miss the point.
Feeling that family separation is “un-American” is not an argument in fact. It’s an argument against the fraying of the national myth that binds us together. The issues that touch on our character as a nation – NFL players kneeling at the national anthem, marches for women, marches for babies, drives to help Houston after a hurricane, pride parades – all of these function as anchors to this imagined community for groups folded into our society. These anchors are often on opposite sides of our great political divide, but to the participants they are what it means to be American. The tug-of-war between extreme liberals and extreme conservatives is for the soul of this idea.
It remains to be seen if our myth is strong enough to endure. Will we have the wisdom to maintain our collective imagination amid a hobo’s stew of other identities? Will the plural society fall because it destroyed it’s own grand narrative? Perhaps Europe can provide some clues.
The late Tony Judt’s seminal work, “Post War” contains a provocative assessment of post WWII Europe in its introduction. After lamenting the loss of a pre-World War I cosmopolitan Europe that, while flawed, nevertheless existed, he states:
The tidier Europe that emerged, blinking, into the second half of the twentieth century had fewer loose ends. Thanks to war, boundary adjustments, expulsions and genocide, almost everyone lived in their own country, among their own people. For forty years after World War Two Europeans in both halves of Europe lived in hermetic national enclaves where surviving religious and ethnic minorities – the Jews in France for example – represented a tiny percentage of the population at large and were thoroughly integrated into it’s cultural and political mainstream… But since the 1980s… Europe is facing a multicultural future. Since 1989 it has become clearer… just how much the stability of post-war Europe rested on the accomplishments of Josef Stalin and Adolf Hitler. Between them, and assisted by wartime collaborators, the dictators blasted flat the demographic heath upon which the foundations of a new and less complicated continent were then laid.
Judt’s magnum opus details the hope and triumph of the European miracle while concluding that its more diverse future is less certain. The case he is making is stark. To connect the dots: forced homogeneous enclaves within EU created by the devastation of the war and the Holocaust (combined with US security guarantees) allowed enough lower conflict breathing space for a new, Western European mode of government to flourish. This in turn gave birth to a nascent, fragile, specifically “European” identity – an imagined community called “Europe”.
That fragile identity is now in jeopardy as Judt already recognized before his death nearly 10 years ago. The pressures of immigration may be putting the lie to the idea of “European” identity. Consider Angela Merkel’s recent struggle to navigate immigration issues in Germany. To maintain her fragile governing coalition Merkel was forced to give ground (the NYT piece shockingly uses the word “appease”) to far right politicians, and allow camps for asylum seekers on the Austrian border. The hair on the back of my neck stands up when I read of “border camps” in Germany.
Brexit too is a clear reaction against the pluralism of “European” identity brought on by heightened immigration and an influx of (non-white, non-western) immigrants. To be fair the Brits have always been uneasy Europeans. Please note, I’m riding Judt’s analysis here and seeing it’s manifestation in the news. I’m not an expert on EU politics, but the trend appears clear from my Midwestern US haven. My EU readers will no doubt persuade me otherwise if I’m in error.
Which brings us full circle back to the US. Immigration is not a new issue, and most indications are that it is less of a problem than it was a decade ago. Our overall tradition – full of flaws and exceptions to be sure – is to welcome the stranger. What exactly is tearing us apart? Our politics have always been partisan and they’ve often been far more vicious than they are today.
One could make the case that the biggest historical change in political temperature is not the new incivility but the almost complete lack of political violence. Our protest marches, replete with antiseptic police presence and choreographed media savvy spectacle, are no longer “clashes”. They are entertaining parades where, like a small town paper reporting on visiting relatives, “In spite of some horseplay, a good time was had by all.”
Where violence does rear its head it is often the silly jets-vs-sharks violence of one extreme side facing off against the other extreme side in a game of chicken using “oh-no-he-din’t” signs and hurled insults with the F word replacing true vitriolic creativity. Occasionally violence breaks through as in Charlottesville, but it’s the rare exception not the rule. More than 1500 political bombings and fire-bombings occurred in 1968. Protest ain’t what it used to be.
I’m not advocating violence – that particular cure is nearly always worse than the disease. I’m only pointing out that the ennoblement and institutionalization of the act of protest may have robbed it of effectiveness. Like men at the local gym we have devolved to evaluating a protest’s effectiveness by comparing sizes.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Meanwhile, where to from here? We have a country who’s founding myth – the idea that there is a transcendent imagined identity of “being American” that we all share – seems to be coming apart. Where do we find some hope that all of us together can find a path forward?
Pro-tip number one: don’t listen to the fringe of either side. It’s not that they never have any good ideas, but extremes think they can “win”. For them it’s not about persuading or building consensus or finding common ground. For them it is anchored in “settled truth”. The “you’re-going-to-take-your-medicine-and-like-it” message is a view of the world that a majority will never share for long.
Extremes believe their solution is so wonderful and obvious that any opposition to it will simply melt away, chagrined in the light of the new age of socialism or spiritualism or fascism or ham-sandwichism. But of all the things America is, it’s not a place where either extreme can win. The system resists the “will of the majority” by design. The truth – the real truth – is that these two sides see the world differently and they are not going away. Short of extermination of one side or the other, we will have to live together.
The good news is that America has always embodied high doses of political creativity. We have, with each new age cohort assuming power, reinvented our imagined identity as a nation. My parents disapproved of inter-racial couples. I was always “meh” about it. I was uncomfortable with gay marriage but my 20 something kids roll their eyes at that. My father-in-law supported higher taxes and Johnson’s great society. His son wants smaller government. Our unwieldy system manages to be stable enough for us to reinvent the wheel every generation or so. One side or the other makes progress, then the pendulum swings again.
Yet while Europeans seem to easily fall back to being French, German, or British, Americans are still fiercely arguing over what it means to “be American” 240+ years after the Declaration. The battle for our national myth continues to have irresistible traction among all of us. And the power of that idea is a lighthouse. The fact that we still care about our imagined identity means we haven’t given up on our joint project. We scrap and cuss and “resist” and “maga” because we all still care.
Whichever side you are on, don’t stop striving. Keep battling for what you believe. Just remember that if your idea is to wrest the project completely away from the other side, there is no winning that battle. We are in this together, and (with apologies to Mr. Franklin) if we do not all hang together we will all hang separately.