If you had to summarize the current crisis in American politics using just one phrase, a good candidate would be the inability to embrace a shared national narrative. Several competing and incompatible ideologies are not only pulling us in different directions, but also preventing us from engaging in any kind of productive dialogue with each other.
What the country needs, then, is obvious: unification around a shared set of values. But with polarization growing deeper every day, is there any single, unifying narrative that can pull the country back together? According to journalist and author George Packer, the answer is yes. But before we get to the solution, we need to dig deeper into the diagnosis.
In Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal, Packer presents his diagnosis of the American crisis as consisting of the country’s simultaneous embrace of four separate narratives that are ultimately incompatible and unsustainable. Each narrative, if fully realized, would create a world of winners and losers and a political atmosphere of resentment and hatred. The problem with American politics, then, is not that one ideology needs to defeat another; rather, it’s that the total victory of any of the four dominant ideologies would create a country that the majority of us would want no part of.
Of the four insidious narratives Packer identifies, two occupy the right of the political spectrum and two occupy the left. But make no mistake, the narratives on the right are, in general, far more dangerous. While objectivity is important in any author, being “objective” does not mean proclaiming everything to be equal. The dominant ideologies on the right and left may all be harmful in their own ways, but it’s a false equivalence to pretend that the extremism we’re witnessing on the right is of the same character and intensity as that on the left.
The left, as far as I can tell, is not primarily interested in disenfranchising voters, gerrymandering, spreading falsehoods, and sowing division as its principal paths to political victory. The left is not, in general, denying science, advancing wild conspiracy theories, and displaying complete antipathy to the democaratic process if it doesn’t work out in their favor (by proclaiming the election was stolen, with no legitimate evidence, and storming the Capitol). The right, in several prominent ways, is collectively engaging in behavior that would otherwise be characterized as narcissistic personality disorder in an individual: from gaslighting to outright lies and manipulation to destructive fits of rage. So let’s do ourselves a favor and stop pretending that there is a moral equivalency between the parties and that any statement to the contrary is a violation of “objectivity.”
With that in mind, let’s start with the right. The two dominant narratives on the right are (1) Free America and (2) Real America. Free America is libertarian in nature, with the only freedom that counts for anything being freedom from government regulation and taxes. This narrative prioritizes the market, big business, and the wealthy—based on the meritocratic myth of the self-made individual—and ignores the needs of the poor, the disadvantaged, and the average worker. The complete victory of Free America leads to extreme inequality, selfish individualism, poverty traps, and growing resentment from below.
The second narrative, Real America, is at heart white Christian nationalist, with its adherents quick to demonize those below them (unskilled immigrant labor) and those above them (the educated, professional class). As Packer wrote, “Real America has always needed to feel that both a shiftless underclass and a parasitic elite depend on its labor. In this way it renders the Black working class invisible.” Real America and Free America often join forces, finding homes for both white supremicists and plutocrats alike (although of course not everyone in Real America is bigoted), forming an unlikely coalition of business interests, evangelical Christians, and working-class whites. It needs little elaboration as to why a country founded on these principles is undesirable.
On the left, you have the following two narratives: (1) Smart America and (2) Just America. Smart America says things like “basket of deplorables” when referring to the other half of the country, and has all but abandoned the Democratic party’s previous commitment to the working class. Rather than focusing on a unified economic agenda that could expand the middle class, Smart America embraces the frankly conservative meritocratic narrative that prioritizes advanced education and the acquisition of credentials. Smart America leaves the working class behind, and is largely to blame for the creation of the Real America narrative in the first place.
Last, we have Just America, which values power over reason, censorship over debate, and political correctness over truth. While Just America rightly points out America’s checkered moral past—and correctly calls for the redress of injustice—they take things too far, essentially becoming anti-patriotic, self-loathing, hypersensitive, and pessimistic. Living in a country dominated by this narrative would be like living under a psychological dictatorship, with thought police ready to pounce on any perceived offensive or harmful remark (and we wonder why the right has so much antipathy for the left).
What’s interesting is that, as Packer notes, all four narratives have essentially the same root cause: “almost half a century of rising inequality and declining social mobility.” The working and middle class have suffered stagnant wages while the rich keep getting richer. Free America blames this on government regulation; Real America blames it on cultural “elites” (but not on economic elites); Smart America blames it on lack of education and the rejection of globalism; and Just America blames it on white supremacy and institutional racism.
But all of this is only part of the story. Each narrative contains some truth, but also a lot of falsehood. And each narrative creates an “us versus them” dynamic of resentment, hatred, and isolation, a zero-sum game where if one group wins, the other has to lose.
There has to be a better way than this, and frankly, it’s been staring us in the face all along. If the root cause of so much fear, resentment, and polarization is growing inequality, then the solution is the widespread adoption of a new positive-sum narrative, one built into the Declaration of Independence and embraced throughout American history: Equal America.
Equal America is not, in Packer’s terms, a country defined by equal outcomes. Socialism (as traditionally conceived) will never fly in America. It would be unrealistic to expect the universal embrace of a narrative the country has been so averse to for most of its history.
Rather, Equal America, as Packer defines it, embraces an equality of opportunity for the collective working and middle class, a group that includes all genders, races, and sexual orientations. Let’s be real: the Republican strategy, for quite some time, has been based on the following tenet: those who are divided culturally cannot unite economically. That’s why the right rarely has actual solutions to offer for social problems, opting instead to spend most of its time spreading fear and escalating hatred towards the left.
But most of this is exaggeration. What you see on the news is sensationalistic and represents the extremes; real people are simply not as different as the media would have us believe. As Packer wrote:
“Study after study shows that antagonistic groups begin to lose their mutual hostility and acquire trust when they have to work together, as long as they’re engaged in a specific project, with outside help….Americans from red and blue areas can come together in common endeavors. They might find out that the other is less a threat to the republic than they supposed. At least they will be in the company of actual human beings”
Equal America, then, embraces our common humanity and economic interests against those of a small, wealthy aristocracy. The question is, how can we begin to implement this new narrative? A good place to start is by not allowing cable news, talk radio, and politicians to define our relationships with each other and to actually see for ourselves that the other side may not be as bad as we first supposed—in other words, that we’re dealing with actual human beings. One way to do this, as Packer suggests, “might be to require a year of national service, in military or civilian form, repaid by scholarship, training stipend, or small-business grant.” Regaining a sense of civic duty through collaborative projects may be just what the country needs to reconnect with the common good.
Packer’s other suggestions are standard fare: campaign finance reform, overturning Citizens United, eliminating political gerrymandering, making voting easier or mandatory, etc. But the problem is that these solutions are unlikely to be implemented because there is no current incentive for politicians to do so. The pressure to apply these solutions must come from us, but we’re too busy fighting each other to notice that our politicians are not working to serve our best interests, preferring to work instead for the corporate interests that help to get them elected in the first place.
Overall, Packer’s diagnosis and path forward is, in my estimation, spot on, and represents the only possible solution to our deep polarization. Whether or not the country will ever embrace this more unifying narrative—or else further entrench themselves in their own divisive ideologies—is a separate question altogether.
I can only hope that at some point we grow tired of the in-fighting and empty rhetoric and start demanding real solutions from our politicians, and that Real America realizes that a working class white man and a working class black man have more in common with each other than either of them do with the elites in the Democratic or Republican parties, and that their ability to unite economically against the wealthy minority (of which Trump fully caters to but pretends not to) represents our best chance to reduce inequality and become a less polarized country with a stronger middle class. I don’t see any other way out of the crisis.