What is America, and what is an American? If anything binds us together across space and time, it is our ideals and the stories we tell about our pursuit of them. From the beginning, we set ourselves against Europe’s hierarchies. We exalted democratic government, equality of opportunity and individual freedom. We conceived of our experiment as “the last best hope of earth,” in Lincoln’s words.
But ideals don’t live in a vacuum; they take root in the soil of institutions. Beginning with our first experiments in self-government, the dissonance between our ideals and our institutional practices—especially the tolerance and extension of slavery—created tensions that finally tore us apart.
The South’s alternative vision of the good society was defeated in the Civil War, and our 20th-century history can be told as a narrative of halting progress toward greater tolerance and equality. The major plot points include regulations on corporations in the early 1900s; women’s suffrage in 1920; a social safety net in the New Deal; the Supreme Court’s rejection of Jim Crow laws in 1954; the civil rights and feminist movements of the 1960s; the gay rights victories since the 1970s.
This narrative suggests that our democratic experiment is working, albeit slowly. If we have never been entirely unified in our ideals, the Civil War at least re-unified our institutions. A century and a half later, we rally around the same flag. Or so we think.
The deeper truth is disquieting. The rhetoric of Michele Bachmann, Sarah Palin and Rick Perry about the “real America” is not imagined: They and those who oppose them live in different Americas, embodying different ideals and meaning different things to their loyalists.
A very interesting read, not too long. I’ve been fascinated by recent attempts to “explain” the history of the modern Right, religious or otherwise. I think this explanation does a good job of at least providing a narrative for many on the Religious Right. I’d love to compile the various perspectives into one. The history of Chicago School Economics (grace à Naomi Klein) as a response to Keynesian economics, the history of confederacy as a response to federalism, Christian fundamentalism to modernist trends, and all of these movements (and many others, i.e. white nationalism, doctrine of discovery/anti-indigenous attitudes, etc.) are put under the banner of the Right. This is the trouble with the “Big Tent” (was that term originally for democrats?) approach to American politics: you can’t name your enemies.