What if America rejects Trump but cannot find a new way to live: a new direction, a balm, a form of healing? There are some conventional reasons to fear American carnage, to use the president’s memorable inauguration speech phrase. If the United States unravels — if the Left is as incapable of re-establishing solidarity as Donald Trump has been — then it is not going to be sending aircraft carriers to sort out the Straits of Hormuz or to police the South China Sea. Someone else might have to — or no-one — a rebalancing of world power that won’t make us any freer.
But that’s not the biggest problem for the rest of us, and nor is the loss of American soft power. Hollywood can wither away or (likelier) get lost in its own fundament. We would survive. US universities might dominate international league tables but hey, Oxford and London, not Harvard and Yale, are bringing us (let’s pray) coronavirus vaccines.
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No: the reason America dysfunction matters is less tangible but psychologically so much more powerful: the United States is owned by all of us in what we might roughly term the free world. We are of it. It is of us. The experiment in self-government that America (imperfectly) represents seems somehow vital to all our futures because we are invested in it — we have feelings for it, and feelings against it.
Some love it and some loathe it, but more importantly: billions of people around the globe do both. When it comes to America almost no-one is uninterested. We are involved. But it’s equally true, in the George Floyd era, that almost no-one is an out-and-out fan. We feel invested in the project because the project is so huge and boisterous and naïve and inspiring and yet sickeningly flawed at the same time.
When the flaws come to the fore you don’t have to be a psychotherapist to see how our reactions might be affected by our disgust at ourselves — call it Netflix angst. We wish we had not been so keen on the damned place and we want to atone. We should not have loved the Beachboys, or Obama, or been so blind to the horrors of racism and endemic poverty.
As the German publisher and academic Joseph Joffe once wrote of the causes of anti-Americanism, “Seduction is worse than imposition. It makes you feel weak, and so you hate the soft-pawed corrupter, as well as yourself.”
So the question arises, as Trump teeters and the world watches repulsed and attracted in equal measure: what kind of a nation is America? Actually is. Not should be or would be or was: just is. If you opened up the hood, as my American-schooled children would say, what would you find?
Well, most Americans are socialists, at least according to a book out next month — a book not as batty as that sentence makes it seem. The central argument of Evil Geniuses, by the journalist Kurt Andersen, is that by the standard definitions used by Republicans to describe socialism – that’s where most folks on main street actually are.
They want more regulation of Wall St. They want a wealth tax. They think corporations should pay more too. And in a big change — a sea change since the days of Reagan — most think that “circumstances beyond their control cause people to be poor”. When shown the slogan “Communism is American power plus electrification,” most Americans swoon.
Oh alright, I made up the last one. But the view of poverty is eye-catching (it’s from a regular survey conducted by the conservative American Enterprise Institute) and even more so when added to a Gallup poll in 2018 that found a solid majority wanted to reduce inequality.
I had always thought that inequality was of no interest at all to most Americans. I hoped so too, for mainly anthropological reasons: it made them more interesting. But I may be wrong, and perhaps they are, in fact, as dull as us.
“America today is not a center-right country,” the Princeton sociologist Paul Starr wrote in 2018, but rather “a country with a center-right economic elite” that dominates. Throw off the influence of that elite — Kurt Andersen’s eponymous Evil Geniuses — and the nation would become, well, what it was in the good old days before they had control.
I am not so sure.
There is a Left — a roughly social democratic Left — in America: of that there is no doubt. Andersen writes eloquently of labour unions and social solidarity among working people, ironically a solidarity whose apogee was reached under Nixon in the early 1970s. The Nixon who built on rather than challenging FDR’s New Deal, and who was happy to spend on social programmes. Nixon was not himself a liberal, of course, but as Andersen writes, he was “a canny stone-cold cynic going along with the liberal flow”.
Then the flow stopped. Those Evil Geniuses hijacked the nation and the rest is history. Andersen (and many others on the American Left including Joe Biden) suggest that the re-finding of social democracy is a matter of returning home to normality.
There is one problem, however.
Let us assume for a moment that Donald Trump loses in November and the Republican Party spends some time licking its wounds, out of power not just in the White House but in Congress too. What do the Democrats want to do with America? Do they embrace the Andersen retro programme?
What if they do not? What if the new American Left is — as the philosopher Richard Rorty put it, exhausted? Rorty thought that the old social democratic American Left “collapsed during the late sixties under the burden of the conflagration surrounding the Vietnam War” and was replaced by one that thought the only way forward was a “complete dismantling of the ‘system’”.
The opening sentence of Rorty’s magisterial Achieving Our Country, published back in 1998, reads “National pride is to countries what self-respect is to individuals, a necessary condition for self-improvement.”
And, he argued, national pride in America is just what the American left had lost — and if that was true in 1998 it is true with knobs on in 2020: to quote the great philosopher, “a spectatorial, disgusted, mocking Left” understands the nation in a way that “leads them to step back from their country and, as they say, ‘theorize’ it. It leads them to … give cultural politics preference over real politics, and to mock the very idea that democratic institutions might once again be made to serve social justice.”
Rorty, who died in 2007, was not an complete enemy of the new Left’s keenness on race and gender — he thought they had a point — but he knew that it would end in tears. He knew that identity politics would ditch the uncomfortable, sweaty-smelling folks in the unions, the welders and electricians and carpenters and that those (mainly white) men would in turn ditch the Democrats. And so it came to pass, and now we might be post-Rorty with no road back.
Does the American Left have what it takes to knit together the nation when its modern iteration so clearly dislikes so much about it? After the statues ,what else must fall? What other horrors must be uncovered? The jury is out, to put it mildly, on whether American atonement might be over soon or just beginning. If the question is between social solidarity or continued struggle, plenty of modern Democrats have had it with the former and are willing to embrace the latter.
They may or may not be right, or justified, but if America finds no comfort and no direction we will all suffer the consequences. There’s a lot riding on the Biden presidency, if it comes. For them, and, as ever, for us.