It is hard not to look at modern America without getting the sense of a country that is frantically shedding its skin, in the process of becoming something new. But what will that be?
The country once defined by its powerful middle class is now a flagship of inequality that looks more like a high-end version of Brazil or Nigeria than the mid-20th century bastion of strong unions, churches, civic associations and inclusive political parties. In place of the promise of the American Dream, which was geared towards ordinary men and women, the new America now offers a paradoxical mixture of extreme wealth and glaring disempowerment, which is both intimidating and dispiriting. A glittering oligarchy of a type not seen since the late-19th-century Gilded Age, during which American robber barons plundered the art treasures of Europe, presides over a simmering landscape of uncontrolled low-skill immigration, drug addiction and dead-end service jobs.
More worrying than record levels of inequality — whether measured in income, or in the ability to exert any meaningful control over the circumstances of one’s own life — is the sense of an irrevocable fracturing, which seems to gain strength from month to month, regardless of the fact that most Americans prefer some version of the old America. Propelled by the rise of identity politics, the fragmenting logic of market capitalism or the force of new technologies that reconfigure space and time — or all three forces working hand-in-hand — America has become the prize for a set of tribes engaged in a zero-sum contest for power and spoils.
That a central aim of the American experiment was to create a sense among disparate peoples of belonging to a single whole has been a relatively uncontroversial statement throughout even the worst periods of the country’s history. The agreement that every citizen inherently possessed the same rights as every other citizen, however incomplete in practice, has been a powerful engine for social change, from the fight to end slavery to the campaigns for women’s rights and gay marriage. Yet while the slogan e pluribus unum — “out of many, one” — retains its place in the American currency, it is hardly embraced by most of the country’s leading social and political voices, who depict the country’s history as an unrelieved march of racism and oppression, opposed by the forces of justice.
Where the idea of an American nation or community is increasingly rejected as a remnant of a hegemonic and oppressive past, the celebration of particularity reigns. There is the mandatory replacement of the American flag by sectarian banners — the Black Lives Matter flag for Black History Month; the ever-changing LGBTQA+ symbols for Pride Month — along with elaborate ceremonies of printing new postage stamps, and rewriting history books to focus on the laudable achievements of tribal heroes. These rituals of civic replacement are eagerly embraced by both the oligarchs and the state, and celebrated by large corporations, city halls, the US Congress and US Embassies around the world. Meanwhile, the failure to participate — by, say, flying a large American banner instead — is cause for suspicion of allegiance to a bygone order that has turned rancid, like the bitter-enders down South who decorate their pick-ups with Confederate flags.
The paradoxical nature of the current American predicament is therefore hard to miss. On the one hand, Silicon Valley has cemented America’s place as the wealthiest and most powerful nation on Earth, the unchallenged global leader in fields like AI and biotech — capable of disintegrating any would-be rival by pushing a button and detaching them from the global banking system and the internet. On the other, the digital revolution propelled by American technology and finance is visibly disintegrating America itself. The meritocratic universities and other institutions that once made America the envy of the world are hostages of a new political system in which rote repetition of Democratic Party catechisms about race, class, gender and identity has replaced institutional values such as intellectual independence and critical inquiry. Such ambitions, along with the pursuit of beauty and other forms of excellence, are now signs of Right-wing heresy, to be stamped out by party administrators who administer, well, pretty much everything.
The Democratic Party plays a central role in the new American order, serving as a kind of shadow state, or state-within-a-state — the supremacy of the former being characteristic of so-called revolutionary regimes overseas. Once a vehicle for working Americans to achieve tangible goals such as home ownership, decent healthcare, national parks and a dignified old age, the Democrats under the presidencies of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama found a new place in the sun as the address to which the oligarchs pay protection money and do deals with the security agencies in Washington — after endorsing a global trade regime that cost millions of Americans their jobs and flooded their towns with fentanyl.
The Republican Party, meanwhile, once the party of America’s richest moneymen and biggest industrialists, now poses as the party of small business and the dispossessed, under the leadership of an oft-indicted figure who surrounds himself with the dregs of American political life. Whatever threat Donald Trump once posed to the robber barons and the bureaucracies they have allied themselves with, he long ago revealed himself to be a clownish figure, alternating populist rhetoric with self-pitying conspiracy theories while repeatedly failing to protect himself or his followers from forces that mean them harm. The result has been political suicide for Republicans who support him, as well as those who oppose them.
If one side of the new American coin is oligarchy and political failure, then the other is sectarian rule — another of those recognisable miseries that afflicts revolutionary countries, along with poverty, ignorance, corruption, the use of security agencies to fight personal battles, state censorship and the jailing of political opponents. Perhaps the overwhelming characteristic of such places is the colonisation of every aspect of life that might otherwise provide solace to ordinary people — the arts, academia, law, office life, even family life — by “politics”, a word that is carefully chosen to obscure the absence of coherent thought, which is in any case impossible, since the only fixed principle of such revolutionary politics is sectarian warfare, a danger that the country’s founders worked mightily to avoid.
Yet to claim that America has succumbed to a revolutionary coup seems more than a little overheated. Nigeria doesn’t dominate the global banking system or run the internet — America does. Brazilian presidents may indict and jail their political enemies, as American presidents of both parties clearly itch to do — but America’s favelas are wildly more luxurious than their Brazilian equivalents. Unlike Cuba or Venezuela, America is the home of Starbucks, Microsoft, Apple, J.P. Morgan and Goldman Sachs, as well as Tesla and Elon Musk. In recent decisions on abortion and affirmative action, the country’s conservative Supreme Court has provided a powerful counterweight to the progressive enthusiasms of the moment, just as the country’s founders intended.
Meanwhile, Americans continue to invent new ways of seeing and being, just as they have always done — even though other Americans may experience them as noxious. In other words, the simple narratives of national decline, the rise of tribalism and even the fracturing effects of revolutionary new technologies hardly suffice to explain the scale and totalising nature of the changes America is experiencing, which are entirely real.
A clue to the real nature of the sweeping and convulsive changes that have overtaken the familiar American social and political order can be found in the aftermath of the killing of a black man by a white policeman in the city of Minneapolis in 2020. A petty criminal who was high on fentanyl and suffered a fatal heart attack while a police officer named Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck to restrain him, George Floyd was an ideal symbolic victim for both sides of the American political divide: a black martyr who incarnated the ills of a community whose members saw themselves as historical victims of an organised system of white supremacy enforced through police brutality. Chauvin was sentenced to over 20 years in prison after being convicted of murder.
Surprisingly, given the massive street demonstrations and accompanying riots that followed Floyd’s death, virtually no public attention nor energy was devoted to the underlying economic and social inequalities that helped destroy his life. No public programmes were announced to fight drug addiction or promote job training, employment or education. Even as the Democratic Party leadership knelt down in the hall of Congress with pieces of colourful kente cloth around their necks to confess their own culpability for the evils of racial inequality, the Party embraced prolonged Covid lockdowns and school closures — measures which had a particularly negative impact on children in marginalised and underserved communities.
Instead, the response to Floyd’s death consisted of a public campaign targeting symbols of “white supremacy”. This campaign centred on attacks on America’s Civil War past, including taking down statues and portraits of Confederate generals and officeholders, removing funeral monuments from cemeteries, and even exhuming Confederate bodies from their graves. As part of this nationwide burst of iconoclasm, universities and other institutions issued long reports apologising for slavery, and solemnly “reckoned” with the crimes of past donors. A cynic might have observed that issuing apologies for crimes committed 160 or 300 years ago provided a convenient cover for universities such as Harvard and Yale to continue accepting hundreds of millions of dollars from individuals and governments around the world whose activities today are no less criminal and exploitative.
Yet, as universities scoured their walls for depictions of historical figures who had directly or indirectly profited from the slave trade, and large corporations and media companies embraced the wholesale adoption of language such as “white supremacy”, it became apparent that something deeper was at work. “White supremacy”, a term that had only recently been the province of historians and a handful of contemporary academic race theorists, became a primary target of the FBI, despite the absence of any evidence that white supremacists, neo-Nazis and other race-conscious extremists had become any more common or acceptable in America today than they were 10 or 20 or 50 years ago. Displays of the Confederate banner, which had been a part of Southern culture to the point where they had in most cases become generalised symbols of rebellion, were suddenly forbidden. To a historically-minded observer, the renewed obsession with race, the attacks on symbols of the Confederacy, the agonised institutional self-searching, all pointed to a single overarching theme of the cause that had captured the imagination of the country’s elites: refighting the American Civil War.
The decision to reignite a conflict in which more than 600,000 Americans died, and which resulted in a resounding Northern victory, the end of slavery and the continuation of a national project that would benefit hundreds of millions of people in the 20th century, might seem like a perverse choice. As far as I know, no one in England or France calls for refighting Cromwell’s Revolution, say, or the French Revolution, on account of their victories being incomplete. Moreover, the monuments that the iconoclasts removed in 2020-21 were not erected by the Confederate government, but under Union rule; they were symbols of the national truce that followed the war, in which Southerners acknowledged defeat and Northerners let them bury their dead and rejoin the Union. So why reignite a conflict in which the good guys won, after nearly drowning the country in blood?
The answer, of course, is that while the national truce that followed the Civil War may have benefited the nation as a whole, it did not meet the aims of some of the victors — Southern slaves, whose descendants are rightly more concerned with economic progress and the safety of their children, and Northern abolitionists, whose heirs had apparently retaken power, and whose true radicalism had been largely edited out of the American story.
While Abraham Lincoln’s chief war aim was to preserve the Union, the hymn of the Northern abolitionists was “John Brown’s Body”, which commemorated the death of the firebrand who was executed by the US Government in 1859 for his attempt to initiate a Southern slave revolt through a suicidal raid on the town of Harper’s Ferry, in which 17 people died, most of them freed blacks. Northern soldiers with abolitionist sympathies sang the hymn as they marched into battle, announcing themselves to be soldiers in a holy war in which “John Brown was John the Baptist of the Christ we are to see”. Rewritten by Julia Howe, who cleansed the song of any mention of John Brown, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” became the most popular marching song of the American military after the Civil War, attesting to America’s new sense of national purpose:
“In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me:
As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
While God is marching on.”
Northern Abolitionists, the direct heirs of the New England Puritans, could claim to be entirely consistent in their rejection of the national truce, both in the aftermath of the Civil War and also 160 years later. The civic compact that followed the war was not of their making. Neither was the original compact on which the Union was founded in 1789, following the successful American Revolution against the British. Both compacts were secular instruments, in which the demands of God and justice were subordinated to the requirements of getting disparate peoples — including New England Puritans and Southern slaveholders — to somehow live together.
For the Puritans and their contemporary heirs, the successes of the earthly compromises on which the country was founded — the US Constitution, victory in the Civil War, the rise of America to Great Power status, victory in the Second World War, the success of the Civil Rights movement, the defeat of Soviet Communism — were immaterial. Puritans understood evil as a foe to be rooted out without compromise, on pain of endangering one’s soul. While earthly wealth was nice, the Kingdom of Heaven was far better.
What made the 17th-century Puritans who settled New England unique in their moment was the transmutation of religious militancy from opposing earthly foes to internal struggle. According to Perry Miller, the great historian of New England Puritanism, the Puritans — themselves a radical faction of the English Puritans who won, and then lost, the Glorious Revolution — arrived in New England with the goal of building a “city on a hill”, in the words of their leader John Winthrop. The Puritans imagined their settlement as a model community that would serve as a beacon to Europe, which was then mired in seemingly intractable religious wars. Through the shining example of the small New England colony, old Europe would come to realise its folly and embrace the truth of Puritanism.
When Europe predictably ignored the Puritans’ example, New England was engulfed by a spiritual crisis, which resulted in a collective turning-inwards — an attempt to relocate the crashing failure of their mission into the American wilderness within the inner lives of the colonists themselves. The resulting turn from outward-looking grandiosity towards a narcissistic obsession with the scouring of one’s own soul in search of sin would remain characteristic of the American Puritan consciousness, and of the country that was at least partly built on the foundation they established.
Today’s America, caught in a war between the demands of national coexistence and absolutist obsessions with racial sin, is a place that the country’s Puritan ghosts would easily recognise. And despite the careful clockwork of the country’s Enlightenment founders, the Puritan ghost has never ceased to exist within the national machinery. Sometimes, the ghost presents itself as the nation’s conscience, as it did during the Civil Rights movement. During the Great Depression, FDR sought to contain this impulse by refounding the Democratic Party, and mid-20th-century American culture, as an alliance between Northern ethnic Democratic Party machines and the Old South, breathing new life into the country’s original Constitutional forms — but also renewing its anti-Puritan compromise with evil.
The current American revolution, by contrast, represents another outbreak of the Puritan spirit, which is guilt-ridden and self-obsessed, and at the same time determined to realise the kingdom of heaven on earth. At once deeply and inherently American, it is also opposed to what has been the American social and cultural order of the past three centuries. It is a mistake to believe that the Puritan ghost can ever be satisfied, especially through compromise. Puritanism is a revolutionary, iconoclastic and totalising movement, whose truths are religious and uncompromising. The question for Americans now is which of the country’s two founding visions they will choose: that of the country’s rationalist Enlightenment Founders, whose imagination of a great, continent-sized American nation has already been achieved, or the wilder visions of its founding saints.