“Nations have narratives; they need them. The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves are how we understand and reify our national identity. Over the course of our history, our story has evolved, and our national identity has changed with it. Such evolution was baked in our political DNA even before our Constitution promised a quest for a more perfect Union. But the changing is disruptive; the evolution contested.
Political scientist Samuel Goldman makes the case in After Nationalism: Being American in an Age of Division that the United States is on its third myth, or national narrative. He says the first was the covenant myth of our founding, a puritanical telling in which a chosen people—essentially Anglo-Protestants—providentially inherited a promised land.
The second was the crucible myth that expanded the American identity by more fully integrating other European immigrants and faith traditions as the nation grew, took new territories, abolished slavery, and waged wars. These struggles forged a new people—as if in a melting pot—but did not fully settle questions of race, gender, and equality.
The third myth—the reigning myth today—is one of creed, a story that feels quite familiar to us in its connecting principles and ideals to the core of the American identity. This narrative says the United States was founded on an idea defined by equality, liberty, and democracy unbounded by race, religion, gender, or nation of origin. In this myth, the antagonist is inequality.
The days of the creed myth, as Goldman describes it, may be numbered. Everywhere around us is evidence that we deeply disagree on the meaning and practice of the basic American principles of equality, liberty, justice, and democracy. …”
How should I put this?
American history can be divided into three ages.
The first age was the Founding until the War Between the States. The second age was Reconstruction until World War II. The third age, which is the one we are currently living through, runs from the Cold War through the present. We often refer to it as the post-World War II era.
I would describe the years between World War I and World War II as the transition period between Victorian America and Modern America. It was a time in which the old “mainstream” was challenged by insurgents and collapsed. The result was a radical cultural shift away from Victorian norms that trickled down from the new rising hegemonic liberal elites in New York. It was disorienting for the generations that lived through it and the culture convulsed and didn’t stabilize until after World War II.
The “creedal myth” that redefined American national identity was largely constructed in this era. The Swedish social scientist Gunnar Myrdal was one of its primary architects in his 1944 book An American Dilemma. There were a lot of interesting things going on in this period which shaped the post-World War II era. Modern liberalism rose in this period. The “mainstream media” was created in this period. The American elite was swept by modernism, cosmopolitanism and antiracism. The old Eastern WASP establishment which had dominated the country since the War Between the States gradually lost power to the Jews. The New Deal coalition began its dominance over American politics. The governing ideologies of the two parties – New Deal liberalism and conservatism – can be traced back to this period.
You could make a persuasive argument that the 1920s and 1930s were like a Third Founding with World War II sealing the deal as its capstone. The American Empire as it exists today and the “liberal world order” that we continue to maintain and expand was established as a result of that conflict. The notion that America is a “Nation of Immigrants” and that something called “racism” is the greatest of all moral failings alongside various other -isms and -phobias can be traced back to this era when Sigmund Freud’s work was having a large cultural impact on the American liberal intelligentsia. Previously, few people would have denied that the United States is a White country, an Anglo-Saxon country and a Protestant country. This was the narrative that was being taught in public schools until the 1930s and 1940s.
Look at it this way: America’s liberal establishment spun this national myth which was based on the pillars of modernism, cosmopolitanism, antiracism and globalism – the fashionable trends of the 1920s and 1930s – and mixed it up with Progressivism and Sigmund Freud’s influence and then over the course of a century proceeded to take this cocktail to ever greater extremes at the expense of social cohesion. This is the indispensable background to understanding how and why we ended up where we are today.
What’s the idea here? The idea is that a strong, centralized activist government is needed to empower experts and bureaucrats to “liberate” the individual from his or her backward cultural traditions so that the past can be erased and the Self can be empowered and cultivated and distinctions whether of race, sex, gender or culture can all be leveled in the name of social equality. Push the envelope hard enough in this direction and the inevitable result is shredding the social fabric and cultural collapse.
So, you can see that this recipe for American national identity contains within itself the seeds of its own demise. It has left us with a world where we can’t even agree on things like what is a woman. We can’t agree now on what a woman is because self-expression has been elevated above reality. Maybe being a woman is a purely subjective experience or a social construct like race. The globalist cause of supporting Ukraine and defending the “liberal world order” from evil doers like Russia is so righteous that we will support Ukraine for “as long as it takes.” The cause of antiracism is so righteous that we should be toppling statues of the Founding Fathers and brainwashing White kids into hating themselves.
Progressivism is a runaway train. It can only continue to barrel down this one track. Its basic parameters were set in stone by the dead hands of people who lived a century ago. Eventually, it will crash into a wall and that train wreck will be how it ends and we proceed and move forward. The sheer passage of time erodes and ultimately destroys even the most hegemonic ideologies.
Right now, we’re going through another one of those turbulent periods of decay and renewal like the 1760s and 1770s, 1840s and 1850s or the 1920s and 1930s. We have always gone through these cycles. Radicals always suddenly break through in the end. The old culture convulses, combusts, dies and is repudiated. Seen from defenders of the ossifying old order, these people are dangerous extremists. Seen from the perspective of the challengers, they are toppling an exhausted and decadent regime, sowing and fertilizing the seeds of a new culture that is a response to the problems of their own times. The ideals of the post-World War II era have grown so toxic that they are generating this response.