Americans unify against foreign threats. Can we unify without one?


In his fascinating review of Yascha Mounk’s The People vs. Democracy (an important book that I’ll have more to say on soon), Shadi Hamid says the book suffers from a last-chapter problem: Its diagnosis of democracy’s ills is persuasive, but its prescription for reform — which rests on technocratic policy ideas and the development of a liberal form of national identity — is wan.

I recently read Amy Chua’s Political Tribes (you can hear our conversation about the book on my podcast), and it, too, suffers from a last-chapter problem: Its diagnosis of tribal thinking in politics is important and persuasive, but its prescription for renewal — more inclusive rhetoric and more one-on-one conversations — is small and unconvincing.

I’d say the same of How Democracies Die by Daniel Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky. (You can hear my conversation with the authors here. Oh, and I interviewed Mounk here. And here. What can I say? I like talking to people about why American politics is such a mess.) It, too, is a necessary exploration of fractures in American democracy, and it, too, has no real idea how to treat the ills it finds.

What all these books have in common is that at their core, they examine the collapse of a dominant and unifying American identity and try to imagine how one could be rebuilt in an era of demographic division and economic stress. If their answers aren’t necessarily persuasive, that’s because the underlying problem may not, at this moment, have an answer.

It’s a quirk of the publishing industry that authors are asked to limn a devilishly hard problem and then cleanly solve it. Problems wicked enough to write books about often lack good solutions. Sometimes the best you can really do is offer a better diagnosis.

Still, I’ve been trying to ask myself what answers to America’s political divides might be persuasive. What might be powerful enough to begin to reverse partisan polarization? To ease the anxieties that erupt amid rapid demographic change? To refashion an American identity that seems sturdy enough for the 21st century?

One answer is to fix everything — or at least upend everything. Elizabeth Bruenig’s argument for trying socialism fits this model. Liberal democracy is embattled, she argues, because the socioeconomic model upon which it’s built is failing:

Capitalism is an ideology that is far more encompassing than it admits, and one that turns every relationship into a calculable exchange. Bodies, time, energy, creativity, love — all become commodities to be priced and sold. Alienation reigns. There is no room for sustained contemplation and little interest in public morality; everything collapses down to the level of the atomized individual.

I see less evidence than some on the left that decommodifying major swaths of the economy will ease social conflict, and I particularly worry it’ll heighten anger over who gets what, and whether immigrants and minorities are taking more than society can bear. Still, this is, at least, a solution scaled to the problem, even if it’s one that seems particularly difficult in a society as ideologically divided, demographically anxious, suspicious of government, and institutionally resistant to sweeping legislative change as our own.

But if that’s unlikely, then what’s likelier? When I think about what could trigger a dramatic change in our politics in the coming decades — a change that actually reverses our levels of polarization or forges a more unifying identity — I find myself thinking about Walter Scheidel’s thesis in The Great Leveler. Scheidel argues that “throughout history, only massive, violent shocks that upended the established order proved powerful enough to flatten disparities in income and wealth.”

I worry that the same is true in our politics. What we think of today as the American identity was forged amid the two world wars and then the threat of the Soviet Union. It is not that America has escaped the tribalism endemic to all societies, but that we have often used external threats and foes to widen the definition of “us” as a way to fight a “them.”

It’s no coincidence that wartime mobilizations helped desegregate the armed forces and create new economic opportunities for women, and that it was amid the ideological challenge of communism that the civil rights and feminist movements found traction.

And I wonder if it’s a coincidence that American identity is embattled and American politics is tribalizing at a time when there isn’t a unifying threat abroad.

I want to be clear about this: I’m not hoping America goes to war, or that we find a unifying identity by coming together to loathe a distant foe. Rather, I fear that we will. Or, to put it differently, I fear that in the past, that’s what we have actually done. And we underestimate the role that’s played in our national identity and political stability, and so underestimate the depth of the problems we face now.

This is, I think, a cause of the last-chapter problem in many good books. Sometimes what solves hard problems isn’t a solution at all. Sometimes it’s another hard problem.

More Info: