As of this writing, America is just weeks away from electing a president. Whatever the outcome, that person will inherit the leadership of a country more deeply divided, more fiercely polarized, than at any time since the eve of the Civil War. The fault lines now are defined less by section or region, and certainly by no one overarching issue such as slavery; instead, they run mainly along cleavages of class, identity, and what might best be called deep culture—that is, people’s deepest convictions or assumptions about what is good or evil, true or false, as set forth in the assorted myths, narratives, and beliefs that bind us in a culture.
To say that America is pulling apart at that deep cultural level is another way of saying that Americans are beginning to inhabit separate nations. With “alternate facts” buttressing competing versions of reality, often feeding the most fantastical of conspiracy theories, there is little hope for common ground, reasoned discourse, or compromise. Even such core American creedal principles as liberty, equality, the pursuit of happiness, justice, and the rule of law are now subject to such radically different interpretations, or at least carry such differently charged valences, that they promote fractious zero-sum thinking among those drawn to one interpretation or another. We have thus arrived at a point where those who hold to a vision of a just commonwealth offering equal opportunity to all of its members are often seen as a threat (“socialist” or otherwise) by those who champion unrestrained liberties and the pursuit of individual happiness above all else. In the meanwhile, a gaping socioeconomic divide grows ever wider under the conditions of a devastating pandemic, further restricting the opportunities of struggling middle- and working-class Americans while adding even more challenges to the lives and of black and brown citizens. No wonder so many are angry or despairing, convinced that “elites” who look down on them have stacked the game in their own favor.
Religion, potentially an annealing force, has itself been weaponized in ways that aggravate the tensions, with conservative white evangelical Protestants and conservative Catholics dismissing their liberal coreligionists for betraying the faith, and the latter leveling the same charge against the former. To be sure, this is not the first time in US history that biblical sources have been interpreted in radically different directions—in antebellum America, the Bible was used both to justify slavery and to attack it—but the failure of any rapprochement then bodes just as ill for any reconciliation now.
Adding to a sense of foreboding is the unstable figure currently occupying the highest office of the land. Adored by his base, Donald J. Trump has proved to be the most norm-shattering president since Andrew Jackson, brazenly ignoring constitutionally stipulated limits while promoting himself—with echoes of the late, disgraced Spiro Agnew—as the champion of “law and order” and protector of the “beautiful suburbs.” Bosom buddy of authoritarians around the world, he has not only spoken admiringly of their tactics but also attempted to emulate them, whether by waging war on an independent press, casting doubt on the integrity of the electoral process, or exploiting his public office for personal gain. These are not primarily partisan charges. They have been leveled by men and women of conscience, liberal and conservative, Democratic and Republican, even former members of his administration, who share a concern for our democracy and its constitutional order—and for America’s flawed but once vital role as a defender of liberal values and human rights around the world.
Yet one thing may be said for this most irregular of US presidents: He has forced a reckoning. As a wide range of pundits noted even in the early months of his administration, Trump was the wrong answer to many of the right questions. How disastrously wrong we now know. But the questions remain unanswered, precipitating a national crisis across many fronts.
The present issue of THR aims to address some of those fronts, ranging from controversies over free speech (see Martha Bayles’s “Taming the Furies”) and conflicts about the appropriate role of science in shaping policy (see Jason Blakely’s “Scientific Authority and the Democratic Narrative”) to doubts about the continued validity of our long-cherished myths of economic opportunity (Andrew Lynn’s “How Enduring the Promise?”) and the dawning awareness of technology’s limits as a universal panacea (see Christine Rosen’s “Technosolutionism Isn’t the Fix”). The advance of globalism continues apace, but whether America wants to maintain its leading role in encouraging democratic values around the world is now uncertain (see John M. Owen’s “To Make the World Select for Democracy”). As Steve Lagerfeld asks in “America, the Exceptional?,” do Americans even see themselves as citizens of a unique nation with a special identity or mission?
Myths, narratives, and shared beliefs—addressed variously in all of these essays—are even more directly the focus of the opening thematic essay, “Dissent and Solidarity.” In it, James Davison Hunter notes that this is certainly not the first time America has faced challenges to its integrity and survival. But he questions whether the religiously informed humanism at the heart of our civil religion—however flawed and inconsistent in its inclusions and exclusions, particularly those resulting from the nation’s original sin of slavery—is still strong enough to bring us through our current crisis. Equally, he asks, do we have leaders of the timbre of a Lincoln or a King who, through commitment and sacrifice, can inspire Americans to strive to fulfill the idealism of their civic creed—and so to live in accord with the “better angels” of their nature?
“Modernity has not diminished the need from which myth stems,” writes the Italian philosopher Chiara Bottici in her excellent study of political myths. While noting their necessity, Bottici goes on to caution that such binding narratives can be “a means for critique and progress as well as for the most the annihilating forms of domination.” For good or ill, however, political myths are not things we should even attempt to grow beyond, as Robin Wright suggests in an otherwise thoughtful New Yorker essay on America’s political and cultural cleavages. Those myths are precisely what we Americans now need to wrestle with, rework, and grow into, if we are to have any chance of preserving and strengthening our fragile unum amid our many and often dissenting identities.