Deep stories and ugly truths in American politics
When I went to high school in Florida, I was in one of the last years that had to take a class called “Americanism vs. Communism.”
I had the dumb luck to get a teacher named Bob Marsh, an iconoclastic sixty-something motorcyclist and science fiction fan who told the students like me who were also sf fans about his friend Joe Haldeman. While there’s a common joke I hear even from today’s high school students about American history classes ending at World War II, we learned about the Cold War, about Korea, about Vietnam. We learned about Castro and Kruschev and Mao, but also about Watergate and COINTELPRO and HUAC. It was, improbably, a pretty good class, I suspect almost entirely due to Mr. Marsh.
Despite the name, the class’s story wasn’t about how Americanism, whatever that was, opposed communism. It was about how liberal democracy opposed authoritarianism.
That sense of “liberal” has gotten conceptually muddled over the years, particularly in post-war America. (Call it “classical liberalism” if you must, although that phrase is even more easily coopted.) This is the point: Bernie Sanders and Paul Ryan might not agree on much, but Ryan has never, to the best of my knowledge, advocated for a return to monarchy; Sanders has never once suggested outlawing private industry. They would both agree that the individual liberty and representative democracy thing is, on the whole, a pretty good idea. They are both pretty firmly standing for liberal democracy and against authoritarianism. That’s a foundational ideal of America. We’ve failed to hit it a lot through our history, but we’ve still done better than many other countries.
The name “Americanism vs. Communism,” though, tells us another story, a story that’s been pervasive in America in the post-World War II era. This story tells us that if we want to oppose authoritarianism, we need only worry about “the left.” It doesn’t tell us that “the right” has its own kinds of authoritarians. To some people, it even implies that Nazis were socialists (it’s right in the name!), and that fascists were liberals.
The name “Americanism vs. Communism” tells us, maybe, to let down our guard.
On John Gruber’s podcast “The Talk Show,” guest Merlin Mann said of the 2016 presidential election: “It’s not that my team didn’t win. It’s that maybe I just don’t understand baseball anymore.”
Merlin and I went to the same small Florida college at more or less the same time. (We all totally knew he was going to be a professional podcaster.) I’m pretty sure he also took an AvC class. We probably share a roughly similar, and from appearances similarly inadequate, understanding of baseball.
Before the election we were inundated with think pieces about how “the left” was wildly misinterpreting the appeal of nationalist populism. No no no, we were told, it’s not racism and misogyny and homophobia. It’s the rage, the deep story, the message to people who felt they were being not merely left behind but that “the elites” were letting other people “cut in line” ahead of them on the way to the American Dream. We’re still constantly hammered with the idea that if you’re in a city you’re in a bubble, if you’re liberal you’re in a bubble, that we just need to get out of that bubble and listen to real, non-bubble America.
The deep story may be about all that. But it’s also about how gay marriage devalues “real” marriage. How letting transgender folk use public bathrooms puts “real” men and women in danger. How we should watch, register and deport immigrants and build a wall around our borders. The racism and misogyny and homophobia isn’t incidental. It’s not a byproduct. The deep story is about tribalism.
Here’s an ugly truth: some of the country doesn’t believe that America belongs to people who aren’t in their tribe. That tribe is white, straight (at least openly), and Christian. It’s gotten bigger over the years — it didn’t used to include the Irish, or Italians, or Catholics, or women — but every inch of expansion has been fought, bitterly and grudgingly. Other tribes can live in America, maybe, but theirs comes first, and everyone else is here at their forbearance.
Another ugly truth is this: some of the country considers not just welfare, not just social programs, but basic justice and legal protection to be a zero-sum game. Her marriage means less if you can get married. The sign on the restroom door means less if you can go through it. The police are here to protect me from you. And when it comes to actual tangible costs, they would rather everyone get nothing than risk paying to help you.
The third ugly truth is this: those people are in power now.
Despite my sarcastic streak, I’m a natural optimist. I’m not going to claim there’s much of a silver lining here, though. I believe that the oft-maligned millennials — and even us Generation Xers — will pull us back on track. I don’t think this is the end of the great American experiment, that representative democracy is at its end, that America is doomed to become a mashup of The Handmaid’s Tale and Idiocracy.
But I think it’s going to get worse before it gets better. And I don’t know how much worse.
I wonder what Mr. Marsh would have said about all this, back in that Americanism vs. Communism class. I think he might say the problem isn’t bubbles. It’s not who’s listening to who in the present. It’s who’s listening to the past. America has always been at its worst when we’re encouraged to turn against one another, and at its best when we move toward ensuring that liberty and justice truly is for all.
I think he might also say this. Liberal democracies can vote themselves into authoritarianism. Voting themselves back out is much harder.
That seems obvious to me, but I never did understand baseball.