The corona virus is testing America’s resolve to remain a united nation and is dramatically amplifying economic and social forces that have been eroding its unity for decades. Is time for a new American Social Contract, or for a breakup of the union?
Check below for chart and video promised in podcast!
For years, foreigners like myself have wondered what is going on in America. Recognized all too often and sometimes unfairly for its silly, shrill political contests, this recent round of divisional crazy – pitting red state versus blue state governments against one another in a Covid civil war – seems one step too far even for America.
The last straw for unity?
Is the current coronavirus pandemic the last straw in America coming apart at the seams? Reactions it has provoked in both red and blue states of mind alike have most certainly applied enormous stress on growing ruptures in American solidarity long before the virus arrived.
America’s class and race fault line has been around since its founding, yet we stubbornly believed in superficial fixes, say that reviving blue-collar economic opportunity displaced by global economic forces through new manufacturing, more food stamps, health care for all, smaller government.
There are many policy prescriptions that could be right, but the populist Trumpian-Sandernista backlash to America’s faltering white picket world is symptomatic a deeper upheaval. What America is experiencing is a profound and cathartic questioning, rejection of its governing social contract.
Social contracts are in constant evolution, this is not news. But while change is the norm, what America is experiencing now is far from a game of inches. Rather, it is a rather acidic review of its contract, one so radical it begs: the question why now?
The American myth held the USA together
The answer is a complicated story and may have to do with an American myth, diversity, and the internet.
Like Europe before it, America has simply run out of space. Its frontiers are gone. Pressed together, cheek by jowl, Americans have nowhere to go to purify their sins, start fresh, live their values, and, most notably, leave disagreeable neighbors behind.
Even as F.J. Turner elaborated the Frontier Theory in 1893, Americans knew, as they do today, the frontier is not a place. It is state of mind. It is the American Id which still drives hopes and dreams over the Ohio, the mighty Mississippi, the Rockies and on down to the Pacific.
America has historically found unity in frontiers – facing down communism, advancing democracy, outer space, business etc. Unadorned with inconvenient social conventions, filled with independent thought and unquestionable truths, belief in an endless frontier has in many ways sustained and powered the “American dream.”
Limits and limitations of America’s frontier
At the limits of its geography, America now seems constantly irritated with itself like a bunch of twentysomethings eight months into sharing their first apartment. Confident and afraid, bumbling and brilliant, unimaginably wealthy yet inexcusably poor, roommates constantly arguing about who cleans up what, when and how. And when they open the fridge? It’s not just ketchup and mustard anymore, but a confounding landscape of salsa, gram masala, tahini, and soya sauce. Few Americans are racists, but many are befuddled and scared by change that has them in a supermarket filled with people they don’t understand and products unknown.
This brings us to the next great American frontier – the internet – which unlike real time America, is far less confusing. The net, just like Tuner’s mythical frontier, is more egalitarian than elitist and more decentralized than hierarchical, a place where one does not need to negotiate and where filters of civility need not apply. It is a perfect frontier because it is truly infinite, so if you don’t like what you see, you load up your virtual wagon and move on.
The internet has brought much good to America, but its influence on public debate has been mixed. Yes, it has increased awareness and discussion on pressing issues. But internet communities of thought all too often celebrate singular views and discontents, breeding uncontested beliefs and self-congratulatory satisfaction.
Intellectually comfortable, influential blogs, websites and discussion groups are quite often places of exclusion, where polarizing debate and blind allegiance are rewarded. Dissent is immediately, often savagely punished. Unyielding certainty and unwillingness to compromise fuels a take-no-prisoners approach to discourse, where social coercion, not consensus is both the means and increasingly an end itself. As we are seeing with Mr. Trump, truth nor details need not apply.
First Amendment is the excelerant of change
As superficial, incoherent, and inarticulate as deliberation on the internet and in public debate can seem, in the broadest sense, it is not. Rather, it is educationally symptomatic of a breathtakingly inclusive and chaotic debate on the legitimacy of America’s social contract. Feel free to fill any of the innumerable, inchoate and inconsistent examples, from GOP constituents accepting scathing attacks on decorated service people, to Democrat’s indignation about what are surely routine (i.e., not related to Ukraine) quid pro quos in government. Neither side is afraid of or refrains from spouting opinions free of fact. Nor should they. This is a sacred part of the First Amendment deal made long ago. The danger is that much less of the opinion offered is as well-thought out as the stakes demand, even, and, some would say, particularly from our leadership. Yet it is entirely instructive, for beyond the surliness, shrillness, and stupidity, one can but only see near irreparable fault lines.
…democracy was never meant to be uniformly eloquent, but it is supposed to float the best ideas (and people) to the top.
At the heart of it all, Americans seem increasingly unable to agree with each other on the rights they are willing to give up for the freedoms they want in return. Without broad agreement on rights and freedoms, Americans struggle to believe justice is being served on any given issue. And without such agreement – or at least the perception of it — civic cohesion itself is threatened. Thus, and for example, discrimination can be claimed as another term for religious freedom. Extreme political correctness on university campuses, legislation sanctioning religious and sexual identity intolerance, killings motivated by race, religion, and lifestyle are far too often the terrible outcomes.
Ironically, it was the confusing and himself divisive, Ben Carson who once nailed it when he observed “Never before, have we been so closely connected to each other, but more divided as a country.” This is exactly the conundrum pulling at America’s unhemmed teenaged pants. For social contracts to work, the great majority of people must be willing to extend privileges to everyone, even those they find utterly disagreeable. This is daily less the case as America engages in an existential civil war of words over defining what it ought to “be or not to be” in the 21st century. Without frontiers to absorb the more virulent differences of opinion and with the internet exacerbating and hardening positions, public debate is leading nowhere good and fast.
Melting pot no longer, burning pot perhaps?
America is no longer a melting pot. It is a multi-cultural society lurching towards an uncertain future just as it is slipping off its foundations. This must be extremely uncomfortable for a nation with great confidence in absolutes and its own exceptionalism, particularly as its leading political ideologies have proven entirely unable to able cope with, let alone manage ongoing change.
One might reasonably question if America can continue to function as a two-party state and forge a new, broadly satisfying social contract? Should America be just one country? Can it be? Regional state pacts on both coasts have formed to confront the coronavirus, suggest both literally and figuratively, perhaps not. A different national leader, say Joe Biden, might have been able to forge a country-wide strategy for defending against virus and within in that give hope to the forming of a new, more cohesive social contract. Given the deep state of Red-Blue confirmation bias, even having to ask the question says about as much that needs to be said about the prospects for the state of the union.
Novus ordo seclorum – New order of the ages
Within the current context of a global and national crisis, it is shocking just how divided the country remains. The American experiment, while alive and kicking, is certainly closer to being on its knees than ever before. This pandemic offers American, however, a unique opportunity to rework its social contract to include a bigger, more sustainable umbrella of unity. The country would be wise to embrace the word and spirit inscribed on each $1 bill: Novus Ordo Seclorum (New Order of the Ages). If it can, the country will certainly be “great” again, but not the way most think it was, and certainly not the way the likes of Mr. Trump imagine it should be.
From the Podcast….
I mentioned a couple of items in the podcast and said I would inclue them here in the article, here they are!
Benoit Lallemand offered a telling graphic showing that of the trillions provided by governments in to combat the coronavirus and support an economic recovery, France alone tied more than 50% to a green recovery. Spain and the UK also tied some significant amounts.
Check out Jeff Daniels in HBO production the Newsroom…. its a couple years old now but wow, more applicable than ever.