Link and Comments: American Narratives

David Brooks NYT column on May 26: The Four American Narratives.

He recalls his own characterization of the American unifying story as an Exodus story: one about people leaving oppression to settle a new promised land. A story that no longer unifies our fractured culture.

Now he references a speech by George Packer to the think tank New America — the speech itself does not seem to be online — that describes four rival narratives that inform today’s fractured nation. Then Brooks offers two more of his own. I’ll summarize in bullet points. Packer’s:

  • The libertarian narrative of the GOP: free individuals, free market, Americans as consumers and taxpayers;
  • The narrative of globalized America, that of Silicon Valley: lifelong learners, an open and connected world that overturns old elites and empowers individuals;
  • Multicultural America, in which Americans are members of groups identified by sins of the past and present, a narrative that dominates academia;
  • And Trump’s America First, backward-looking and pessimistic, in which the country has lots its identity due to the contamination of immigrants, and elites who have lost their allegiance to America in favor of an imagined global culture.. Packer: “This narrative has contempt for democratic norms and liberal values, and it has an autocratic character. It personalizes power, routinizes corruption and destabilizes the very idea of objective truth.”

Brooks offers two alternatives as the basis for the 21st century.

  • The mercantilist model, America as one major power in competition with rival powers China, Russa, Europe. To be American is to be a member of the American tribe.
  • The talented community, “America as history’s greatest laboratory for the cultivation of human abilities. This model welcomes diversity, meritocracy, immigration and open trade for all the dynamism these things unleash.”

Brooks concludes,

The mercantilist model sees America as a new Rome, a mighty fortress in a dangerous world. The talented community sees America as a new Athens, a creative crossroads leading an open and fundamentally harmonious world. It’s an Exodus story for an information age.

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