In 1992, after nearly a century of winning world wars and forging world orders, America finally gave up. In winning the presidency that year, the Governor of Arkansas campaigned on the slogan “It’s the economy, stupid.” With this motto on almost every poster and campaign circular, Bill Clinton rode to power against the grain of every presidential election since the Great Depression. His Inaugural Address announced that the country has “drifted,” that he would “reinvent America” with “dramatic change,” against an economy “weakened by business failures, stagnant wages, increasing inequality and deep divisions.”
In turning the country inward, Clinton began a momentum that has dominated into the new century. Barack Obama, particularly, ingrained even further the notion that the United States was in dire need of “repair” and that this would have to come through Washington and its political operatives. Through his campaign book, Change We Can Believe In and his first Inaugural Address, Obama stressed that “we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and begin again the work of remaking America.”
Four years of Donald Trump have served to highlight the divisions Clinton first announced. By “Making America Great Again,” Trump opened the deep wounds left unattended for all to see. The divisive nation left over from the Cold War to the “economy stupid” has come full circle to define the country as never before since the great Civil War. The vote count in 2020 has left indelible the notion that “Red-Blue” now defines the country as nearly as did “Blue-Gray” when Abraham Lincoln took the oath of office.
Question: Is Joe Biden the new Lincoln?
Today’s conditions are not transparent nor ephemeral. While actual military war is ridiculous, the “war” definition can apply. While Trump brought history back to “restore” the country, the overwhelming cultural/media/dissident attention has been focused on “remake.” Essentially, this means that, into its fourth century, the USA is “broken” beyond repair and needs to “begin anew.” Basically, this phenomenon appeals to “group” behaviors, which confuses sociology with political science.
Aspects of the new directions have been in play for decades, but the momentum has gathered power, despite (or maybe because of) Trump. The destruction of statues, place-names, and other historic memorabilia; the influence of protest, rejection, and regret as national identities; the target of “white” populations as responsible for everything bad; and geographic divides between regional voting and cultural locations now dominate the country. Nowhere is this direction more apparent than The New York Times “Project 1619,” which is a full-court effort to “reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the national narrative.”
Good luck with that, but they may not need “luck.” The schools will do.
These might be passing fancies or aspects of social democracy, were it not for the fact that, taken together, they have all either been integrated into the national educational system or are next in line. Alone, Project 1619 has been incorporated into the curricula of 4,500 local school districts (claimed), while President Trump has threatened to withhold federal funds from those that have already done so. Even in education, a “civil war” rages.
Yet, that is the precise locale where the issue began, and eventually where it will be resolved. For at the bottom, by definition, “ideas have consequences,” and the clash of ideas between “Reds vs. Blues” begins, as necessary, in the classroom.
Examples have become “mainstream.” Typical is the presence of Howard Zinn’s A Popular History of the United States (1980), an openly Marxist tome that is now by far the bestseller on U.S. campuses. The overwhelming emphasis of the university as a sociological primer, emphasizing “inclusion-diversity” and “identity,” has come to define the core nature of the national academy.
This, essentially, is the “battleground” where the “war” for America’s future will be (and has been) fought. The conflict goes beyond the mere academic “search for truth,” it will define what the country believes it has been and will remain: either apologize for the vices and destroy the old or appreciate the virtues and build forward. Between those extremes, there is very little “no man’s land.”
It is also oxymoronic: why would anyone’s biography highlight their worst traits?
One Nation (or several?)
At the bottom of this clash is the timeless idea of “nationalism,” by far the most dominant idea in recorded history. Unlike most other nationalisms, defined by biology and geography (“fatherland,” “motherland”), American nationalism has always been defined by its “ideas.”
The late Hans Kohn, the essential historian of nationalism, has defined “American nationalism” as derived from its English heritage as the “roots and origins of the republic,” by English liberalism and rationalism and from figures such as Locke, Milton, and Cromwell (American Nationalism, 1957). Such notions prompted John Adams to once proclaim this apocalyptic vision of the American purpose, as “Our pure, virtuous, public spirited, federative republic to last forever, govern the globe and introduce the perfection of man.”
Adams may be forgiven for his hyperbole, but his proclamation, as another enduring “social myth,” serves to highlight in exaggerated form what modern critics do today. Their own interpretations, from “racism” to a “privileged” few currently dominate the political landscape, and will eventually destroy nationalism.
Already, the term itself has been qualified to “white” only. This, by itself, divides the idea beyond recovery.
American nationalism cannot be found in ethnics, ancestries, or separate from the Founding ideals. If one rejects the ideas that formed the country, one is something else by definition, a singular part against a much larger whole (“Me Too, Black Lives, Privileged”).
The essential lessons from history are the ideas that formed and governed the country, that developed growth and belief in progress, and the several motivations that provided American prosperity, liberty, and success. One does not become a “superpower” by accident.
And since when does a superpower need to be torn apart and “remade”?
In opposition to these notions are the ideologies that relentlessly condemn the nature and conduct of the country, turning “one” into “many” and “nation” into “self,” a history neither appreciated, liked, nor even understood.
The Future (if any)
In 1940, the U.S. population was 120 million; it is now triple that. Should this continue, there will be 900 million Americans in 2100. What are the prospects of a country that large and taught a steady diet of lessons that degrade their adopted country’s nature and conduct, everywhere and always?
The Bottom Line
There is a profound distinction between political liberty and sociology, between ideas and people. Liberty, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights have little or no bearing upon the political behaviors of whole populations or their politicians. Liberty cannot stop tweets from the president, supervise his personality, or force disparate groups to like each other. It will, however, keep the President from closing The New York Times, dissolving Congress, and invading Canada (things real dictators do in an afternoon).
In the final analysis, what we believe is what we are, and, if trends continue, we will begin American Studies from a negative and apologetic definition. It will be difficult, perhaps impossible, to overcome that perspective. The result will be a “Balkanized” continent, sooner or later.
Either way, it’s the education, stupid.