Identity Cleft

Here I am, three days after this election, teaching a seminar on "New Conceptions of American National Identity" at Yale, where George W. Bush, John Kerry, and I overlapped as undergraduates in the late 1960s. Surely I will have to tell my students how Bush has revived an old conception of our national identity that depends heavily on notions about free markets and spiritual salvation that are necessary but nowhere near sufficient to sustaining republican freedom.

Bush's voters believe that this year they've met the republican test set by Alexander Hamilton, who wrote that history had destined Americans, "by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force."

The Bush camp didn't resort to force or fraud in the voting process itself to win ratification of its old vision of American character and destiny. Swift-boat desperadoes and gay-marriage bans aside, the campaign was relatively free of the conservative malevolence that drove the Whitewater hearings, the Clinton impeachment gambit, and the untrustworthy 2000 election. This year's election seemed "clean" because the force and fraud had come earlier. But force and fraud are coursing through the republic's bloodstream and discourse more powerfully than at any time since the early Cold War.

What is being concealed or dodged here? The answer was anticipated in Death of a Yale Man, Malcolm Ross' long-forgotten memoir of his early post-college struggle to help poor miners and farmers in Kentucky in the 1930s govern themselves through reflection and choice. He watched them swept up instead in the raptures of tent revivals led by itinerant preachers such as Billie Sunday. They backed "monkey trials" like the Scopes case against teaching evolution in Tennessee. Driven mainly, if sometimes subtly, by force and fraud, they followed demagogues to mystical certitudes or to war, and voted for politicians who activated their fears, not their hopes.

Hamilton's republican standard counts instead on expectations and extensions of trust that are compelling enough to deepen trust itself. The cultivation of trust has declined in favor of litigation, gladatorial entertainments, hating the enemy, and free-floating rage. And now a majority of American voters have come out for Authority, answering a call by a commander in chief, his Congress, and, soon, his Supreme Court for a huge national tent revival, there to cry up an old American spirit they think more reliable than the overconfident Great Society liberalism of Lyndon Johnson; the myopic, multiculturalist liberalism of George McGovern; the rationalistic, "vital center," Cold War liberalism of Harry Truman; and even the New Deal, Social Security liberalism of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, John Dewey, and John Maynard Keynes. We are going all the way back to Bush strategist Karl Rove's favorite president, William McKinley, champion of robber barons and the Spanish-American War but also, in Bush's view, of economic dynamism and Christian purity.

What Bush wants was explained almost a quarter-century ago, after Ronald Reagan's 1980 election, by James Lucier, an assistant to conservative Republican Senator Jesse Helms. The liberal "leadership groups that run the country -- not just the media but also the politicians, corporate executives -- have been trained in an intellectual tradition that is highly rationalistic," Lucier told the journalist Elizabeth Drew in a story that appeared the July 21, 1981, issue of The New Yorker. That training -- the "liberal education" that Bush, Kerry, and I encountered at Yale -- "excludes most of the things that are important to the people who are selling cars and digging ditches," Lucier claimed.

"The principles that we're espousing, he continued, "have been around for thousands of years: The family faith that God is the creator of this world and that there is a higher meaning than materialism. Property as a fundamental human right and that a government should not be based on deficit financing and economic redistribution. It's not the 'new right' -- people are groping for a new term. It's pre-political."

The contradictions here don't matter if the current deficit spending is understood as an expedient to end Social Security as we know it -- and if Social Security is understood as a "highly rationalistic" scheme to undo the eternal laws of free enterprise.

Lucier's candor recalls much in William F. Buckley Jr.'s God and Man at Yale, which indicted both liberal education and liberal demands for the just disposition of property and opportunity -- the liberalism that Malcolm Ross had tried to advance in Death of Yale Man. That liberalism has been on the defensive since Reagan, but now Bush and Co. are poised to extinguish it in the whirlwind of self-reinforcing fears and escapes that Buckley, Barry Goldwater, Reagan, Helms, and so many others worked so hard to sow.

A silver lining in the thunderclouds gathering above their big revival tent is that your race and religious denomination matter less now than in the past to conservatives' protean, absorptive version of 1890s capitalism. If you're willing to displace the frustrations of having to work harder for lower wages and the ever-receding consolations of an alienating consumer culture into compensatory obsessions about "guns, gays, and God" -- into the war on terrorism, the Defense of Marriage Act, and the replacement of government bureaucracies by ecclesiastical ones -- there's a seat for you at the front of the bus, no matter your color. God can even hear the prayer of a neoconservative Jew.

In some ways, of course, liberalism asked for this. A "rights"-obsessed liberalism that prattles on about respecting all "differences" and suspending moral judgments ends up having to rely on virtues and beliefs that liberalism itself cannot nourish, much less impose. Combine such relativism with a misguided respect for the "rights" of intimately intrusive corporate marketers and you have millions leading lives of quiet desperation and degradation and looking for a Billie Sunday in a commander in chief.

On Tuesday, they came out in droves, blaming social decay on liberals, not the casino-corporate economy that innundates us with violence and sexual degradation (and with the guns to "protect" ourselves from it). The bread-and-circus currents that are invading and disrupting communities, families, and personal moralities are swift and deep and driven by private investors in free markets, not by big government liberals; Karl Marx wasn't wrong to marvel that "all that is solid melts into air," even though his prescriptions never equaled his diagnoses. Hence conservatives' desperate search for order in salvific beliefs and the staged flight-deck landings of a commander in chief. And hence the search for liberal scapegoats.

The challenge for liberals is not to mock those who are being oriented like magnet filings toward a darkening, doomed crusade but to acknowledge American liberalism's own estrangement from a national character that is often, heaven help us, a balancing act as weird as that of a Jack Nicholson movie character, tottering along on a tightrope between rampant materialism and rapturous faith.

Many places besides Yale have been crucibles where people learn how to keep that balance constructively enough, in themselves as well as in their public posturings, to sustain a republic. But those crucibles are being drained now, or cracked, or chilled, or heated into cauldrons of selfish ambition masked by warlike rhetoric about saving "freedom" from its enemies. Freedom may first have to be saved from Bush, who once said that he "never learned a damned thing at Yale." He certainly didn't stay on the tightrope of a liberal education any better than Dick Cheney, who dropped out after two years.

Both men displayed their contempt for the republic by becoming draft dodgers, as defined clearly by conservatives at the time. But they soon devised a new kind of balance, between God and war. As that rickety balance of otherwordly yearning and this world crusading falls apart in the years ahead, let's hope that liberalism will have recovered a balance of its own, one reliable enough this time to help a wounded nation govern itself through reflection and choice, not accident, force, fraud, and fear. That will involve reopening questions about corporate capitalism that the left mishandled, and it will mean giving up liberals' own loopy, compensatory escapes from such hard questions, escapes into a self-indulgent politics of racial and sexual "liberation" that has driven the unready and the fearful into Bush's arms.

Jim Sleeper is a political-science lecturer at Yale University.

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