Last week, I called attention to George Packer’s essay “How America fractured into four parts” at The Atlantic. The article details four narratives of America that Packer thinks shape our national polity. The subhead frames the conundrum of our day: “People in the United States no longer agree on the nation’s purpose, values, history, or meaning. Is reconciliation possible?”
It is not given to any of us to see into the future, so there is no way to know if the question can be answered in the affirmative. I have often mused that I thought only something really dreadful and indiscriminate could bring the country together, something like a pandemic. Alas.
The “four Americas,” according to Packer, are:
- “Free America,” by which he means the Reaganite, libertarian, anti-government movement that allied with more traditional conservative concerns such as anti-communism and a latent racist populism, and which remade the ideological landscape after 1980;
- “Smart America,” the Clintonian and, later, Obama brand of progressivism that did not question the market-orientation of the Reaganites but tried to redirect it toward more communitarian ends, embracing a meritocratic understanding of American society in which they saw themselves as natural leaders, usually with a heavy dose of smugness;
- “Real America,” which Packer correctly traces to Newt Gingrich but which is named for Sarah Palin’s habit of contrasting the audiences at her 2008 campaign rallies — “real Americans” — with the elites she discerned attending Obama’s campaign events, a more dystopian vision devoid of Reagan’s sunniness, and more willing to be upfront about the racism latent in previous iterations of conservatism; and
- “Just America,” the narrative coming from young, woke Americans who insist that America confront the reasons why we are still so burdened by racism even while they introduce new, difficult ideas that run counter to two of the most characteristic qualities of the American mind that previous generations have touted: optimism and pragmatism. Neither quality looks so resplendent, so capable of bearing the cause of renewal, after one has watched the video of George Floyd’s murder.
I would submit, however, that the best way to ameliorate the worst features of each of these four narratives is with the strong tonic of Catholic moral teaching, and our social teaching more specifically.
The Packer article is worth engaging for anyone who is concerned about the country’s future. And it confirms what I have long believed: There is no ideology nor issue in American public life that will not be leavened by an encounter with Catholic social doctrine.
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Michael Sean Winters covers the nexus of religion and politics for NCR.
With thanks to the National Catholic Reporter (NCR) and Michael Sean Winters, where this article originally appeared.