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The Puritan Spirit of America's Civil War

David Samuels at UnHerd

Photo by Aaron Burden / Unsplash

It is hard not to look at modern America without getting the sense of a country that is frantically shedding its skin, in the process of becoming something new. But what will that be?

The country once defined by its powerful middle class is now a flagship of inequality that looks more like a high-end version of Brazil or Nigeria than the mid-20th century bastion of strong unions, churches, civic associations and inclusive political parties. In place of the promise of the American Dream, which was geared towards ordinary men and women, the new America now offers a paradoxical mixture of extreme wealth and glaring disempowerment, which is both intimidating and dispiriting. A glittering oligarchy of a type not seen since the late-19th-century Gilded Age, during which American robber barons plundered the art treasures of Europe, presides over a simmering landscape of uncontrolled low-skill immigration, drug addiction and dead-end service jobs.

More worrying than record levels of inequality — whether measured in income, or in the ability to exert any meaningful control over the circumstances of one’s own life — is the sense of an irrevocable fracturing, which seems to gain strength from month to month, regardless of the fact that most Americans prefer some version of the old America. Propelled by the rise of identity politics, the fragmenting logic of market capitalism or the force of new technologies that reconfigure space and time — or all three forces working hand-in-hand — America has become the prize for a set of tribes engaged in a zero-sum contest for power and spoils.

That a central aim of the American experiment was to create a sense among disparate peoples of belonging to a single whole has been a relatively uncontroversial statement throughout even the worst periods of the country’s history. The agreement that every citizen inherently possessed the same rights as every other citizen, however incomplete in practice, has been a powerful engine for social change, from the fight to end slavery to the campaigns for women’s rights and gay marriage. Yet while the slogan e pluribus unum — “out of many, one” — retains its place in the American currency, it is hardly embraced by most of the country’s leading social and political voices, who depict the country’s history as an unrelieved march of racism and oppression, opposed by the forces of justice.

Where the idea of an American nation or community is increasingly rejected as a remnant of a hegemonic and oppressive past, the celebration of particularity reigns. There is the mandatory replacement of the American flag by sectarian banners — the Black Lives Matter flag for Black History Month; the ever-changing LGBTQA+ symbols for Pride Month — along with elaborate ceremonies of printing new postage stamps, and rewriting history books to focus on the laudable achievements of tribal heroes. These rituals of civic replacement are eagerly embraced by both the oligarchs and the state, and celebrated by large corporations, city halls, the US Congress and US Embassies around the world. Meanwhile, the failure to participate — by, say, flying a large American banner instead — is cause for suspicion of allegiance to a bygone order that has turned rancid, like the bitter-enders down South who decorate their pick-ups with Confederate flags.

The paradoxical nature of the current American predicament is therefore hard to miss. On the one hand, Silicon Valley has cemented America’s place as the wealthiest and most powerful nation on Earth, the unchallenged global leader in fields like AI and biotech — capable of disintegrating any would-be rival by pushing a button and detaching them from the global banking system and the internet. On the other, the digital revolution propelled by American technology and finance is visibly disintegrating America itself. The meritocratic universities and other institutions that once made America the envy of the world are hostages of a new political system in which rote repetition of Democratic Party catechisms about race, class, gender and identity has replaced institutional values such as intellectual independence and critical inquiry. Such ambitions, along with the pursuit of beauty and other forms of excellence, are now signs of Right-wing heresy, to be stamped out by party administrators who administer, well, pretty much everything.

The Democratic Party plays a central role in the new American order, serving as a kind of shadow state, or state-within-a-state — the supremacy of the former being characteristic of so-called revolutionary regimes overseas. Once a vehicle for working Americans to achieve tangible goals such as home ownership, decent healthcare, national parks and a dignified old age, the Democrats under the presidencies of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama found a new place in the sun as the address to which the oligarchs pay protection money and do deals with the security agencies in Washington — after endorsing a global trade regime that cost millions of Americans their jobs and flooded their towns with fentanyl.

The Republican Party, meanwhile, once the party of America’s richest moneymen and biggest industrialists, now poses as the party of small business and the dispossessed, under the leadership of an oft-indicted figure who surrounds himself with the dregs of American political life. Whatever threat Donald Trump once posed to the robber barons and the bureaucracies they have allied themselves with, he long ago revealed himself to be a clownish figure, alternating populist rhetoric with self-pitying conspiracy theories while repeatedly failing to protect himself or his followers from forces that mean them harm. The result has been political suicide for Republicans who support him, as well as those who oppose them.

If one side of the new American coin is oligarchy and political failure, then the other is sectarian rule — another of those recognisable miseries that afflicts revolutionary countries, along with poverty, ignorance, corruption, the use of security agencies to fight personal battles, state censorship and the jailing of political opponents. Perhaps the overwhelming characteristic of such places is the colonisation of every aspect of life that might otherwise provide solace to ordinary people — the arts, academia, law, office life, even family life — by “politics”, a word that is carefully chosen to obscure the absence of coherent thought, which is in any case impossible, since the only fixed principle of such revolutionary politics is sectarian warfare, a danger that the country’s founders worked mightily to avoid.

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