The recent election has puzzled me. It’s not the Republican victory but the hand wringing across the political spectrum that accompanied it. In the leadup, Tea party proponents proclaimed that the country had “lost its way” and that it was time for real Americans to “take it back.” Democratic partisans, tongue tied before the voting, complained afterward that if anyone had lost their way it was their own spineless, rudderless leaders or unscrupulous, wild-eyed Republicans. Both sides imagined the republic going to hell in a hand basket.
A few cool-headed observers have suggested helpful ways to frame this deep, debilitating political division. The New York Times columnist David Brooks suggested that Americans were beset by a problem that was ultimately ideological — the absence of a unifying set of values. Stanford historian David Kennedy saw parallels with the social and economic upheaval of the late nineteenth century. Perhaps now, as then, “pent-up demand for some kind of meaningful approach to the great issues” would, he suggested, eventually drive the current crisis of confidence and comity toward a resolution.
This stress on the importance of the dominant values that Americans profess to live by and the time it takes for values to shift seems to me to point in the right direction. What if we call those values nationalism and attempt a sketch of American nationalism going back to the decades right after World War II? Then two distinct but coexisting nationalisms rose to dominance. Both are still with us.
One might be called consumer nationalism. The driving force behind consumerism was a system of mass production and mass consumption originating in the late nineteenth century. As it matured, it made the seductive promise that it could deliver to individuals and families across generations ever-rising levels of abundance. This dream of plenty became reality for many during the 1950s and 1960s, and daily life was increasingly defined by the knowing, symbolically loaded process of acquiring a dazzling array of discretionary goods and diverting services. In this consumer republic, private pleasures took precedence; public engagement occupied a back seat.
Arising alongside the widely embraced and avidly practiced consumer lifestyle was the more heroic faith in U.S. leadership to tame and transform a dangerous world. Under the shocks of World War II and the early Cold War, the foreign policy establishment repudiated what it thought of as an outmoded “isolationism” and championed in its place an activist, engaged U.S. role in the world. Its markers were a worldwide system of bases and alliances, the promotion of democracy and free trade, and an imperial presidency wielding the accumulating resources dedicated to this global vision. By the 1950s, the public had come to acquiesce in, if not enthusiastically embrace, this set of worldwide ambitions and activities. Those who had the temerity to challenge the new foreign affairs orthodoxy were ignored, marginalized, and sometimes harassed.
Already by the 1970s, the established nationalisms were getting into trouble. The consumer republic was threatened by slower growth, widening income gaps, and a working class set adrift by deindustrialization. Debt, which had at first served as an engine of consumption and rising prosperity, was getting out of hand. Consumers incurred debt to sustain dreams beyond the reach of their stagnant or falling incomes; the federal government went into debt rather than tax and anger consumers; and the national economy piled up overseas IOU’s as the demand for imported consumer goods outstripped production for export.
The commitment to global leadership faced equally serious challenges. The Vietnam War debate raised for the first time fundamental doubts about playing global reformer and cop, while the relative decline of the dollar and the rise of other economic powers created not only constraints on U.S. policy but also nagging doubts about U.S. preeminence. To redeem the defeat in Vietnam, to demonstrate a continued capacity for vigorous leadership, and to make the most of the one remaining area of a dramatic comparative advantage, the policy establishment made more and more of armed might. The exercise of military supremacy could keep the United States “the indispensable nation.”
This militarization in turn created a paradoxical relationship between the two established nationalisms. The citizens of the consumer republic were distinctly allergic to military service and disaffected when interventions proved costly and inconclusive. Iraq and Afghanistan unsettled the public just as Korea and Vietnam had earlier. Yet even while disliking the wars, the consumer could take psychic satisfaction from an association with the warriors. Their courage and sacrifice somehow ennobled a country preoccupied with getting and spending.
Even as the early Cold War faiths in consumption and global leadership came under pressure from 1970s onward, a brash new free-market philosophy secured its own place in the affection of Americans. Its broad appeal and sweeping implications qualifies it as a nationalism that is, like the others, still with us. Its most notable feature was confidence in corporate efficiency and productivity as the engine of mass prosperity. The social utility attributed to the corporation made it the premier American institution and set on the defensive those such as labor unions and government regulators who sought to limit its freedom of action. Championed by economists and taken up by Democrats no less than Republicans, the free-market gospel put a corporate stamp on aspects of American life from education to social welfare to military logistics to health care.
This latest nationalist arrival has encountered its own problems that in turn have put in question its core tenets. Powerful corporate leaders beholden to shareholders and mesmerized by performance bonuses have taken excessive risks, hollowed out large segments of the national economy, suppressed information critical to transparent market operations, set off speculative crises, and created combinations and concentrations inimical to competition. To avoid an accounting and to preserve freedom of action, corporations moved into politics with a vengeance. They recruited politicians desperate to fill their election war chests, captured regulators, and controlled the message of the popular media that it owned.
If this brief historical overview is approximately correct, then this country is guided today not by a single set of values but by three sets, with each suffering from its own mounting internal contradictions and an uneasy relationship with the others. This is a problem. We live by dreams, and for a country to hang together, some of those dreams have to be collective. But more than that, they have to offer a coherent view of the world, take account of actual domestic and international conditions (not some nostalgic, fantastic version of them), and deliver on their promises. When dreams fail or falter, hand wringing is a natural response — a symptom of the problem, not a solution. Remaining confined within compromised, even dysfunctional nationalist constructs may well spell trouble as contradictions mount, frustration deepens, and political polarization intensifies.
It would be nice to think that the noise attending the election is a signal that the tectonic plates of national values are on the move toward some kind of fruitful resolution. If so, what we really need to know today is where are the plates headed, how long before the old troubled nationalisms stagger and fall, and where is the manifesto that illuminates the transformations ahead?
Michael H. Hunt is Everett H. Emerson Professor of History Emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His ten books include The American Ascendancy: How the United States Gained and Wielded Global Dominance and A Vietnam War Reader: A Documentary History from American and Vietnamese Perspectives. His comments “on Washington and the world” appear here regularly and can also be found on his website.