American mythology has never served everyone. Now it serves no one.
11 December 2020 — Donald Trump didn’t come out of nowhere, nor will he fade away come January. He emerged from the primordial brine of American mythology, a blend of rugged individualism, exceptionalism, and anti-intellectualism we’ve been lapping up for decades.
It’s a blend that has ill served those on the margins of America’s promise, especially immigrants and communities of color. But now, the myths of what it means to be American are serving no one.
The challenges we face — a pandemic, a collapsing economy, a climate crisis, racial and ethnic injustice, to name a few — call not for chest-thumping but for collaboration, ingenuity, and humility. None of them can be laid low by bravado or brushed aside by the gusting of a flag.
Individualism won’t eradicate a virus that requires individuals to act for the good of others, any more than insisting global warming is a hoax will keep the Atlantic from engulfing Florida.
In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan used mythology to drive corporate greed into the national loam of bigotry. His administration cultivated tropes we recognize today: winners and losers. Makers and takers. Hardworking Americans and welfare queens. Personal responsibility and the nanny state.
These tropes gave cover to deeper rot. Union-busting, systemic deregulation, and the prison industrial complex all needed myths to advance — myths that built on the race-baiting Southern strategy to pit white working-class voters against immigrants and people of color in competition for worsening jobs. With citizenship and whiteness as their only undepleted commodities, many were primed to misdiagnose the erosion of the social contract.
Speeding the erosion was another myth — that public resources were scarce (a lie made truer by Reagan’s tax cuts) and inadequate to support undeserving freeloaders. When Reagan cut $25 billion from welfare in 1982, only 8 percent of Americans thought he’d gone too far; no surprise, then, that 14 years later, 84 percent felt that welfare programs discouraged work, a sentiment that facilitated Clinton’s decimating reforms under the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act.
By the time Trump revived Reagan’s pledge to ‘make America great again’, the fix was in: many Americans were unable to detect in their hollowed-out prospects a perversion of the individualism and exceptionalism they had been taught to revere.
American mythology isn’t all toxic. People fleeing totalitarianism or conformist societies are still drawn to its promise of agency. The soft power of American popular culture remains unmatched, even as the country’s global reputation takes a slide.
But no amount of mythologizing can erase the fact that, compared to other industrialized nations, we’re not doing well. Americans today are more overworked than their peers but enjoy less job security, have lower life expectancy and poorer health outcomes despite spending far more, and face crippling debt for higher education that other countries have subsidized for generations.
Our botched handling of the pandemic should give us pause.
Comparing responses around the world, journalist Fareed Zakaria noted that the most effective are where governments learn from mistakes — their own and those of others. Alas, our myth of exceptionalism holds that other countries’ experiences with mask mandates, screening, testing, and contact tracing don’t apply. Who can teach us anything when We’re Number One?
If we won’t learn from others, then let us at least draw better lessons from ourselves. The blend of myths we’ve been ingesting is only one of many possible concoctions.
We can change the recipe. We have better ingredients.
Adaptability, for one. Stasis is un-American. Curiosity and reinvention are in our DNA. We’ve sloughed off monarchies, repurposed legacies, risen above stations. We champion innovation. Even our highest art form, jazz, relies on the agility to improvise spontaneously off each other. Why should a nation of quick reflexes consign itself to the quicksand of ignorance and inertia?
Practical generosity, for another. We deserve better than cruelty passing for prudence. We have a history of public-private collaboration to mine. Some recall the New Deal as a spending spree, but Roosevelt didn’t need to drain the treasury to pull it off. Instead, he created channels for private capital to fund public good via loan guarantees, support for cooperatives, and other incentives for investment in strategic sectors.
Proponents of initiatives like the Green New Deal can update this playbook to achieve the environmental, economic and social transformation that we need and should all welcome. That we do not is a sign, after decades of rotgut mythology, of the depths of our inebriation. In our right minds, we would agree that better jobs, modernized infrastructure, cleaner air and water, and the dismantling of systemic oppression aren’t fanciful, prohibitive, or zero-sum; they’re imperative to our survival.
To get there, we must quit the brine that keeps us afraid, apart, and prone to manipulation. It’s time to blend our better myths into the elixir we urgently need.