The pandemic and civil unrest place new strains on public narratives.
NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE
s Joan Didion wrote in the beginning of The White Album, “we tell ourselves stories in order to live.” This applies to governments as well as people. The legitimacy of any regime in part depends on the story it tells about itself, and the breakdown of those public narratives can have grave consequences for that regime.
Set in East Germany during the waning years of the Cold War, the 2006 German drama The Lives of Others is sometimes portrayed as a film about the bitter hollowness of Soviet Communism. Sent to spy on a playwright, a member of the Stasi becomes enchanted with the playwright’s world and undergoes a conversion, from Communist ideology to human sympathy. While The Lives of Others does illustrate the sterility of the Communist regime, it also casts light on a much broader topic: the corruption involved in a hollow government, when the governing elite no longer abides by the principles it purports to govern by.
The German Democratic Republic of The Lives of Others is not a country governed by fanatical Communist ideologues. Instead, its ruling elite uses the edifices of the Communist bureaucracy for its own gratification. The Stasi agent’s superiors sic him on the playwright not because they suspect him of treachery but because he is romantically involved with the culture minister’s mistress. The Stasi here acts less as “sword and shield” for Communist ideology and more as valet for the whims of mid-level functionaries. Programmatic immiseration, domestic resistance, and American pressure helped bring down the Communist regime, but bad faith played a part, too.
Bad faith is to some extent unavoidable in any political order. The founding of the United States involved a terrible act of bad faith, the proclamation that “all men are created equal” even as it kept hundreds of thousands — and, eventually, millions — of men and woman in the most inhumane bondage. This foundational hypocrisy underlines the dangers of bad faith. That thorny tension between aspirational Declaration and lived cruelties of slavery increasingly consumed American politics and led to perhaps the most cataclysmic war in American history, which almost tore the Union apart. The greatest threat to the republic came from within. Resolving that tension — on behalf of liberty and human dignity — cost many lives.
A popular story in America society — one that grew especially chic in the wake of the ideological realignments of the Sixties and Seventies — is that politics can be reduced to some contest of ideas. According to this narrative, the defense of American democracy at its core is the defense of certain principles. And the success of democratic governance abroad can also be reduced to the promotion of certain principles among the populaces (especially among the elite stakeholders) in foreign nations. Perhaps even some list of abstract principles could be a sufficient glue for a polity.
Like many stories, this has some element of truth. Principles do play an important role in politics, and the viability of the American republic does indeed depend on certain deeper intellectual resources. A broader account of human dignity can play an important role in shoring up and promoting a certain vision of democratic governance and civil liberties. That the United States was founded by certain revolutionary documents speaks to the power of principles to help organize a society’s conception of itself.
Yet men and women are not merely blank tokens in some war of ideas — that was one of the great delusions of the mass ideological movements that transfixed the 20th century (most notably Communism). Politics involves not only intellectual debates but also the cultivation of character and attention to the lived circumstances of everyday life. Faced with grave constitutional challenges, the Founders of the American republic did not rest content with an affirmation of principles but instead worked to create a certain structure of government that would help promote the institutions and practices of a more perfect union. They undertook certain measures to promote certain ends for the public welfare — from infrastructure policies to trade efforts to building a military to securing the federal debt. The success of the American republic would depend on the building of certain institutional capital. Again, the Civil War is instructive here. The ideals of the Union played an important role in securing victory and ending slavery, but railways, cannon, and the smoke-streaming factories of the North gave a crude force to those animating principles.
American policymakers long recognized the importance that these lived resources had for liberty. However, whirl of globalization obscured that understanding. The free movement of people, goods, and capital across the globe seemed an eschaton close to immanentization. The tensions and displacements of globalization then grew increasingly obvious. A string of debacles — in foreign affairs, in the economy, and so forth — and successive waves of populist backlash were testament to an increasingly strained paradigm. Yet more than a few policymakers hoped that a sufficient eloquence on behalf of certain ideas of the “open society” and in condemning various deplorable ideologies (whether populism or nationalism or some other horrible) could overcome the lived disruptions. Rhetorical ornamentation alone could create the conditions for a robust democratic regime.
Whatever their medical value, the shutdowns imposed across the United States were in some respects the extension of this project of disrupting ordinary life for some greater good. For the sake of public health, civil society was put into a coma. Government officials prohibited many forms of public worship, including funerals. Schools as well as businesses were shuttered. The bonds of friendship and family were transposed to the digitized environment, a massive gulf separating the chatter of a pixilated head from the touch of a loved one’s hand. Lockdowns transmuted many American citizens (those who did not work certain “essential” jobs) into the perfect digital consumer — barred from work, church, school, and friendship, they could at least bulk-order toilet paper and binge on Netflix.
This was an astonishing effort, perhaps the most exacting display of state power seen in generations. It went in many ways far beyond the responses of many cities during the 1919 flu pandemic; the shutdowns then were on the whole neither as sweeping nor as extended. Of course, the death toll from that pandemic was, as a percentage of the population, much higher than many Americans wanted from coronavirus in 2020.
At a time when trust in major institutions was already severely weathered, this lockdown demanded massive trust. Yet many institutions soon disappointed. Many local, state, and federal officials dismissed the risks of coronavirus until the eve of shutdowns. President Trump’s downplaying of the coronavirus in January and February is well recorded. But it goes far beyond him. As late as February 29, Anthony Fauci, anointed by the respectable as an oracle of expertise, said that Americans had no need to change their lifestyles at the moment even as the coronavirus was rapidly spreading through New York City and other hotspots. As late as March 9, he was still saying that healthy younger Americans could hop on cruise ships.
The early days of the pandemic were full of a cascade of misinformation. Media organizations and supposed experts trumpeted that masks didn’t matter — until they did. While thousands died in New York’s nursing homes, the press fixated on spring break in Florida. The tiresome cultural feuds that have devoured American life for years soon took a once-in-a-generation pandemic in their jaws. President Trump, perhaps the central culture-war topic of the present, was either the cause of the coronavirus pandemic or a victim of a “deep state” conspiracy to create a panic about the disease. In part at the president’s urging, masks became yet another culture-war flashpoint.
“We’re all in this together” was a constant refrain during the first wave of the coronavirus epidemic. And the pain inflicted by the shutdowns could be justified as a matter of political hygiene only if we were all in this together — if the rules applied to all, if collective suffering would be directed toward the common good. This was the story the great and the good told the public about the pandemic.
The establishment’s response to the demonstrations that roiled the country starting in late May shattered that story. The constant lectures about the “new normal” and the importance of social distancing (Stay at home, save a life!) instantly evaporated when a chic political movement arose. Governors, mayors, and public officials applauded and at times marched in mass gatherings that violated the social-distancing orders that applied to everyone else. Celebrated by major media outlets, politicians, and corporate behemoths, these demonstrations basked in the glow of an American establishment that had consigned the country to months of misery, deprivation, and isolation. National policymakers and stakeholders had declared that ordinary life would be indefinitely suppressed, while political movements of a certain ideological flavor would be welcome to do as they pleased. The endorsement of certain mass gatherings in turn made it harder to oppose other mass gatherings as a matter of public health, such as a Trump-campaign rally. (While policymakers may view the coronavirus pandemic through the lens of certain factional imperatives, there is as yet no evidence that the disease will exempt certain factions from transmission.)
The comforts and commitments of ordinary life provide a great defense against political radicalism, so the suspension of ordinary life almost certainly invites political turmoil. The task of defending the American regime involves the protection of a certain stability and opportunity; securing self-government in part requires the promotion of certain modes of living. Mass unemployment, sweeping isolation, and the destruction of the institutions of civil society will make any regime — even one dedicated to promoting human dignity and liberty — unstable.
The Great Awokening tells its own story of the American republic. The United States is irredeemably racist, founded on slavery and genocide. The vast array of inequalities in American life can be attributed to this legacy of racism, and any policy efforts that do not address those discrepancies are themselves racist. Undoing these inequalities will require a massive effort to reorganize American life from top to bottom. Moreover, because this crisis is so pressing, no half-measures are allowed. Insufficiently “antiracist” family members must be shunned, the checks and balances of constitutional normalcy must be overturned, the state must be allowed to discriminate against or on behalf of certain ethnic groups, statues must be toppled, works of art must be suppressed, and those who trespass against wokeness should be purged from public life and the workforce.
Like many powerful stories, this one gains some of its might from a truth: There is an extended legacy of racial injustice in the United States, and the history of those wrongs can be felt today. Yet some of the commitments of radical wokeness seem in tension with that project of a more perfect union. In a time of great demographic change, wokeness tends to polarize racial groups, creating a demographic centrifuge of “Asian American and Pacific Islander,” “Black,” “Latinx,” “Native American,” and “white.” This polarization breaks down the possibility of empathy and instead offers a kind of numb political action. A common refrain for “white allies” of the Great Awokening demonstrates this: “I understand that I will never understand, but I will stand.” There has long been a tradition of ethnic purification in the United States — to divide the body politic into radically distinct ethnic groups. This impulse is not new, but it does seem at odds with the hopes of E pluribus unum. It would not be surprising to see that this project of identity polarization should also intertwine with a project of identity denigration, in which some ethnic types are set up for scorn and ridicule. That impulse, too, is not new.
The story the Great Awokening tells about itself is that it is a narrative of resistance — that the mass demonstrations are protests against the establishment. In reality, one major institution after another promulgates the creed of wokeness, and the wealthy and powerful have by and large endorsed these demonstrations. There are no doubt many reasons for this. The elite educational institutions of the United States have been incubators for this ideology, so a meritocracy that proceeds through those institutions acculturates to it. The tenets of the awokening also speak to the interests of many of those who have benefited from the current mode of transnational commerce; fostering constant ethnic division among a populace is a sure way to block the rise of popular working-class politics. The impulses of the Great Awokening also speak to the class interests and anxieties of college-degreed younger Americans. Woke panics can be a good way of displacing those who hold one of the ever-dwindling number of desirable jobs in certain fields (such as media). Efforts to “defund the police” might end up endangering many working-class communities, but they could also provide jobs for underemployed college graduates; public moneys from policing could be diverted to other — white-collar — agencies.
In part because they view this panic as a way of weakening President Trump, many major American institutions have cheered on the Great Awokening. But the overarching logic of a revolutionary panic ends up undermining institutions in the longer term. Institutions that crumple before mass intimidation soon look hollow and weak. Constant fractiousness increases the yearning for a strongman to settle the chaos. A regime that heaps scorn on its foundations is one that will have a hard time commanding respect either at home or abroad. And if the proponents of a revolutionary panic seize the commanding heights, the impulse toward constant purification can incite purges that destroy these institutions from within. One need only glance at the American media landscape to see organizations that have at once grown more woke and more internally contentious.
The stories of institutional credibility have increasingly come under pressure. The course of the latest revolutionary panic has proven much better at destruction — of businesses, of careers, of statues, of institutions, of people — than at creation. Many of the president’s opponents have rallied behind the slogan of protecting “democratic norms,” but a roving panic of revolutionary angst seems profoundly at odds with the hope of stable republican self-governance.
The intersection of the pandemic and the mass civil unrest has also cast a spotlight on the limitations of the Trump administration’s current approach to governance. Since 2017, the White House has focused more on daily controversies and personality feuds than on creating a long-term governing vision. The administration’s continued indifference to decorum as well as to the campaign promises of 2016 has weakened the president politically and radicalized his opponents. Even as the president trolls his opponents on Twitter and tweets “LAW & ORDER,” the unrest continues. Part of his collapse in polling in recent months can be traced to the cascades of crises, but part of it might also be attributed to a belief among a growing portion of the American public that the Trump presidency will never adapt or reform — that a second term would be four more years of controversy, paralysis, and social-media pile drivers. The political chaos of the Trump administration did not serve the president well in times of peace and relative prosperity; during this ultimate political stress test, it is a suicidal luxury. If the president cannot make a significant course correction, the public may very well turn to Joe Biden as a figure of relative stability and normalcy. (Whether a President Biden would do much to resist radical ideology or instead put a genial smile on it remains an open question.)
In this time of institutional self-immolation, it is worth remembering that there are other stories out there. There is the tradition of ethnic mixing and contingency — that ethnicity remains a place of crossing, cultural narration, and reimagination — as found in Walt Whitman, Albert Murray, and the lived practice of American life. People of different ethnicities, religions, regions, and backgrounds can and have come together to do great things in the name of justice, liberty, and the good. Civil liberties and norms of tolerance can advance not out of some subtle nihilism but out of a belief in the dignity of the person. A just authority can be founded not on the basis of exploitation or animus but rather on a sense of responsibility to the commonwealth.
National anthems can tell their own story. Befitting the yearning uncertainty of American life (from John Winthrop’s “city on a hill” onward), “The Star-Spangled Banner” ends with a question.
That ragged banner — stained with red, etched with stars — still waves, doesn’t it?
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