These are unsettling times. In an optimistic light, we are merely in the midst of a transitional period in which the old ways of doing things are being disrupted and rejected. From a more pessimistic outlook, we are sliding into decline as a great nation, we are saddled with a huge national debt, and the future belongs to China. Yet the path forward is still in an amorphous state.
Before envisioning future scenarios, it is important to look over our shoulders at the past and examine why the traditional ways are being so soundly rejected.
Since its birth, the national narrative of America has been firmly planted in the traditions of the European Enlightenment. The principles of an open society, democracy, freedom of speech and religion, individual rights and dignity, fairness and justice, checks and balances on governments’ authority, scientific reasoning, and a free-market economy have been entrenched in the psyche of the American citizenry. A civil war was fought partially over these principles, and the U.S. and its allies struggled against totalitarian fascism on the battlefield during World War II. Although imperfectly realized, these principles have been the backbone of American society. The struggle was to perfect the principles, rather than reject them wholesale.
Often called Liberalism (not associated with the Democratic Party), Enlightenment principles have frequently clashed with religious conservatives’ beliefs. This uneasy tension has flared up at different times in U.S. history, but generally the Enlightenment narrative has held, as most people have prospered under its banner.
But the Enlightenment narrative, or Liberalism, has been attacked from multiple sides in recent years, and it seems to be splintering more and more each day. Many factors have caused this disruption; I will highlight a few in this blog.
Reasons for the Splintering of the Enlightenment Narrative
1) The government’s guiding of the economy, put in place during the Great Depression and World War II, promoted fairness and opportunity for many Americans. This government policy has been steadily lifted. Now government policy promotes a neoliberal economic model. In this model, policy favors large corporations and the wealthy, while ordinary workers have experienced stagnant wages and fewer benefits.
2) The government has pushed economic globalization, in which American workers compete with workers around the world, and companies have outsourced jobs to lower-wage countries. Although about 20% of Americans have profited from this move and the 1% at the top of the wealth scale have done exceedingly well, the remaining 80% of Americans have lagged behind.
3) Sweeping technological changes have disrupted traditional workplaces and companies, again resulting in skewed income distribution to the top earners. Many workers have not kept up with the changing skills needed in a highly sophisticated technological world.
4) Differing social values have frayed the nation. For example, at some universities, angry students have denied speakers with different political beliefs from giving speeches. Protesters have shouted down those with whom they disagree. The Enlightenment principles of free speech and rational discourse—the cornerstones of universities—are being challenged. These principles have been under assault by some people at universities for a couple of decades, as some believe they reinforce white privilege and existing power.
5) Highly partisan media outlets have given voice to angry citizens, whose rantings have created a spiral of anger, disenchantment, and demand for change. Conspiracy theories go uncontested on national media platforms and are believed to be true by gullible followers. In many venues, the Enlightenment ideals of reasonable inquiry, civil discourse, and the hearing of all sides of issues have been eroded and replaced with “alternative facts” and outright lies.
6) Disquieting social changes have left many people alienated, depressed, and prone to addictive and destructive behaviors. The social fabrics of American life that have given people stability and order—churches, extended and nuclear families, neighbors, civic organizations, and workplace connections—have frayed, with disastrous results. The epidemics of opioid addiction and depression are a visible reminder of a tattered social fabric.
7) The consumer culture implicitly promises to bring happiness and fulfillment to those consumers who willingly participate in the ritual of shopping. Yet after decades of these promises, and after much consumption, most Americans are not happier. Since the American economy runs on consumerism, this is a paradox that is not easily reconciled.
All of these factors, plus many more not mentioned, have contributed to the uncertainty that is sweeping America, along with other countries around the world. Most politicians seem to be clueless about where we are headed, let alone how they should guide us in this time of uncertainty.
The giddy times after the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, signaling the end of Communism in the former Soviet bloc, have resulted in disillusionment. The promises of a neoliberal economic order and democracy, which would improve the lives of Americans and people around the world, have given way to increased authoritarianism and disappointment. Instead of euphoria at having more consumer and entertainment choices, many citizens feel alienated, frustrated, and betrayed by their leaders.
Toward a New National Narrative
The Liberal or Enlightenment narrative has been rejected by many people and has evoked lukewarm support from others. Universities, the former bastions of Enlightenment ideals, have been tepid in supporting this narrative. Stepping into the national narrative void is populism—on both the right and left of the political spectrum. During the 2016 presidential election, there was a loud rejection of the path the country was taking. Many people called for a political revolution, or they wanted to “shake things up.” Never mind that it was uncertain what things would look like after they were shaken up, or after the revolution took place.
Can populism become our national narrative? What would the narrative be on the political right and left? Would there be any compromises? What would bind Americans together?
This is the first article in a series of three dedicated to America’s national narrative. The next blog article will look at populism as the new national narrative—on the right and on the left. In the final article, I will offer my suggestions for what I think will be a more sustainable, reasonable, and pragmatic national narrative.
Questions to Consider
- Do you see evidence in your own life to suggest that Enlightenment ideals are being eroded?
- Do you think this is a good or bad development?
Dr. Denise R. Ames is a long-time educator and president of the nonprofit Center for Global Awareness. The Center for Global Awareness develops books and materials with a holistic, global focus for adult learners and educators. In January 2018, the CGA will launch the Global Awareness Adult Conversation and Study Program, or Gather. In this unique program, adult learners form small study groups to launch conversations about pressing global issues, seeing different perspectives, transcending deep political and cultural divides, and engaging with others to create positive change. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.global-awareness.org for more information.