The Four Americas
The Atlantic|July - August 2021
Competing visions of the country’s purpose and meaning are tearing it apart. Is reconciliation possible?
By George Packer

Nations, like individuals, tell stories in order to understand what they are, where they come from, and what they want to be. National narratives, like personal ones, are prone to sentimentality, grievance, pride, shame, self-blindness. There is never just one—they compete and constantly change. The most durable narratives are not the ones that stand up best to fact-checking. They’re the ones that address our deepest needs and desires. Americans know by now that democracy depends on a baseline of shared reality—when facts become fungible, we’re lost. But just as no one can live a happy and productive life in nonstop self-criticism, nations require more than facts—they need stories that convey a moral identity. The long gaze in the mirror has to end in self-respect or it will swallow us up.

Tracing the evolution of these narratives can tell you something about a nation’s possibilities for change. Through much of the 20th century, the two political parties had clear identities and told distinct stories. The Republicans spoke for those who wanted to get ahead, and the Democrats spoke for those who wanted a fair shake. Republicans emphasized individual enterprise, and Democrats emphasized social solidarity, eventually including Black people and abandoning the party’s commitment to Jim Crow. But, unlike today, the two parties were arguing over the same recognizable country. This arrangement held until the late ’60s—still within living memory.

The two parties reflected a society that was less free than today, less tolerant, and far less diverse, with fewer choices, but with more economic equality, more shared prosperity, and more political cooperation. Liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats played important roles in their respective parties. Americans then were more uniform than we are in what they ate (tuna noodle casserole) and what they watched (Bullitt). Even their bodies looked more alike. They were more restrained than we are, more repressed—though restraint and repression were coming undone by 1968.

Since then, the two parties have just about traded places. By the turn of the millennium, the Democrats were becoming the home of affluent professionals, while the Republicans were starting to sound like populist insurgents. We have to understand this exchange in order to grasp how we got to where we are.

The 1970s ended postwar, bipartisan, middle-class America, and with it the two relatively stable narratives of getting ahead and the fair shake. In their place, four rival narratives have emerged, four accounts of America’s moral identity. They have roots in history, but they are shaped by new ways of thinking and living. They reflect schisms on both sides of the divide that has made us two countries, extending and deepening the lines of fracture. Over the past four decades, the four narratives have taken turns exercising influence. They overlap, morph into one another, attract and repel one another. None can be understood apart from the others, because all four emerge from the same whole.

1. Call the first narrative “Free America.” In the past half-century it’s been the most politically powerful of the four. Free America draws on libertarian ideas, which it installs in the high-powered engine of consumer capitalism. The freedom it champions is very different from Alexis de Tocqueville’s art of self-government. It’s personal freedom, without other people—the negative liberty of “Don’t tread on me.”

The conservative movement began to dominate the Republican Party in the 1970s, and then much of the country after 1980 with the presidency of Ronald Reagan. As the historian George H. Nash observed, it uneasily wove together several strands of thought. One was traditionalist, a reaction against the utopian plans and moral chaos of modern secular civilization. The traditionalists were sin-fearing Protestants, orthodox Catholics, southern agrarians, would-be aristocrats, alienated individualists— dissidents in postwar America. They were appalled by the complacent vulgarity of the semi-educated masses. Their hero was Edmund Burke, the avatar of conservative restraint, and their enemy was John Dewey, the philosopher of American democracy. The traditionalists’ elitism put them at odds with the main currents of American life—the one passage of American history that most appealed to them was the quasi-feudal Old South—but their writings inspired the next generation of conservatives, including William F. Buckley Jr., who introduced the first issue of National Review, in 1955, with the famous command to “Stand athwart history, yelling Stop. ”

Adjacent to the traditionalists were the anti-Communists. Many of them were former Marxists, such as Whittaker Chambers and James Burnham, who carried their apocalyptic baggage with them when they moved from left to right. Politics for them was nothing less than the titanic struggle between good and evil, God and man. The main target of their energy was the ameliorative creed of Eleanor Roosevelt and Arthur Schlesinger Jr., good old liberalism, which they believed to be a paler communism— “the ideology of Western suicide,” Burnham called it. The anti-Communists, like the traditionalists, were skeptics of democracy—its softness would doom it to destruction when World War III broke out. If these hectoring pessimists were the sum of modern conservatism, the movement would have died of joylessness by 1960.

The libertarians were different. They slipped more easily into the American stream. In their insistence on freedom they could claim to be descendants of Locke, Jefferson, and the classical liberal tradition. Some of them interpreted the Constitution as a libertarian document for individual and states’ rights under a limited federal government, not as a framework for the strengthened nation that the authors of The Federalist Papers thought they were creating. Oddly, the most influential libertarians were Europeans, especially the Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek, whose polemic against collectivism, The Road to Serfdom, was a publishing sensation in America in 1944, during the most dramatic mobilization of economic resources by state power in history.

What distinguished libertarians from conventional, pro-business Republicans was their pure and uncompromising idea. What was it? Hayek: “Planning leads to dictatorship.” The purpose of government is to secure individual rights, and little else. One sip of social welfare and free government dies. A 1937 Supreme Court decision upholding parts of the New Deal was the beginning of America’s decline and fall. Libertarians were in rebellion against the mid-century mixed-economy consensus. In spirit they were more radical than conservative. No compromise with Social Security administrators and central bankers! Death to Keynesian fiscal policy!

Despite or because of the purity of their idea, libertarians made common cause with segregationists, and racism informed their political movement from the beginning. Their first hero, Senator Barry Gold water, ran for president in 1964as an insurgent against his own party’s establishment while opposing the civil-rights bill on states’-rights grounds.

The first two strands of the conservative movement—elitist traditionalism and anti-communism—remained part of its DNA for half a century. Eventually the American people made their preference for taking pleasures where they wanted clear and the first faded, while the end of the Cold War rendered the second obsolete. But libertarianism stretches all the way to the present. James Burnham is mostly forgotten, but I’ve met Ayn Rand fanatics everywhere—among Silicon Valley venture capitalists, at the office of the Tampa Bay Tea Party, on a road-paving crew. Former House Speaker Paul Ryan (who read Atlas Shrugged in high school) brought Rand’s pitiless philosophy of egoism to policymaking on Capitol Hill. Libertarianism speaks to the American myth of the self-made man and the lonely pioneer on the plains. (Glorification of men is a recurring feature.) Like Marxism, it is a complete explanatory system. It appeals to supersmart engineers and others who never really grow up.

How did Free America become the dogma of the Republican Party and set the terms of American politics for years? Like any great political change, this one depended on ideas, an authentic connection with people’s lives, and timing. Just as there would have been no Roosevelt revolution without the Great Depression, there would have been no Reagan revolution without the 1970s. After years of high inflation with high unemployment, gas shortages, chaos in liberal cities, and epic government corruption and incompetence, by 1980 a large audience of Americans was ready to listen when Milton and Rose Friedman, in a book and 10-part public television series called Free to Choose, blamed the country’s decline on business regulations and other government interventions in the market.

But it took the alchemy of that year’s Republican nominee to transform the cold formula of tax cuts and deregulation into the warm vision of America as “the shining city on a hill”—land of the Pilgrims, beacon to a desperate world. In Reagan’s rhetoric, leveraged buyouts somehow rhymed with the spirit of New England town meetings. Reagan made Free America sound like the promised land, a place where all were welcome to pursue happiness. The descendants of Jefferson’s yeoman farmers, with their desire for independence, became sturdy car-company executives and investment bankers yearning to breathe free of big government.

In 1980, the first year I cast a vote, I feared and hated Reagan. Listening to his words 40 years later, I can hear their eloquence and understand their appeal, as long as I tune out many other things. Chief among them is Reagan’s half-spoken message to white Americans: Government helps only those people. Legal segregation was barely dead when Free America, using the libertarian language of individualism and property rights, pushed the country into its long decline in public investment. The advantages for business were easy to see. As for ordinary people, the Republican Party reckoned that some white Americans would rather go without than share the full benefits of prosperity with their newly equal Black compatriots.

The majority of Americans who elected Reagan president weren’t told that Free America would break unions and starve social programs, or that it would change antitrust policy to bring a new age of monopoly, making Walmart, Citigroup, Google, and Amazon the J.P. Morgan and Standard Oil of a second Gilded Age. They had never heard of Charles and David Koch—heirs to a family oil business, libertarian billionaires who would pour money into the lobbies and propaganda machines and political campaigns of Free America on behalf of corporate power and fossil fuels. Freedom sealed a deal between elected officials and business executives: campaign contributions in exchange for tax cuts and corporate welfare. The numerous scandals of the 1980s exposed the crony capitalism that lay at the heart of Free America.

The shining city on a hill was supposed to replace remote big government with a community of energetic and compassionate citizens, all engaged in a project of national renewal. But nothing held the city together. It was hollow at the center, a collection of individuals all wanting more. It saw Americans as entrepreneurs, employees, investors, taxpayers, and consumers— everything but citizens.

In the Declaration of Independence, freedom comes right after equality. For Reagan and the narrative of Free America, it meant freedom from government and bureaucrats. It meant the freedom to run a business without regulation, to pay workers whatever wage the market would bear, to break a union, to pass all your wealth on to your children, to buy out an ailing company with debt and strip it for assets, to own seven houses—or to go homeless. But a freedom that gets rid of all obstructions is impoverished, and it degrades people.

Real freedom is closer to the opposite of breaking loose. It means growing up, and acquiring the ability to participate fully in political and economic life. The obstructions that block this ability are the ones that need to be removed. Some are external: institutions and social conditions. Others are embedded in your character and get in the way of governing yourself, thinking for yourself, and even knowing what is true. These obstructions crush the individuality that freedom lovers cherish, making them conformist, submissive, a group of people all shouting the same thing—easy marks for a demagogue.

Reagan cared more about the functions of self-government than his most ideological supporters. He knew how to persuade and when to compromise. But once he was gone, and the Soviet Union not long after him, Free America lost the narrative thread. Without Reagan’s smile and the Cold War’s clarity, its vision grew darker and more extreme. Its spirit became flesh in the person of Newt Gingrich, the most influential politician of the past half-century. There was nothing conservative about Gingrich. He came to Congress not to work within the institution or even to change it, but to tear it down in order to seize power. With the Gingrich revolution, the term government shutdown entered the lexicon and politics became a forever war. (Gingrich himself liked to quote Mao’s definition of politics as “war without blood.”) His tactics turned the goal of limited and efficient government into the destruction of government. Without a positive vision, his party used power to hold on to power and fatten corporate allies. Corruption— financial, political, intellectual, moral—set in like dry rot in a decaying log.

The aggressive new populism of talk radio and cable news did not have the “conservative orderly heart” that Norman Mailer had once found in the mainstream Republicans of the 1960s. It mocked self-government—both the political and the personal kind. It was rife with destructive impulses. It fed on rage and celebrity culture. The quality of Free America’s leaders steadily deteriorated—falling from Reagan to Gingrich to Ted Cruz, from William F. Buckley to Ann Coulter to Sean Hannity—with no bottom.

While the sunny narrative of Free America shone on, its policies eroded the way of life of many of its adherents. The disappearance of secure employment and small businesses destroyed communities. The civic associations that Tocqueville identified as the antidote to individualism died with the jobs. When towns lost their Main Street drugstores and restaurants to Walgreens and Wendy’s in the mall out on the highway, they also lost their Rotary Club and newspaper—the local institutions of self-government. This hollowing-out exposed them to an epidemic of aloneness, physical and psychological. Isolation bred distrust in the old sources of authority—school, church, union, bank, media.

Government, which did so little for ordinary Americans, was still the enemy, along with “governing elites.” But for the sinking working class, freedom lost whatever economic meaning it had once had. It was a matter of personal dignity, identity. Members of this class began to see trespassers everywhere and embraced the slogan of a defiant and armed loneliness: Get the fuck off my property. Take this mask and shove it. It was the threatening image of a coiled rattlesnake: “Don’t tread on me.” It achieved its ultimate expression on January 6, in all those yellow Gadsden flags waving around the Capitol—a mob of freedom-loving Americans taking back their constitutional rights by shitting on the floors of Congress and hunting down elected representatives to kidnap and kill. That was their freedom in its pure and reduced form.

A character in Jonathan Franzen’s 2010 novel, Freedom, puts it this way: “If you don’t have money, you cling to your freedoms all the more angrily. Even if smoking kills you, even if you can’t afford to feed your kids, even if your kids are getting shot down by maniacs with assault rifles. You may be poor, but the one thing nobody can take away from you is the freedom to fuck up your life.” The character is almost paraphrasing Barack Obama’s notorious statement at a San Francisco fundraiser about the way working-class white Americans “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them, or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment, as a way to explain their frustrations.” The thought wasn’t mistaken, but the condescension was self-incriminating. It showed why Democrats couldn’t fathom that people might “vote against their interests.” Guns and religion were the authentic interests of millions of Americans. Trade and immigration had left some of them worse off. And if the Democratic Party wasn’t on their side—if government failed to improve their lives—why not vote for the party that at least took them seriously?

Free America always had an insurgent mindset, breaking institutions down, not building them up. Irresponsibility was coded into its leadership. Rather than finding new policies to rebuild declining communities, Republicans mobilized anger and despair while offering up scapegoats. The party thought it could control these dark energies on its quest for more power, but instead they would consume it.

2. The new knowledge economy created a new class of Americans: men and women with college degrees, skilled with symbols and numbers—salaried professionals in information technology, computer engineering, scientific research, design, management consulting, the upper civil service, financial analysis, law, journalism, the arts, higher education. They go to college with one another, intermarry, gravitate to desirable neighborhoods in large metropolitan areas, and do all they can to pass on their advantages to their children. They are not 1 percenters—those are mainly executives and investors—but they dominate the top 10 percent of American incomes, with outsize economic and cultural influence.

They’re at ease in the world that modernity created. They were early adopters of things that make the surface of contemporary life agreeable: HBO, Lipitor, MileagePlus Platinum, the MacBook Pro, grass-fed organic beef, cold-brewed coffee, Amazon Prime. They welcome novelty and relish diversity. They believe that the transnational flow of human beings, information, goods, and capital ultimately benefi ts most people around the world. You have a hard time telling what part of the country they come from, because their local identities are submerged in the homogenizing culture of top universities and elite professions. They believe in credentials and expertise—not just as tools for success, but as qualifications for class entry. They’re not nationalistic—quite the opposite—but they have a national narrative. Call it “Smart America.”

The cosmopolitan outlook of Smart America overlaps in some areas with the libertarian views of Free America. Each embraces capitalism and the principle of meritocracy: the belief that your talent and effort should determine your reward. But to the meritocrats of Smart America, some government interventions are necessary for everyone to have an equal chance to move up. The long history of racial injustice demands remedies such as affirmative action, diversity hiring, and maybe even reparations. The poor need a social safety net and a living wage; poor children deserve higher spending on education and health care. Workers dislocated by trade agreements, automation, and other blows of the global economy should be retrained for new kinds of jobs.

Still, there’s a limit to how much government the meritocrats will accept. Social liberalism comes easier to them than redistribution, especially as they accumulate wealth and look to their 401(k)s for long-term security. As for unions, they hardly exist in Smart America. They’re instruments of class solidarity, not individual advancement, and the individual is the unit of worth in Smart America as in Free America.

The word meritocracy has been around since the late 1950s, when a British sociologist named Michael Young published The Rise of the Meritocracy. He meant this new word as a warning: Modern societies would learn how to measure intelligence in children so exactly that they would be stratified in schools and jobs according to their natural ability. In Young’s satirical fantasy, this new form of inequality would be so rigid and oppressive that it would end in violent rebellion.

But the word lost its original dystopian meaning. In the decades after World War II, the G.I. Bill, the expansion of standardized tests, the civil-rights movement, and the opening of top universities to students of color, women, and children of the middle and working classes all combined to offer a path upward that probably came as close to truly equal opportunity as America has ever seen.

Continue reading your story on the app

Continue reading your story in the magazine

MORE STORIES FROM THE ATLANTICView All