Politics in the United States subsists on a single myth whose narrative is central to all positions, even most of the ones located at the fringe.[i] This dominant political narrative pretends to be historically accurate, as if it explains where we have come from and where we can go from here. But the explanation it offers is neither accurate nor helpful for our current predicaments. There may have been a time in which the cheerleading the myth encourages and the unifying vision it presents may have helped us steel ourselves for challenges. But now it has become dangerously maladaptive, something that should be apparent through the frayed and threadbare politics of today. And yet few among us can even imagine that this myth is not true.
Like all narratives this one has a form or a structure that can be repeated and reused with different protagonists and antagonists, different challenges and struggles, each combination creating a slightly different story. It is like the formula used in action-adventures or sitcoms, recycled with a changing cast of international villains, or transported from an uncharted dessert isle to a New York loft. As with sitcoms and action movies, our political story uses new villains and settings to attract an audience, appear relevant, and make its political point. Just as a movie or TV producer inserts a new assembly of suspects to draw-in an audience (and create a profit), in the hands of a politician our national narrative is refitted to entertain and excite the electorate once again.
The choice of antagonists, like all the other variables, does have political implications. Consider, for instance, the way Donald Trump blames immigrants (among others) for our current troubles, while Bernie Sanders pins the blame on Wall Street Bankers. The difference is not insignificant. But the basic structure or form of the narrative that both employ with equal enthusiasm also has its own ideology or ideological limits; it can entertain some political differences, but only ones which commit to the basic outline of the story and the limited range of resolutions it can offer.
What is this narrative? Here is how I would describe it in three basic acts.
1) Setting the stage.
According to our political narrative, we are almost always at a moment of crisis or change. We have been led astray by ourselves or by forces operating within our body politic. We have become something other than our truest selves. Now is an important time, and we the public can shape the course of history, but only by returning to our true path and our authentic selves.
Bill Clinton provided a basic example of this stage-setting in his First Inaugural Address when he declared, “We know we have to face hard truths and take strong steps, but we have not done so; instead, we have drifted. And that drifting has eroded our resources, fractured our economy, and shaken our confidence.” Or as George H. Bush had put it four years earlier “America is never wholly herself unless she is engaged in high moral principle,” the implication being we had lost sight of this necessary social adhesive and moral map. In nearly all these words, and those to follow, we hear echoes of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whose extraordinary presidency was forged upon crisis. Crisis, and the promise of a solution, is the grist for which Presidents propose new mills. Thus did Obama announce in his First Inaugural Address, “That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood. Our Nation is at war against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred. Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the Nation for a new age.”
Because our current challenges are so often self-inflicted we are easily assured that it is only because we have been “led astray,” “lost site,” or become “distracted.” The American dream,” Nixon said, “does not come to those who fall asleep.” Despite the lapse, we must only awaken ourselves to the solution that lies within. As Clinton adds, picking up where I left off just above, “Americans have ever been a restless, questing, hopeful people,” adding moments later, “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.” Obama has similarly proclaimed that Americans are the “hardest working people on Earth” (Second Inaugural),” the exact same words Reagan used in his first Republican Nomination Acceptance Speech. George H. Bush announced in his Inaugural Address that, short on wallet but long on will, “We will turn to the only resource we have that in times of need always grows: the goodness and the courage of the American people.” We are the people we’ve been looking for.
2) Roots and Renewal:
We have already crossed into the second act of the drama with these last buoying words of self-assurance—those reminding us who we are and what we are made of. Contrary to the popular image according to which Americans have a limited sense of history, Americans are among the most backwards-looking people. We are deeply historical, as if the past contains the truth, like a nut inside of a shell. Almost all political narratives in the United States state that the solution to our current struggles, and thus the kernel of our inherent greatness, lies in our past, and it to our past we must return if we want to be our true selves and overcome our current challenges. In our past, more specifically, we can find our unique ideals and national virtues.
G. W. Bush accordingly began his first Inaugural Address by talking about “the American story, a story of flawed and fallible people united across the generations by grand and enduring ideals.” In times of trouble, we have always looked to these ideals for guidance and renewal. As Obama summarized it, “Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends–honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism–these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths.” America, in other words, has carried on not simply because of the skill or vision of those in high office, but because we the people “have remained faithful to the ideals of our forebears and true to our founding documents” (ibid)
A common technique in speech-making involves a sort of elegant doubling, so that one action unites several disparate needs or goods. Although this strategy found its greatest expression in F.D.R.,[ii] George. W. Bush used it effectively when he similarly suggested our deepest principles and our current interests are same. “America’s vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one. . . . Advancing these ideals is the mission that created our Nation. It is the honorable achievement of our fathers. Now, it is the urgent requirement of our Nation’s security and the calling of our time.”
An important sub-plot that connects our past ideals to our present struggles involves another sort of doubling: according to our official narratives, we as a people have always met challenges by returning to our roots and renewing our ideals. Thus the story of who we are is again doubled over on itself: we are the people who return to our past in times of crisis, exactly the way we have in the past, and exactly as we should do now. The solution to our current crisis, as was the solution to crisis of slavery or of WWII, is to return to our roots. If they solved their problems by returning to founding ideals, so can we. Thus did Clinton urge us in his First Inaugural to take strength in our past responses to times of crisis. “From our Revolution to the Civil War, to the Great Depression, to the civil rights movement, he explains, “our people have always mustered the determination to construct from these crises the pillars of our history.”
Again Obama’s speeches, which verge on self-parody of the genre, summarize it best: “It’s tempting to look back on these moments and assume that our progress was inevitable, that America was always destined to succeed. But when the Union was turned back at Bull Run and the Allies first landed at Omaha Beach, victory was very much in doubt. When the market crashed on Black Tuesday and civil rights marchers were beaten on Bloody Sunday, the future was anything but certain. These were the times that tested the courage of our convictions and the strength of our Union. And despite all our divisions and disagreements, our hesitations and our fears, America prevailed because we chose to move forward as one Nation, as one people. Again, we are tested. And again, we must answer history’s call” (2010 State of the Union). Jimmy Carter had in his day provided another set of accomplishments-past from which we might find courage: “We are the heirs of generations who survived threats much more powerful and awesome than those that challenge us now. Our fathers and mothers were strong men and women who shaped a new society during the Great Depression, who fought world wars, and who carved out a new charter of peace for the world. We ourselves are the same Americans who just ten years ago put a man on the Moon. We are the generation that dedicated our society to the pursuit of human rights and equality” (“Crisis of Confidence” Speech)
3) The Choice is Yours
In the final stage of this narrative, we the audience are swept into the narrative action and given a choice: we can either continue to stray from our true ideals and the virtues and habits that made us great in the past; or we can renew ourselves and return to our true path and overcome our latest obstacles, just as we have overcome obstacles in the past. This choice usually involves a vote, but we are also called upon to come together, renew our optimism, regain our confidence, and aspire to the alleged greatness befitting the hardest working citizens living in the greatest nation on Earth. As Jimmy Carter explained in his famous “Crisis of Confidence” speech, “We are at a turning point in our history. There are two paths to choose. One is a path I’ve warned about tonight, the path that leads to fragmentation and self-interest . . . [and] a mistaken idea of freedom. . . . All the traditions of our past, all the lessons of our heritage, all the promises of our future point to another path, the path of common purpose and the restoration of American values. That path leads to true freedom for our Nation and ourselves.”
As this brief quotation from Carter shows, when it is put together, the past, present, and future are condensed into a single moment of dramatic choice. Often it is presented as a profound spiritual drama, though with great historical and political implications. But it also is given a distinct ring of historical explanation. Consider a similarly condensed version of the same narrative, this time told by Ronald Reagan in his First Inaugural Address:
If we look to the answer as to why for so many years we achieved so much, prospered as no other people on Earth, it was because here in this land we unleashed the energy and individual genius of man to a greater extent than has ever been done before. Freedom and the dignity of the individual have been more available and assured here than in any other place on Earth. The price for this freedom at times has been high, but we have never been unwilling to pay that price.
It is no coincidence that our present troubles parallel and are proportionate to the intervention and intrusion in our lives that result from unnecessary and excessive growth of government. It is time for us to realize that we’re too great a nation to limit ourselves to small dreams. We’re not, as some would have us believe, doomed to an inevitable decline. I do not believe in a fate that will fall on us no matter what we do. I do believe in a fate that will fall on us if we do nothing. So, with all the creative energy at our command, let us begin an era of national renewal. Let us renew our determination, our courage, and our strength. And let us renew our faith and our hope.
Whether it is a liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican, the story has the same sort of ending: make the right choice and there is nothing we cannot accomplish and no limits to how far we might progress. As Reagan put it four years later, “There are no limits to growth and human progress when men and women are free to follow their dreams.” Obama similarly said in his Second Inaugural Address that “America’s possibilities are limitless, for we possess all the qualities that this world without boundaries demands: youth and drive; diversity and openness; an endless capacity for risk and a gift for reinvention.” Again the echoes of Roosevelt are clear: “democracy alone has constructed an unlimited civilization capable of infinite progress in the improvement of human life” (Third State of the Union Address). Should our progress not continue, should we fail to reach towards infinity or be hampered by limits, the message is clear, it is only because we made the wrong decision, suffered a failure of nerve, or did not allow our dreams to soar.
It might be objected that by focusing so narrowly on Presidential speeches, I am confusing a specific election narrative with a more general national sense of our selves. Unfortunately, I don’t think this is the case. I would challenge skeptics to go to their local book store and browse the “politics” or “current events” section, or wherever books by people like David Brooks, Paul Krugman, Ann Colter, and Thomas Friedman are displayed. Look at the titles and read the back cover and introduction and you will see that the overwhelming majority have as their basic argument this: the American (policy/belief/habit/sub-culture (fill the blank as you will) is responsible for making your life turn out differently than you had expected it would; correct it in by (fill in the blank), and our triumphant march of progress might continue undeterred. Simply glancing up at my own bookshelf, I see books like Paul Krugman’s The Conscience of a Liberal, which argues that conservative policies promoting inequality have sabotaged our economy, battered the middle class, and divided our politics; but with the right policies, we could repeat the post WWII economic and political achievements. I see Robert Reich’s Beyond Outrage, which makes the same basic argument, but with more language about the way the economy has been rigged to favor a small elite. Then there is Les Leopold’s The Looting of America, whose subtitle, How Wall Street’s Game of Fantasy Finance Destroyed our Jobs, Pensions, and Prosperity, tells us where to look if we wonder why our lives seem more difficult and tenuous than those of our parents. William Bernstein’s The Birth of Plenty: How the Prosperity of the Modern World Was Created, provides hundreds of pages of historical analysis only to conclude that if we don’t see permanent economic growth into the future, it is only because we, as a people, have lost our drive and have come to value leisure over work. I could keep going, but let me mention Donald Bartlett’s and James Steele’s The Betrayal of the American Dream only because the American Dream, as it is understood in common parlance and in academic analysis alike, is at root, the belief that with hard work and diligence, security, opportunities, and access to material comfort and leisure will increase with each generation. The important implication of this belief–whether it is explained with New York Times best-seller list credentials, scholarly-sounding historical analysis, or election-speech flair—is that if this dream does not come true, then someone or something is to blame. The lie behind American politics and culture: if you do not have what you want, someone or something took what is rightfully yours.
That most Americans believe something like this is, I think, a symptom of the exhaustive nature of this narrative and its lack of alternatives. Bernie Sanders, who is promising a “political revolution” provides another hardly original version of the same myth; he tells us that the only thing standing between us and the realization of our expectations is Wall Street and the policies that permit their “looting of America,” with an “economy that is rigged.” For his part, Donald Trump tells a story of “making America great again” which follows the same plot curve if we only substitute Wall Street and bankers with immigrants, Muslims, and leaders who make bad deals with China. Yes, there is a moral difference between blaming the rich and powerful as opposed to the weakest among us—a large one. But Trump and Sanders are united in their effort to put a distinct face on our problems, to personify them in a way previously performed mainly with dog-whistles and vague connotations that were almost always balanced with at least a nod to impersonal forces or some sort of collective responsibility. And most importantly for our purposes, both reaffirm the paramount expectation: that if we make the right decisions, are reasonable, fair, or hard-nosed enough, we should, in Roosevelt’s words, come to demand and expect “the enjoyment of the fruits of scientific progress in a wider and constantly rising standard of living” (Four Freedoms Speech)
There are, of course, a number of problems with these varied historical explanations for our previous achievements expressed in our national myth. Although the explanation does vary according to political position and era in which it is articulated, our national greatness is attributed, both in our politics and in far too many “serious” historical studies,” to our beliefs and to the way we have organized ourselves politically and economically. It is democracy, freedom, a free-market economy, our national creeds that made last century “the American Century.” Conservatives and Liberals will tell the story differently, of course, emphasizing the non-interference of government, on the one hand, or the necessity of public investment, on the other. But history, in both versions, is driven by ideas and the way ideas translate into inventions, by modes of political and economic organization, by virtues and character-types, even by internal states like hope, faith, and confidence. As Carter put it, “the confidence that we have always had as a people is not simply some romantic dream or a proverb in a dusty book that we read just on the Fourth of July. It is the idea which founded our Nation and has guided our development as a people. Confidence in the future has supported everything else—public institutions and private enterprise, our own families, and the very Constitution of the United States. Confidence has defined our course and has served as a link between generations. We’ve always believed in something called progress. We’ve always had a faith that the days of our children would be better than our own” (Crisis of Confidence Speech”). America, then, will decline only if we lose our confidence and can be renewed if only we regain it—a belief Reagan road to the White House only a short time after Carter uttered these words.
While American history has been revised so that it acknowledges the way the American achievement uprooted an indigenous people, required slave labor and the unacknowledged work of women, and was built upon a distinct caste system that remains in effect today, too little thought has been given to the material conditions that made this all possible, as if our ideals can be materialized through the force of optimism or confidence. Of course, though, the success not only of American democracy, but also American prosperity owes as much to the fertile soil in which the seed of liberty was planted. The American continent was rich with all the things that an early agricultural republic required, and rich again with what was needed once the transition to an industrial economy had begun. There was soil, timber, minerals, and a bounty of natural profusion that split-open the European consciousness as it shed all sense of previous limits. There was also coal and then oil, so plentiful that it literally bubbled out of the ground. A market economy with the ability to expand quickly, and a moral code that had become elastic may have been necessary to best exploit these resources, but without the resources we would have been a nation of hard-scrabble farmers, importing our industrial resources from other nations, possibly suffering under a series of failed political experiments. It is no coincidence that the only serious rival to American supremacy during the oil age was the only other nation with an oil supply rivaling ours—namely the Soviet Union—along with a cultural infrastructure able to exploit it.
The timing or our rise was also significant. We had European allies whose old-model empires were in decline just as our economic system and culture was ready to take its place. We had available markets in a world reorganizing itself in the wake of two world wars. Because throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the availability of natural resources and fresh markets were not close to being a limiting factor on our own economic growth and the creation of unprecedented surpluses, we made two false, but understandable, conclusions: that our ideals and system of organizing ourselves was responsible for our prosperity and growth; and that there were in no limits to this growth and the spread of prosperity. Because our main point of comparison and contrast was the Soviet Union, which we did indeed outcompete, the conclusion was that our way of life and the size of our dreams could, themselves, determine our future and ensure that each and generation might enjoy greater prosperity, while at the same time our way of life might be exported to the rest of the world.
Unfortunately, we live in far different times today. The unquestioned backdrop of material abundance, of cheap and plentiful energy, rich soil, and a stable climate that allowed us to believe our beliefs and ideals sat in the driver seat–these are now beginning to wane, and we are left to accept that even our raggedly middle-class society requires about one quarter of the world’s energy and natural resources to maintain. Despite all the hype, fracking amounts not only to scraping the bottom of the ketchup bottle, but of holding it upside down and pounding it with our palm. It is an apt metaphor for the future of material wealth. We must dig deeper and farther for mineral ores of decreasing concentration. Our crops require more and more fertilizers as our soils lose fertility and erode. The warming of the atmosphere reaps spectacular destruction which must then be cleaned up with great expenditures of time and energy, but these pale in comparison with the coming cost of rising sea levels and shifting patterns of rain and drought. And the greatest “engine of growth”—the ability to take more land from the west and populate it with more people, or to expand into new foreign markets with basic industrial development—these have reached an end. We live on a saturated planet.
We are told by leading scientist, journalists, and our political leaders that our technological prowess might provide solutions for all this—the depletions, the erosion, the rising atmospheric carbon, the decreasing crop yields. A new “green energy revolution,” they promise, will create new and better jobs and spark another century of economic growth.[iii] This is to gravely misunderstand the fact that prosperity is a matter of extracting surplus, and the surpluses that we were able to maintain and then grow for a hundred and fifty years were the result of the confluence of a number of singular factors. All that is left, now, are the rituals and war chants and sacred creeds—and of course the single national narrative–but not much else. This promise of continued growth and that each generation shall prosper more than the previous is credible only if you believe that our past prosperity was, as our national narrative falsely tells us, a product of our spirit, will, and unique national virtues. Ideals and beliefs may have helped us manage this abundance; but create it they did not.
Much of the frustration in our politics today is a symptom of the fact that the ritualistic doubling-down on this or that ideal or commitment to hard work is no longer doing what we expect it to nor what our national narrative says it must. As its prophesies repeatedly fail us, or most of us, this national storyline leaves us looking angrily for the cause of our stagnation in others. It discourages self-reflection or the humble consideration of our prosperity, privilege and power. It asks “where has all the money gone?” instead of the more important question: “where did all that money come from in the first place?” It leaves us like desperate farmers throwing seeds into the hot dust and wailing at the gods for not giving us the fertility that we have been promised, we the world’s chosen people.
Until this narrative is abandoned, I see little prospect not only for a “political revolution,” but even for meaningful reform.[iv] As we adapt in the many necessary ways first to an economy that will not grow, and to planetary limits that will not allow us to do whatever it is we please, and then to a world of material contraction, we will need a narrative explaining how we are all in this together, how we, the planet’s most wealthy 5% did this to ourselves and others, how we all lost our way and must find it again together. We need a narrative of hope and promise, but also one asking for forgiveness and redemption.
[i] The only exception that I am familiar with is that implicitly offered by the Transition Movement and other similarly oriented organizations.
[ii] “We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals; we know now that it is bad economics. Out of the collapse of a prosperity whose builders boasted their practicality has come the conviction that in the long run economic morality pays. We are beginning to wipe out the line that divides the practical from the ideal; and in so doing we are fashioning an instrument of unimagined power for the establishment of a morally better world” (Second Inaugural)
[iii] Ted Trainer provides a good but brief summary of the mathematics of this fantasy of continued growth in his https://www.resilience.org/stories/2016-04-06/a-critique-of-leigh-phillips-assertion-of-the-tech-fix-ecomodernist-faith As he puts it,
The normal expectation is for around 3% p.a. growth in GDP, meaning that by 2050 the total amount of producing and consuming going on in the world would be about three times as great as at present. World population is expected to be approaching 10 billion by 2050. At present world $GDP per capita is around $13,000, and the US figure is around $55,000. Thus if we take the ecomodernist vision to imply that by 2050 all people will be living as Americans will be living then, total world output would have to be around 3 x 10/7 x 55,000/13,000 = 18 times as great as it is now. If the assumptions are extended to 2100 the multiple would be in the region of 80.
However, even the present global level of producing and consuming has an unsustainable level of impact. The world Wildlife Fund’s “Footprint” measure (2015) indicates that the general overshoot is around 1.5 times a sustainable rate. (For some factors, notably greenhouse gas emissions, the multiple is far higher.) This indicates that the target for the ecomodernist has to be to reduce overall resource use and ecological impact per unit of output by a factor of around 27 by 2050, and in the region of 120 by 2100. In other words, by 2050 technical advance must have reduced the resource demand and environmental impact per unit of output to under 4% of their present levels. No wonder growth and affluence for all has been labeled “the impossibility theorem.”
This issue of multiples is at the core of the limits and decoupling issues. If ecomodernists wish to be taken seriously they must provide a numerical case showing that in all the relevant domains the degree of decoupling that can be achieved is likely to be of the magnitude that would be required. There appears to be no ecomodernist text which even attempts to do this. At best their case refers to a few instances where impressive decoupling appears to have taken place. (It is explained below that decoupling has been negligible.)
[iv] I discuss this issue at length, as well as my view of Sanders, who I like but who would hardly be as redemptive as his most enthusiastic supporters seem to believe in https://www.resilience.org/stories/2015-09-18/one-and-half-cheers-for-bernie-decision-2016-and-the-deep-sustainability-agenda
Photo Credit: By Paul Gauguin – http://lettrines.net/dotclear/index.php?post/2013/02/11/L-homme-entre-civilisation-et-barbarie, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36263870