Are we really “Four Americas,” as George Packer’s recent Atlantic article tells us? Does this really mean, as he says, that “competing visions of the country’s purpose and meaning are tearing it apart”?
I haven’t yet read his new book, from which the article is drawn, but I did hear him give a talk on this very topic, back in 2018. I tried chatting with him a bit afterwards, during the book-signing, but he seemed very tired and not much receptive to conversation. I also listened to the talk again online a couple of times after, so I’ve given his ideas a lot of consideration over the past three years. My conclusion is that although I really like his ideas overall, there’s also some value to examining them a bit more analytically, and I may not end up agreeing with all of his conclusions.
First, Packer reminds us that for much of the 20th century, the two major 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.” Now, though, Packer tells us there are four main stories: “Free America,” a libertarian vision of personal freedoms and property rights; “Smart America,” a more cosmopolitan vision in which everyone deserves opportunities, but merit will determine rewards; “Real America,” a nationalist story of America’s common people, who work with their hands and take pride in being superior both to a “parasitic elite” and a “shiftless underclass”; and “Just America,” or rather, “Unjust America,” which insists on including all Americans as equal citizens and reminds us that we have yet to do so. In his article (and I assume the corresponding chapter of his book), Packer covers a lot of recent history, telling us how each of these stories took hold and so far, how it’s played out. (Caveat – Packer isn’t splitting America into four groups, each of which has one of these beliefs; he’s just pointing out that four main beliefs about groups are circulating, but individual Americans may embrace more than one, or none, of them.)
Packer calls each of these worldviews “narratives,” but since none of them has a defining story (an account of particular events that led to how things are, which everyone uses to support their beliefs), I’m going to assume that instead he’s really talking about meta-narratives. Let’s see what meta-narrative science can tell us about them.