Soon, though perhaps not soon enough, what we’ve come to call “election season” will come to a close in America. Longtime readers should know that we at New City Commons do not take partisan positions or track the near-hourly polls and political hype. It is precisely because our fundamental interest is in the long-term health, security, and prosperity of our common life that we do not do so. Statecraft, in other words, does not exhaust our conception of politics, nor does the outcome of any given election. Often, however, elections (perhaps especially this election) reveal powerful cultural currents—or as one of this week’s authors calls them, “deep stories”—that deserve sustained attention.
This week, we bring you three brief pieces that discuss (either directly or indirectly) the 2016 “election season” in the United States—and, in so doing, call attention to some of the deep stories that shape our common life.
The first piece is an interview between Kathryn Jean Lopez and Yuval Levin around the publication of Levin’s The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism. The language of fracture, which recalls historian Daniel Rodgers’ important work The Age of Fracture, speaks to the felt experience of social fragmentation. In response to Lopez’s question, “So just who fractured the republic?” Levin says:
We all did, really, for some good reasons and some bad ones. The book traces a set of trends that have transformed our society since the middle of the 20th century—trends propelled by a spirit of individualism, that have meant that what was an intensely, unusually consolidated society in the wake of the Second World War has become a much more fragmented, decentralized society...It has brought us greater dynamism but also less stability, more personal freedom but also more moral chaos and social disorder, more prosperity but less security, more diversity but less cohesion.
Though the processes of decentralization have fundamentally transformed American life, Levin’s main complaint is less with the facts of decentralization than with the lack of a governing philosophy that adequately addresses these changes. For Levin, the fatal flaw of our contemporary political imagination is a failure to adapt. An adaptation is neither a wholesale rejection of tradition nor a wholesale resignation about social conditions; it is, rather, social development, based in the belief that the best aspects of our common life can be preserved even as they are modified.
This sentiment is particularly well-articulated in Levin’s brief account of the concept of freedom and the manner in which it could fit into a “conservative disposition.” The more “classical” form of freedom that he recommends is not just freedom from coercion, but “also from our own unbounded passions and failings and vices.” And the need for this kind of freedom, Levin suggests, is an argument for preserving the “middle space between the individual and the state: families, communities, churches and synagogues, schools, and more.”
Our second piece is an extended interview between Vox’s Ezra Klein and the noted sociologist Arlie Hochschild about her new book, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right. Hochschild, a sociologist from U.C. Berkeley, is most well-known for reconfiguring the standard forms of structural analysis that sociologists engage in by attending closely to emotions. What distinguishes Hochschild’s account of the slice of the American Right that was once the Tea Party (and is now the core of Donald Trump’s support) is her attention to the dynamic between anger and mourning among that population. The politics of her subjects in Louisiana—mostly white, mostly older, mostly male, mostly Christian—is not simply a politics of ressentiment; it is also a politics of dispossession, borne of the very real phenomenon of loss.
Hochschild gets at this through what she calls the “deep story” of this wing of the American Right. As she explains it to Ezra Klein (and articulates in chapter 9 of the book), this story centers on a group of people standing in line upon a hill, waiting for their shot at the American Dream. Suddenly, they notice others skipping them in line—immigrants, ethnic minorities, the young. And not only are these people not being prevented from jumping the line, their misbehavior is being actively encouraged by the government and its representatives. Hochschild describes the resulting emotions this way:
You are a stranger in your own land. You do not recognize yourself in how others see you. It is a struggle to feel seen and honored. And to feel honored you have to feel—and feel seen as—moving forward. But through no fault of your own, and in ways that are hidden, you are slipping backward.
Whether or not this “deep story” matches the facts of social mobility precisely, the degree to which it rings true for many Americans is of immense political significance.
This significance was illustrated powerfully last week on, of all places, Saturday Night Live. Last week’s contestants on SNL’s recurring bit “Black Jeopardy” included “Doug” (Tom Hanks in a “Make America Great Again” hat), whose surprising commonalities with his fellow contestants highlight the ways that feelings of “disempowerment, suspicion of authority, and working-class identification” can, to a large degree, “cut across racial lines.” However, as Jamelle Bouie writes for Slate, the bit also reminds us what journalists often miss in reporting on Trump’s support among the working class: “In telling the story of the white workers who backed Trump, they missed the perspective of the black ones who rejected him.” And when the Final Jeopardy category of “Lives That Matter” is announced and the show’s host declares, “Well, it was good while it lasted, Doug,” Bouie’s point about the unavoidable significance of race in our politics is driven home.
Cultural fragmentation, the allure of a politics of dispossession, and the enduring legacy of white supremacy and racial tensions are persistent features of our political culture that are not and cannot be tied to an election cycle. They will be just as present in contemporary American life on the morning of November 9th as the evening of November 8th. Though elections surely have consequences—particularly for the most vulnerable among us—it’s worth paying close attention to those “deep stories” that prove most resistant to change.