What Makes America a Nation? (And If It Isn’t, What Could?)
George Packer on This Uncertain Union of Strangers
After exiling himself in Paris to escape the American prison house of race, James Baldwin wrote,
I proved, to my astonishment, to be as American as any Texas G.I. And I found my experience was shared by every American writer I knew in Paris. Like me, they had been divorced from their origins, and it turned out to make very little difference that the origins of white Americans were European and mine were African—they were no more at home in Europe than I was.
In dense, settled Europe Baldwin found his great subject—his own country, “in which nothing is fixed and in which the individual must fight for his identity.
We carry the marks of our birth with us throughout our lives. The very effort to escape them shows their indelibility. But we see them most clearly through the eyes of others. What do foreigners say about us? Exactly what we notice in our compatriots when we encounter them abroad, cringe, and head the other way, because we recognize ourselves. That we speak in loud voices, that we smile a lot, that we immediately use first names, that the answer to how we’re doing is always “Great,” that we make friends easily and have no secrets but the intimacies are shallow and ephemeral, that we have no talent and little interest in foreign languages, that we think too much about money, that we lack a tragic sense, that we’re admirably practical and annoyingly moralistic, that we can’t see shades of gray, only black and white. They find us open, direct, arrogant, and naïve.
Most of these qualities suggest that Americans don’t take national differences very seriously. We imagine that, just below the surface, we’re all basically the same—a humane assumption that has led us into our stupidest wars. Americans in foreign countries are vaguely aware that we are constantly violating subtle but important codes—that intricate layers of history and social relations determine who should take an empty seat or whether an invitation is sincere.
The Iranian concept of taarof—a complex etiquette of civility determined by deference to social rank—is as incomprehensible to an American as Sanskrit. Indirection is alien to us—we find it baffling, phony, a waste of time—which is why Americans have trouble living in countries where codes of behavior are compiled and refined through centuries. When foreigners come here, the social landscape lies before them flat and featureless. They might encounter ugly prejudice, but they won’t need to learn how many times it’s proper to refuse before accepting their host’s offer of seconds.
Related to this unsubtlety is our lack of gravity—the disregard for limits and sense of eternal possibility in new things. We untether, flit, and make ourselves over as if nothing is too fixed or solid for change. We are world-class inventors, especially of ourselves. At the same time, we take pride in ordinariness and are suspicious of airs, especially intellectual ones. Anti-intellectualism, Richard Hofstadter wrote in his study of the subject, has been a defining American trait from the Puritan beginnings: “It made its way into our politics because it became associated with our passion for equality.”
That passion explains almost every generalization I’ve made here. Equality is the hidden American code, the unspoken feeling that everyone shares, even if it’s not articulated or fulfilled: the desire to be everyone’s equal—which is not the same thing as the desire for everyone to be equal. Equality is the first truth of our founding document, the one that leads to all the others. The word of the 18th-century Declaration became flesh in the dynamic commercial society of the 19th. Tocqueville described equality as the “ardent, insatiable, eternal, and invincible” desire of democratic peoples. A few years later, in Leaves of Grass, Whitman conveyed this desire as a secular religion:
He says indifferently and alike How are you friend? to the President at his levee,
And he says Good-day my brother, to Cudge that hoes in the sugar-field,
And both understand him and know that his speech is right.
He walks with perfect ease in the capitol,
He walks among the Congress, and one Representative says to another,
Here is our equal appearing and new.
The code of equality shapes so many things in American life. It helps to explain our reputation for being blunt and clueless, the innocence about other ways of life that leads civilized foreigners to despise us. Our instinctive egalitarianism makes us poor interpreters of the mores of different stations and classes. It’s why we have no formal address, why American waiters are breezy—“Hi, my name’s Justin and I’ll be taking care of you tonight”—in a way that would offend the dignity of restaurant staff in just about any other country. Most other democracies have roots in feudalism, blood, and soil. The intricacies of rank and ties still shape their cultures. For several centuries America has absorbed people from all over the world into a culture that’s blatant and accessible enough to provide a lingua franca in which they can understand and be understood without too much pain, and that’s malleable enough for them to shape in their turn.
The most widely read classics of American literature are stories of individual striving and defeat with little broader context. Even a novel like Richard Wright’s Native Son, a work of intense political criticism, gives a crude picture of society compared with what you would find in a European social novel—it’s the story of Bigger Thomas against the world. The least American novel I’ve ever read is The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro, who is British of Japanese origin, about an English butler whose sense of social position makes personal fulfillment impossible.
We accept terrible poverty because we believe, despite a mountain of evidence to the contrary, in fluid social mobility. The myth of the self-made man and equal opportunity—never entirely wrong—lets us live with extreme inequalities of result. The vast majority of Americans describe themselves as middle class, even if their incomes and educations put them in the top or bottom ten percent. A people who can’t shut up about identity don’t like to talk about class at all. Many books have asked why there is no socialism in the United States and arrived at many different answers, but the most convincing, paradoxically, is our passion for equality.
It also explains why the South has always seemed alien to the rest of the country: not because of racism, which is nationwide, but because of the feudal dreams that slavery made possible. Only in the South has aristocracy been held up as a cherished collective ideal rather than privately pursued as an enviable state.
One of the great works of American sociology, The Mind of the South by W. J. Cash, called its subject “not quite a nation within a nation, but the next thing to it.” And yet many of the characteristics that Cash found in his home region—“an inclination to act from feeling rather than from thought, an exaggerated individualism and a too narrow concept of social responsibility”—are recognizably American, showing the country’s wholeness through even its least digestible part.
The code always made one exception. The perpetual test of equality in America is the condition of Black Americans. This was what Ralph Ellison meant when he said, “In the United States the Negro and his status have always stood for that moral concern. He symbolizes among other things the human and social possibility of equality.” There are countries where a minority group can be relegated permanently to an inferior status without generating endless social conflict, but not here. When our code is broken, our democratic system will eventually break down, too.
“Of all dangers to a nation, as things exist in our day,” Whitman wrote in Democratic Vistas, “there can be no greater one than having certain portions of the people set off from the rest by a line drawn—they not privileged as others, but degraded, humiliated, made of no account.” If equality isn’t possible for Black Americans, it isn’t possible for America.
The great danger of equality is atomization. If we’re all side by side on the same level and constantly in motion, there’s no fixed relation between us. “Aristocracy links everybody, from peasant to king, in one long chain,” Tocqueville wrote. “Democracy breaks the chain and frees each link.” Equal and independent people will satisfy their own desires with no obligation to others outside their narrow circle. The chance to be anything or anyone gives them the idea that they don’t owe anything to anyone. They grow indifferent to the common good and withdraw from others into the pursuit of personal happiness, especially wealth. Tocqueville called this “individualism.” It explains how the American passion for equality can lead to extreme inequality, even a new aristocracy, but one without links between people.
The solution for individualism is not religion or human fellowship or central planning—it’s self-government, which allows us to work through free institutions for a common purpose. “The Americans have used liberty to combat the individualism born of equality, and they have won,” Tocqueville declared. But when equality disappears, there’s no longer any basis for shared citizenship, the art of self-government is lost, and everything falls apart. This is our condition today. Democracy is not just parchment and marble, the Constitution, rights, laws, and institutions. It’s also the action that can bring us out of our isolation and bind us together. But we cannot act as fellow citizens unless we are equal.
At the start of World War II, George Orwell described England as “a family with the wrong members in control.” No one except a politician would call America a family. Mario Cuomo did it in a magnificent speech at the Democratic convention in 1984, and that year his party was wiped out. There are too many of us, we’re too scattered, and we don’t have the shared memories and in-jokes of blood relatives. Instead of a family tree there’s a wilderness. But we are connected, whether or not we want to be.
Rather than a family, with its involuntary intimacy, we’re like strangers who have come to do separate things together—like people at a fair. There are rides, booths, games, and freaks. There’s a bandstand, a chapel, and a strip show. Markets hawk every imaginable product, and the din of buying and selling is deafening. The crowd is a herd of individuals, but there are unwritten rules that everyone understands. Once or twice a day the bedlam pauses, all turn their attention to the main event, and a thrilling bond passes through them to be doing the same thing together. There’s also a current of suspicion, because someone is always about to get scammed. When a fight breaks out, and fights often do, the fairgoers have to settle it among themselves. They have to clean the alleys and restock the stalls and repair the platforms. There’s no higher authority in charge. The fair belongs to them.
National characteristics don’t create national unity. Civil wars have been fought in countries with a common culture, including ours. The qualities I’ve sketched out—you might have others to add or put in their place—don’t make us a nation. They just show the contours of concealed ligaments that would be torn if we continue pulling apart.
From Last Best Hope: American in Crisis and Renewal, by George Packer. Courtesy FSG. Copyright 2021, George Packer.