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An American Identity Crisis

Thirty years ago, a unipolar world was proclaimed with us on top. Yet we've never quite figured out what any of that means.
Statue of Liberty

Our friends the British are forever being accused of suffering through an identity crisis. Ever since Brexit or Thatcherism or Suez, the thinking goes, the United Kingdom has never figured out what its place in the world is, at least against the vast empire it once commanded. The Union Jack soars, “Rule Britannia!” plays, but it all comes off as sentimental nostalgia for a time when Britain’s role was much more etched and sharply defined.

That may or may not be true (at the very least, the British aren’t the first postcolonial nation to undergo such a problem). But what is true is that we Americans are in a similar position. We don’t like to acknowledge it; we don’t like to think about it in those terms, but we’re in the midst of our own identity crisis and have been for some time.

It remains an open question: In the year 2021, what is America?

During the Cold War, the answer was more or less clear. The United States was at the vanguard of the free world, a paladin of democracy and liberalism battling against the dark hordes of Soviet totalitarianism. Of course, it was never that cut and dry. America suffered through the revolutions of the 1960s and the consequent hangovers of the 1970s. Crime, social unrest, deindustrialization, Vietnam, Watergate, stagflation, and gas lines all tarnished that image and bred self-doubt.

Yet the existence of an enemy, an antithesis in the USSR, helped steel our identity. Whatever we were, we wouldn’t be that. And come the 1980s, America the Free had found her moment. The Berlin Wall collapsed, the champagne corks came flying, and the galaxy-brains chattered about a new “unipolar world” in which nothing could hope to challenge American power. What was the United States? The optimism and consumerism of the 1990s seemed to hold an answer: a swaggering, free-trading, rapidly secularizing capitalist paradise that was simultaneously starry-eyed about the future and so over the politics of the past. The 1996 presidential election saw the lowest voter turnout in 70 years. The end of history had arrived, heralded by a snigger from Beavis and Butt-Head.

Then came 9/11 and suddenly a revision was in order. Those hijacked planes, the Bush administration pronounced, had come not just out of a clear blue sky but an age of American naivete. The United States had slumbered, collecting Beanie Babies when it should have been alert to impending threats. Well, no more. America would not only respond to the attacks, it would at last accept the responsibilities that had come with immense power. It would stop looking inward and unsheathe a crusader’s sword. It would go to war and bring democracy to the darkest ratholes of the earth. Politics, power, and ideological struggle were back in, baby. “Our responsibility to history is already clear,” declared President George W. Bush, “to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil.”

Evil, alas, proved slightly entrenched, and come 2008, America was saddled with quagmires abroad, economic wreckage at home, institutional distrust, and snowballing debt. Fortunately a new boxer had stepped into the ring. Barack Obama’s appeal, manifested in simple and maudlin slogans like “Yes we can!” and “Hope,” was rooted not just in his promise of a better future but in (this often gets overlooked) his implicit hearkening back to the past. The Obama age was to be like those pre-war 1990s but greener and more egalitarian. The difference was to lie in the use of federal power. Whereas Bill Clinton had declared the era of big government to be over, Obama would wield the state to reanimate the economy and save the planet.

What we got was the slowest economic recovery since the Great Depression. And when a certain TV mogul decided it was time to run for president, he promised not just a repudiation of that legacy, but of Bush’s, of Clinton’s up to a point, of all the globalist trade policies and trappings of empire that had arisen during the Cold War and had since gone into overdrive. How would America use her power in the 21st century? Trump’s answer was this: to benefit her own people. Trump sounded both like he believed in the unipolar moment—he frequently talked up American might while dumping money into the military—and like he rejected its corollary: that the United States ought to exercise leadership over the whole of the world.

So there you have it: from neoliberalism to missionary democratism to progressive renewal to nationalism in a scant 30 years. In fairness, we didn’t easily swipe between those archetypes like we were switching filters on Snapchat. These transitions fed off of each other—Bush’s failures led to Obama and so on. And the resulting changes came mostly at the level of federal aspiration; just because the voters elected Obama after Bush didn’t mean they’d suddenly mutated into something different.

Still, to an outside observer, it must all look a bit schizophrenic. Former Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau once said of America, “Living next to you is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly and even-tempered is the beast, if I can call it that, one is affected by every twitch and grunt.” Lately that elephant keeps swapping out its harnesses and charging at different targets. Trudeau’s metaphor is especially apt because we Americans don’t do anything in half-measures. We’re not just going to lean towards nationalism; we’re going to elect Donald Trump in order to get there. Yet while these changes have been major and glaring, we seem reticent to acknowledge them. We still maintain a sense of patriotic continuity about our country even as we’ve become indecisive about its modern identity.

In her book about Vladimir Putin, The Man Without a Face, Masha Gessen writes, “The most important juncture in modern Russian history, the country’s most fateful moment is, strangely, not the subject of any coherent narrative. There is no national consensus on the nature of the events that defined the country, and this very lack of consensus is, arguably, modern Russia’s greatest failing as a nation.” I’ll let the Russophiles in the audience decide how accurate that is. What is true is that America has long managed to avoid this trap. Our civic narrative, even when too triumphalist, has proven powerful, sticky, coherent, and attractive: a free people struggling to extend their liberties to those who don’t yet enjoy them, a union becoming more perfect, offering everyone equal rights and a fair shot.

What is our self-told story now? Who are we beyond hackneyed self-awarded titles like “the leader of the free world”? We aren’t quite sure; we’re even waging a culture war in pursuit of an answer. The British struggled to find an identity after their empire collapsed. We still have imperial standing yet we don’t seem to have any idea what that should look like.



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