Human beings are nostalgic creatures, and the concept of “collective nostalgia” refers to a shared longing for a better time. It has its benefits, including group solidarity, but multiple studies have shown that it also leads to “outgroup rejection,” which can take the form of nationalism and racism. We romanticize the past, especially at a time of social upheaval, and it’s no surprise that a politician like Donald Trump capitalizes on this impulse with slogans like “Make America Great Again.” Of course, that collective nostalgia is often misplaced, and the perception of past eras—even ones we’ve lived in—might have little bearing on the reality of that history.
So when I discuss American pride, don’t mistake it as a rosy-eyed image of what America was, in contrast to what it is today. This has been a nation rife with exploitation and hatred at the best of times, and you don’t need a magnifying glass to pick out the unsavory parts even in our best moments. For instance, Japanese internment will always be a shadow on the accomplishments of World War II, and the robust economic programs of FDR will always be limited by that fact that gains weren’t shared equally by black citizens. Ulysses S. Grant, the man responsible for crushing the confederacy and safeguarding the rights of freed slaves as president, had a wife who owned slaves. History is complicated, and the complications can be abhorrent.
Still, although it’s a take that will be considered naive in certain segments of the left, I think that the American experiment has been remarkable in various ways, and that despite the missteps and embarrassments and outrages, we’ve had our share of heroes, and there has been an impulse toward progress and improvement and equality. It has been halted in its tracks too often, but it’s there anyway, and taking the imperfections into account, I’ve found it easy to be proud of where I come and what the people before me have achieved.
Today, it’s mostly gone. We’re led by a pathetic coterie of small, hateful men who spent three years distinguishing themselves for their small, bigoted worldview just before they unleashed their grandest failure in the face of a global pandemic that almost every other western nation was able to contain. But why focus on the leadership alone? COVID-19 has proven the point that we’re a nation of pathetic dupes, rabid selfish narcissists who mistake “freedom” for “freedom from responsibility,” who live lives of fear and hatred in the face of crisis. There’s absolutely no courage to be found, no fortitude in the face of adversity, no love for the next generation, but only a heedless impulse for destruction…destruction of all kinds, but especially self-destruction. Trump might lose the next election, and Republicans might forfeit the Senate, but I can’t imagine a greater indictment on the people of this country than the fact that it’s close. We know the answer to the following question, but it’s hard not to ask it anyway: How abysmally shitty do things have to get, how crystal clear the incompetence of this administration, before it hemorrhages support?
The answer: It can’t, because our collective stupidity has reached the point of total identification, which is to say that for most Trump voters to abandon Trump would be as unthinkable as suicide. The cultural brainwashing is complete.
And at the risk of both-sidesing a lopsided reality, it’s worth mentioning too that the neoliberal center is more polite culturally but almost as heartless geopolitically and economically. It’s a group obsessed with symbolic gains over progress, and that demonstrates complete cowardice when engaging with the right. At times over the past four years, the progressive left saw liberals as a greater enemy, and it was hard to argue…until recent developments, when the left does what it always does, which is to sink into an quagmire of identity politics and alienate anyone outside a small bubble of zealots who might feel a political affinity with them. At least the liberals have a nose for power.
There was a terrific thread on Twitter this week by Andy Slavitt regarding our COVID-19 failure. He made the simple point that with the will and the leadership, we could flatten the curve inside two months. With the right commitment and the right policies, it’s not crazy to think the worst of this could be over by October, and we could return to life. And yet the agonizing thing about it is that you, me, and everyone we know understands that this won’t happen. Why? Because the government won’t shut down the economy for the appropriate length of time, and certainly won’t extend benefits to those who need it for the duration.
That’s a huge part of our problem, by the way: We have a very powerful party committed to immiserating anyone who isn’t already wealthy, but we’re such a weak and sheep-like populace that we’d rather lick boots than fight for a stronger social safety net. A right-winger would rather protest having to wear a mask than having his unemployment benefits shut down, because he has lost the capacity to imagine a world in which he might be protected from catastrophe. The protest movement that’s developed on the left, meanwhile, is worthwhile in its social aims, but has essentially no economic aims and is therefore doomed to accomplish none.
In the past, we’ve stumbled toward progress, but now it’s like we’ve lost the will even to try. COVID has taken center stage, but you could easily say the same thing about climate change, which is literally going to destroy the planet but will continue unabated because business might suffer if we did anything about it. Or the disgrace of separating and imprisoning children at the Mexican border for the express purpose of scaring desperate people into staying in their own countries. How do you change such a benighted country? How do you rip us out of our ignorance and at least make people understand the problem? How do you turn this around?
If you subscribe to the five stages of grief, this ongoing American death knell finds me boomeranging between anger, bargaining, and depression. There’s no longer time for denial, and acceptance is akin to burying your head in the sand. But this anger isn’t sufficing either; it’s matched in amplitude by the other side, even though if you put a microphone in their faces they have no idea what they’re angry about and are basically in it, I think, for the emotional high. This whole country has become a cultural war zone, and I think the bad guys are better at fighting it.
I look around, and I don’t see the next great leader. I don’t see an exceptional, restorative movement emerging from this morass of self-interested swine and amoral cowards and misdirected leftists. The older generations have let us down thoroughly, creating a nightmare for their children and grandchildren when they were handed the keys to an incredible, thriving democracy. Many of us have baby boomers that we love, but when we think of them collectively, we should think of their failure. But my generation, those directly above me, and those below me, are not ready to make this right. We don’t have a clue. That’s the real legacy of the boomers; they haven’t just robbed us materially, they’ve also robbed us of hope. And every election cycle, like clockwork, they show up in massive numbers to twist the knife a little deeper, to make sure we’re well and truly gutted before they die.
Where do you find pride in a place like this? Where do you find the connection to an America that swelled your heart, even if that collective nostalgia is only vaguely remembered? We are being driven to extremes, tortured by separation, and it’s slowly eroding the possibility of a coherent national vision. And maybe I’m missing the point. Maybe it’s not that we can’t be proud of America; maybe we’re simply realizing that America, while retaining a name and a flag and a territory, doesn’t actually exist. Maybe it’s been battered to death by hate and stupidity and criminal mismanagement, and, try as we might, it’s impossible to love a ghost.