What is the “Idea” of America?

Last night my wife and I watched Frontline’s “The Great Divide” … four hours (parts 1 and 2) summarizing the past dozen years of US political history. Of course, even with 4 hours they had to give only a rough summary, since so much has happened through that period and they couldn’t really dwell on any particular subject for too long.

There was nothing new in the presentation, and the perspectives that it presented are deeply familiar. It was very light on analysis, and instead presented a bigger picture using impressions of the people who played a large role in shaping this history, as it followed a linear timeline and major threads. The main themes that emerge are division, and the sources of those divisions.

Frontline identifies the 2008–9 financial crisis and subsequent bail out of Wall Street as stoking the rise of populism, but it is put in a context of a larger narrative with many factors and players. The progressive uprising is largely ignored, but populism on the right is covered in greater detail from Sarah Palin and the steps that led to the Trump presidency, an important story that appears much clearer in retrospect. The loss of trust in news media is also raised, although in-depth examination of its causes is left aside.

Why watch it? A replay of 12 sordid years of history that has left so many people completely demoralized? It sounds like an exercise in self-punishment, doesn’t it? Wouldn’t it be more fun to have your teeth pulled out of your head?

For myself, the value was in seeing all of this presented as a single piece, to step back and see this arc of history in one swoop, and to re-assess where matters have gone thus far, and the state of affairs heading into a very challenging future. It was released in January this year, before the pandemic hit, but it certainly helps put the US pandemic in perspective (maybe they will need to make a part 3 a year later).

So…did my final impression offer any rays of hope for the US heading into the future? Unfortunately, no. In fact, this long documentary does a very good job of showing how deeply broken and divided the US has become in recent years. More than ever before, this piece makes it absolutely clear that there will be no easy reset, no straightforward reconciliation, no political leader or savior of any kind will be able to come along and simply “heal the country.”

There is an old quote that goes something like “to be Frenchman is a fact…to be an American is an idea.” The author (Carl Friedrich) was saying that the US, mostly a nation of immigrants, has no deep ethnic and historical association with the land. (This is something that most Americans will never truly understand, but is readily apparent to people coming from ancient societies.) The only thing that binds Americans together is the idea of what the country stands for.

But…what is that idea? Freedom? Opportunity? For whom? To do…what?

Clearly there is no consensus idea, no ethos, nothing that Americans rally around today. And it shows. If you ask a hundred people for detailed answers to these questions, you might well receive a hundred unique answers, and those ideas that appear most similar ring most hollow.

In fact, there probably has never been any single “idea” of what it means to be “American.” Even at the beginning of US history, when “all men are created equal” was married to the institution of slavery. Back when the “bill of rights” was just an afterthought (amendments, now forgotten). Or after a horrible civil war was fought over “the proposition that all men are created equal” and that equality never manifested. In a nation where rights are denied by default, and one is required to prove they have a right before they are allowed to exercise that right. Where the the outcome of legal proceedings is mostly correlated with wealth. And so on.

For a nation that is supposed to be an “idea,” the lack of unity, the degree of self-delusion, and the level of disingenuity that persisted over two and a half centuries…this is a fundamental problem. And anyone who thinks the solution will be easy is engaging in denial…denial of a long and painful history, denial of the original lies upon which the nation was founded, denial of the suffering of those who were on the wrong end of the bargain, denial of the great sacrifices that people had to make in order to achieve even a little progress, denial of the deep systemic nature of continued injustice today. And to continue holding on to the notion that any of this will be solved following the outcome (whatever it might be) of a single election, or by the machinations of constitutional government having two legislative bodies, a strong executive, a powerful and activist supreme court, vetos, filibusters, an electoral college, extreme hurdles to amending the constitution, and so on…this is absurd beyond comprehension.

So…what to do?

My present thoughts: I don’t know that there is an answer for the country as a single entity. The best outcome might be an amicable break-up, but the people who profit enormously from wielding US imperial power to advance their private investments will oppose it with all their wealth and power…even as they deliberately stoke divisions among the people in order to maintain their control over the country. The oligarchy finds themselves in a self-contradictory and precarious balance between “divide and conquer” and “preserve the union” that is increasingly untenable. What I think we are presently seeing today is the unraveling of this grand scheme, division has run too far and is bordering on spiraling completely out of control…again.




Expat American father, husband, scientist, professor, philosopher, and artist. Non-partisan gadfly speaking truth to power.

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John Hernlund

John Hernlund

Expat American father, husband, scientist, professor, philosopher, and artist. Non-partisan gadfly speaking truth to power.

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