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The Imagined America(s): Competing Political Fictions and the Loss of a Shared Storyline

By       Message Bud Goodall     Permalink
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Yesterday the conservative political columnist David Brooks debated the more conservative Republican congressman and incoming House Budget Committee chair, Paul Ryan, at the ultraconservative American Enterprise Institute. The topic was "The Proper Role of Government." By his own account, Brooks admires Ryan so the debate was amiable, but here is a point of departure that I think is worthy of giving pause to all of us. Brooks said...

"Ryan and I differed over President Obama and the prospects for compromise in the near term. Ryan believes that the country faces a clearly demarcated choice. The Democratic Party, he argues, believes in creating a European-style cradle-to-grave social welfare state, while the Republicans believe in a free-market opportunity society. There is no overlap between the two visions and very little reason to think they can be reconciled.

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"I argued that Obama and his aides are liberal or center-left pragmatists and that nothing they have said or written suggests they want to turn the U.S. into Sweden. I continued that Ryan's sharply polarized vision is not only journalistically inaccurate, it makes compromise and politics impossible. If every concession is regarded as an unprincipled surrender that takes us inexorably farther down the road to serfdom, then nothing will get done and the nation will go bankrupt."

Remember, this exchange occurred during a debate between two well-regarded conservative Republicans (by which I mean not persons that the left would define as loony-tunes wingnuts). The divide in their points of view is striking and speaks volumes to the growing division within the Republican/Teapublican Party.

While I admire Brooks for his reasoned defense of President Obama, the exchange points out more than a Republican political divide, or even an ideological divide between liberals and conservatives. It points out a divide in how we, as Americans, define, and how we imagine, America. The key is the line: "There is no overlap between the two visions and very little reason to think they can be reconciled."

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Benedict Anderson is not a name well known to most Americans who labor outside of the academy. Yet his powerful notion of a nation as an "imagined community" borne of the ideas of the Enlightenment and consequent Revolutionary action is worthy of serious consideration in these troubled political times. Anderson says that a nation "is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion." He goes on to argue that what we think when we think about our nation is a cultural artifact of historical processes that are relived, and reinvigorated in everyday social interactions and mediated discourse. What we are willing to fight to defend, or organize against, or vote in favor of is largely a product of what we imagine our country to be, and how what we imagine it to be gets translated into words.

For some time now I have been blogging about the narrative differences between the right and left in America, even going so far as to characterize these differences in my latest book as a "battle of narratives in our own war of ideas." Framed within Anderson's "imagined communities," what we have created -- and what the media encourages and reproduces -- are two competing visions of America. This is not a new development, as politics in this country has always been about differences in vision, but what is new this time is that both of our major parties are dangerously close to moving from imagination to complete fiction.

Paul Ryan's erroneous allegation about the Obama administration's vision for this country as a "European-style, cradle-to-grave welfare state" is but one case in point, and Brooks was right to call him on it. Another is Sarah Palin's fictional representation of "American exceptionalism" as the imagined basis for her false allegations that our president is neither sufficiently patriotic nor a "true American." To those spokespersons we could easily add other names and other allegations, all based on either outright lies or, if I'm being polite, things that just are not true.

It is as if the right wing in American politics has taken more than a page or two from best-selling fiction authors and decided that, in fact, most Americans would rather believe whole-cloth a made-up storyline that is conveniently, if viciously false but fits their increasingly narrow, political-thriller worldview, than expend any real energy or brainwork actually tracking down the facts.

I'd feel better about this preference for a fictional representation of America if it were limited to the right. But increasingly I fear it is also a story form that has overtaken the White House. In Paul Krugman's recent column about Obama's failure to stand up to the Republican fiction about the deficit and instead freeze federal workers' salaries, our liberal Princetonian Nobel Laureate concludes that "Whatever is going on inside the White House, from the outside it looks like moral collapse -- [is] a complete failure of purpose and loss of direction" gets at part of it. It hurts my soul to see it and find myself agreeing with it.

But what it misses is the fiction that is driving the president and the democrats' storyline. Obama's version of an imagined America, one apparently shared by the Democratic Congressional leadership, is one in which bipartisanship and shared regard for the public's interests define political action, particularly during troubled economic times or even -- and this is a new plot twist -- in relation to national security (e.g. the START Treaty). It is also one in which compromise really means capitulation; negotiation means caving in; and weakness despite being in the majority is somehow okay. With Democrats like these, who needs Republicans?

It is certainly true that our country, our democracy, depends on at least two parties to represent diverse political interests. And, it is also true that those interests are always expressed as competing stories and that they are funded by big money, and that these competing stories are not always representative of anything more than those interests and their big money. Yada, yada.

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But these days there is a difference, and I think it is a difference that matters a great deal. The material that used to be used as facts in those stories at least was held accountable by the public for some kind of truth value, scrutinized and interrogated by a vigilant and free press, and there was a time when reasonable people on both sides of any argument could be counted on to call "bullshit" when necessary, despite their political differences. Our shared national storyline and progress in making America better depended on it.

That was back when the public mattered enough for the truth to count for something. These days, I'm not sure we do. We are content to be endlessly entertained by political spectacle, and the political spectacle-makers give us endlessly what we want. Most of us don't believe a word of it, unless it affirms -- loudly -- what we already believe. And, the ugly truth herein revealed, many of us don't really care one way or the other what we believe, as long as our iPhones and iPads and the other screens that occupy us and consume our lives still work, we still have jobs, and food on the table. We count on politicians to sort out the mess and leave us the hell alone. We count on our president to lead us, and never more so than when the mess is large enough to require a presidential hand.

It is also true that the America I imagine as real and work every day to help realize -- the America that is the better angel of us all -- is also at least a partial fiction. It is a beautiful idea, though, and a moving story. When I voted for Barack Obama I thought he and I were on the same page in that same story, and the beautiful idea we imagined would become the work we, and millions of others Americans, would do together.

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H. L. (Bud) Goodall, Jr. lives in Arizona where he is a college professor and writer. He has published 20 books and many articles and chapters on a variety of communication issues. His most recent books include Counter-Narrative: How Progressive (more...)
 

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