Magazine article The American Prospect

An American Way for America Now

Magazine article The American Prospect

An American Way for America Now

Article excerpt

Americans often lookback to the mid-20th century as a time when the country was cohesive and unified, unlike today's bitterly divided society. That image of mid-century America was always incomplete, but insofar as there was a culture of consensus, it was not a wholly spontaneous development. Much of the country's leadership and national media from the 1930s through World War II and the early postwar years made concerted efforts to foster unity across social and religious lines in the face of threats from abroad and at home to Americas stability and survival.

The United States is surely different today--the lines of cleavage have shifted, the media have fractured into separate worlds, and we have a president who acquired power with explicitly anti-immigrant and racist appeals. But the mid-20th century experience nonetheless offers instructive lessons for confronting the divisions that endanger America now.

National unity in the mid-20th century, as the historian Wendy L. Wall argues in her book Inventing the 'American Way," was a political project that came in several different varieties. While Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal promoted a pluralistic and economically inclusive vision, corporate leaders championed free enterprise and class harmony as "the American way," a phrase introduced into the political lexicon through an advertising campaign by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in the late 1930s. Rather than question whether there was an American way, other groups sought to appropriate the idea. Ina world with anti-Semitism and other hatreds on the rise, interfaith groups promoted the American way as the ability of people with different religious beliefs to live together. The fall of France to the Nazis in 1940 was widely interpreted as evidence of the danger of a divided society, and when the United States entered the war, it became a national imperative to encourage mutual tolerance and cooperation. A month after Pearl Harbor, FDR warned: "Remember the Nazi technique. 'Pit race against race, religion against religion, prejudice against prejudice.'"

Wall points out a key difference between the elites who promoted civility and tolerance and others, including those on the left, who put equality at the center of their vision. The former ignored power imbalances, while the latter "tried to use the language of consensus to correct them." As Wall says, the efforts to define a national consensus "gave religious, ethnic, and racial 'outsiders' a powerful lever with which to pry open some doors of America's mainstream culture." White ethnics made considerable progress in getting through those doors; African Americans, not so much, at least not in the New Deal, which to its great shame perpetuated black exclusion and disenfranchisement.

Overcoming that failure became the concern of the civil rights movement and liberal reforms of the 1960s, which in turn gave rise to the politics of white backlash that we have been living with ever since. The pattern isn't new; every advance African Americans have made since slavery and Reconstruction has generated a backlash. America seems forever caught in a racial loop, in which efforts to escape from racism repeatedly expose how deep it runs and set off new bursts of hatred. Other groups also face prejudice, but the situation of African Americans is historically distinct. Racial slavery was a singular evil lasting more than two centuries, and overcoming its long aftereffects poses singular demands for tenacity in the struggle for justice. As frustrating as the reversals in that struggle have been, we have surely come too long a way to make Donald Trump's election a final verdict on America's possibilities.

The renewed growth and tremendous diversity of America's immigrant population, another development dating to the 1960s, add to the challenge of America's racial legacy. While the new immigrants have enlarged the nonwhite base of Democratic support, they have also intensified the politics of white grievance and backlash. …

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