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Is the American Myth Unraveling?

Our creedal dedication to equality and democracy may be petering out. Or maybe it just needs more vigorous defending.
July 25, 2022
Is the American Myth Unraveling?
A pro-Union patriotic print, evidently based on Frederic Edwin Church's small oil painting 'Our Banner in the Sky' or on a chromolithograph reproducing that painting published in New York. Dated 1861. (Photo by: Photo12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

The news this summer is well suited to make us feel unsettled, disrupted, and anxious about our country: The January 6th Committee hearings are revealing just how close our democracy came to being fatally wounded by the previous president. The Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe after half a century during which abortion was understood to be constitutionally protected has directly resulted in disturbing medical stories in several states. Mass shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde and Highland Park, gas that shot up to $5 a gallon, midterm primary elections with no shortage of anti-democracy candidates, parents arguing about when (or if) their children should learn about race and gender and sex—the list goes on and on.

These stories are not just indicators of policy failures, or of a ratcheting up of social tensions out of political expedience, or of threats to our democracy. They also hint at something more insidious: the possibility that our story is breaking—that we have lost the thread on our shared American narrative, and an unraveling is underway.

Nations have narratives; they need them. The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves are how we understand and reify our national identity. Over the course of our history, our story has evolved, and our national identity has changed with it. Such evolution was baked in our political DNA even before our Constitution promised a quest for a more perfect Union. But the changing is disruptive; the evolution contested.

Political scientist Samuel Goldman makes the case in After Nationalism: Being American in an Age of Division that the United States is on its third myth, or national narrative. He says the first was the covenant myth of our founding, a puritanical telling in which a chosen people—essentially Anglo-Protestants—providentially inherited a promised land.

The second was the crucible myth that expanded the American identity by more fully integrating other European immigrants and faith traditions as the nation grew, took new territories, abolished slavery, and waged wars. These struggles forged a new people—as if in a melting pot—but did not fully settle questions of race, gender, and equality.

The third myth—the reigning myth today—is one of creed, a story that feels quite familiar to us in its connecting principles and ideals to the core of the American identity. This narrative says the United States was founded on an idea defined by equality, liberty, and democracy unbounded by race, religion, gender, or nation of origin. In this myth, the antagonist is inequality.

The days of the creed myth, as Goldman describes it, may be numbered. Everywhere around us is evidence that we deeply disagree on the meaning and practice of the basic American principles of equality, liberty, justice, and democracy.

Think of the people who stormed the Capitol on January 6th, who marched through Charlottesville chanting “Jews will not replace us,” who proselytize the “Great Replacement” theory, or who champion a religious ethnonationalism that harks to the covenant myth. They reject multicultural American identity. They cannot stomach the notion that the timber rattlesnake on their “Don’t Tread on Me” flags must molt, having outgrown its antiquated, restrictive skin.

Or think of the various battles in our long-raging culture war—the “don’t say gay” bills, paranoia about critical race theory, intolerance of free speech rights for people with different beliefs, identity politics, debates about racial and gender equality, etc. Often in these kinds of disputes one side insists that there is only one way to be American. They seem to demand conformity and threaten ostracism.

Or think of how our democracy is seized on all sides by hyperpartisanship and toxic polarization, overpoliticization of usually respected institutions like the Supreme Court and the military, distortions of democratic processes ranging from the independent state legislature theory to threats of violence against election workers, and a steady erosion of the system’s legitimacy. Democracy is treated solely as an instrument to build a narrower America, excusing anti-democratic activities toward that end.

If we accept Goldman’s framework of successive, evolving myths, then the disruptions described above may be evidence of an inflection point—and perhaps the arrival of the next shared narrative that will strengthen the American identity.

But journalist and historian Colin Woodard offers another interpretation: He sees the disruptions less as the result of an evolution of myths and more the consequence of the nation’s central, enduring conflict—the battle between an ethnonationalist narrative and a civic nationalist one, the former a modern-day version of the covenant myth and the latter a liberal democracy grounded in the creed myth.

This seems right to me: not an evolution but a perennial struggle. And as the narrative tilts from one to the other, the nation undergoes the ordeal, an identity crisis often accompanied by violence, illiberalism, and civil disobedience that slightly modifies the narrative but never resolves the conflict.

The ordeal is the expression of the tensions between the competing narratives. It explains the Civil War, the Jim Crow era, and the civil rights movement. It describes the late eighteenth-century naturalization laws restricted to “free white persons,” the Chinese Exclusion Act, the 1965 Immigration Act’s progressive reforms, and Donald Trump’s Muslim ban and border wall obsession. The ordeal is evinced in both Black Lives Matter and the January 6th insurrection. It is Dred Scott, Plessy, and Brown.

The ordeal is upon us again, in its own twenty-first century way. Its existence and recurrence are proof of how contested the national narrative remains. Will America be a democracy for the select few who will insist on holding onto the reins of power and doing whatever is necessary to ensure it, or will it be liberal and inclusive and fair for all who treasure its ideals?

Writing in 1967, sociologist Robert Bellah considered the United States to have faced three times of trial. The first trial was concerned with our independence and whether a democratic nation could be wrought from a British monarchy. The second trial was about slavery and the question of an inclusive liberal democracy in a diverse nation. The third and current trial, which Bellah considered to have overtaken the unaddressed elements of the second, is whether the United States can be a beacon of liberal democracy in a revolutionary and backsliding world.

It remains to be seen if we are the people who can pass this third trial. We are in the throes of it. Midterm elections this fall, Supreme Court decisions next year, responses to the inevitable peaceful protests and acts of civil disobedience, the incidence of mass violence, and the legitimacy of democratic institutions and processes will signal to which side the scale tilts once we are through this period of disruption.

The outcome is uncertain; we cannot blithely assume that the emergence of a stronger creedal America is inevitable. Success will hinge on our ability to resist revanchist ethnonationalist and exclusionary narratives and to embrace a civic identity dedicated to an equality that respects our racial, ethnic, religious, regional, and ideological differences. We, in our own day, are testing whether a nation so dedicated can long endure.

Theodore R. Johnson

Theodore R. Johnson was a writer at The Bulwark and a senior advisor at New America. He is the author of the book When the Stars Begin to Fall: Overcoming Racism and Renewing the Promise of America (Atlantic, 2021). Twitter: @DrTedJ.