Over the past two weeks, Americans have been presented with diametrically opposed views of the United States, its history, and moral character.
At the DNC, speeches and videos expressed a both/and approach to the country’s past, present, and future. The country used to be racist and sexist and bigoted in a multitude of ways. It’s improved, but much work remains to be done. Eventually, the purified idea of America will at long last come to fruition in the concrete reality of the country as it finally transcends the limitations that held it back and held so many of its people down. Barack Obama is a master of thinking and talking this way about the nation, and he did so in his speech at the DNC. America is both terribly flawed and striving ever-onward toward greater moral perfection.
Republicans take a very different, either/or approach to America. As Vice President Mike Pence laid out in his speech on Wednesday night, the country was born great, in acts of virtue, and its heritage has remained great whenever it has been confidently handed down and affirmed. When the country wavers, it is because of the influence of a malicious antagonist at home or abroad that attacks America and its greatness from the outside. When the country is undergoing that kind of assault — from an ideology, from an adversary on the world stage, from a virus — it can become its opposite: an unfree, socialist dystopia. Either America is great or it’s a nightmare, and the latter is never a function of problems endemic to the country and its history or the actions of its people.
Each vision of the country has its distinctive strengths and weaknesses. The both/and approach of the Democrats is intellectually truer to the historical record, but it’s politically challenging — because it asks citizens to hold two contrary views of the country in their heads at the same time and to live under constant, and sometimes harsh, moral judgment. The Republicans’ either/or approach is intellectually childish, a fairytale version of the country, but it can be politically very potent precisely because it’s so simple and engages in abundant flattery of the country and its people.
When Americans head to the polls in November, they will be voting for candidates and parties. But they will also be choosing between competing and sharply divergent accounts of who we are as a country. Damon Linker