The journalist Robin Wright, writing in The New Yorker (September 8, 2020, online), asks, “Is America a Myth?”, a myth that no longer holds the country together. Unlike other countries united by blood and soil, the United States, social scientists have told us, has been held together by a set of ideas — the self-evident truths in the Declaration of Independence: that “all men are created equal” and that “they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights … [to] life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
The American myth today faces existential challenges that no longer only come from the fringes. Rage consumes many in America. At the heart of it all, like the magma at the center of the Earth, lies a not entirely genuine sense of moral righteousness, a fruit of America’s Puritan past that is present in the ideas and mindsets of some groups that are politically or economically influential.
In the era after the Second World War, many Americans considered their country an exception to the political frailties that afflicted much of the rest of the world. For much of its history, however, the United States has been riven by internal conflict. The early Republic endured fierce political competition between Federalists and Republicans, marked by dirty tricks and assassinations. From the 1820s through the 1860s, the proponents of slavery and its adversaries were engaged in a bitter struggle that ended in civil war. Reconstruction (the period from 1863 to 1877) provided only a temporary settlement until the “Jim Crow” laws re-established (from 1870 onwards) white supremacy over Blacks.