Who is left to defend the simple, often admirable, sometimes disappointing American experience?
Our politics seems deeply divided between those who think the country is going to hell in a handcart and those who believe the country is going to hell in a handbasket.
Some of the tenured class that sets the intellectual tone of the left concluded long ago that America was built by oppression, is sustained by white privilege and requires the cleansing purity of social revolution (however that is defined). In this story, capitalism accumulates inequities that will eventually lead the rich to eat the poor. The American Dream is an exploitative myth. Change will come only through a coalition of the aggrieved. And those who are not permanently enraged are not paying proper attention.
But, at least on the populist right, the social critique is every bit as harsh. In this story, America has fallen in a boneless heap from a great height. It is unrecognizable to people — mostly white people — who regard mid-20th-century America as a social and economic ideal. The country has been fundamentally altered by multiculturalism and political correctness. It has been ruined by secularism and moral relativism. America, says the Rev. Franklin Graham, is "on the verge of total moral and spiritual collapse." And those who are not permanently offended are not paying proper attention.
A poll taken last year found that 72 percent of Donald Trump supporters believe American society and its way of life have changed for the worse since the 1950s. And the most pessimistic and discontented lot of all was white evangelical Protestants. Almost three-quarters believed the past 70 years to be a period of social decline.
Those of us who remember politics in the Reagan era have a mental habit of regarding conservatism as more optimistic about the American experiment and liberalism as more discontented. But representatives of both ideologies — in their most potent and confident versions — are now making fundamental critiques of American society. They are united in their belief that the United States is dominated by corrupt, self-serving elites. They are united in their call for radical rather than incremental change. While disagreeing deeply about the cause, they see America as careening off course. Little wonder that Americans consistently say their country in on the wrong track by a margin of more than 2-to-1. Disgruntlement is our nation's common ground.
What group believes that American society has gotten better since the 1950s? About 60 percent of African Americans and Hispanics. On a moment's reflection, this makes perfect sense. Compared with life 70 years ago — when much of the country was legally segregated — daily life has improved for racial and ethnic minorities. As it has for gays and women seeking positions of social and economic leadership.
Many conservatives have failed to appreciate the mixed legacy of modernity. In recent decades, the United States has seen declining community and family cohesion, and what former U.S. surgeon general Vivek H. Murthy calls "a loneliness epidemic." "We live in the most technologically connected age in the history of civilization," he says, "yet rates of loneliness have doubled since the 1980s."
But the flip side of individualism is greater social freedom. Who would not prefer to be in a racially mixed marriage today compared with 70 years ago? Or to have biracial children? When conservatives express unreserved nostalgia for the 1950s, they are also expressing a damning tolerance for oppression. It does appear like a longing for lost privilege.
The alternative to disdain for American society on the left and right is not to sanitize our country's history or excuse its manifold failures. It is to do what reforming patriots from Abraham Lincoln to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. have done: to elevate and praise American ideals while courageously applying them to our social inconsistencies and hypocrisies. "What greater form of patriotism is there," asked President Barack Obama in his admirable 2015 Selma, Ala., speech, "than the belief that America is not yet finished, that we are strong enough to be self-critical, that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals?"
And this might be matched with a spirit of gratitude — for a country capable of shame and change, and better than its grievances.