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Reading the Tea Leaves in November

Is the United States ready to accept the 21st century?

October 7, 2010

Is the United States ready to accept the 21st century?

Tricornered hats and banners reading, "Don't Tread on Me." Knee britches and shoes with brass buckles. Nostalgia for a 1773 act of rebellion and the fiercely independent sentiments of 18th-century America, the America of settlers carving space for themselves in forests far from the larger world.

All this is stitched into the fabric of the 2010 midterm election campaigns. All of this is common imagery in American politics now, no longer any surprise to anyone. It is brought to us by the Tea Party, that loose set of affiliations and emotional associations that comes to something less than a party with a formal platform, but which is understood instinctively among American voters.

The most interesting aspect of the Tea Party, whatever one's view of it, is how well chosen its symbols and signifiers and slogans are. They frame every speech a Tea Party-ist makes, and they go directly to the question of what is truly at issue this political year.

It is America's evidently divided ideas as to what it is. It is whether the United States is a nation determined to carry an 18th-century rendition of itself forward — or one that accepts that, no, the 21st asks something new of the nation.

At the core of this autumn's contests, it seems to me, are the questions of myth and history. To put a complex matter perhaps too simply, the Tea Party and a considerable part of the broader political gathering termed the conservative right are given to the enduring myths that so long drove America on. These myths are their fundamental frame of reference.

In contrast, those of more liberal persuasions are generally given to a historical idea of America, what it has been and is, and what it must be if it is to proceed into the new century more gracefully and imaginatively than it entered it.

Myth and history, then. Let us unravel these two — and see how they are thoroughly refracted in the campaigns for November's elections. In the end, the two are as sharply divided as many candidates.

This cannot be a surprise, for a mythical America versus a historical America is very often just what pits them against one another.

So it is by considering the place of myth and history that we can grasp the significance for America's future of the outcomes next month, whatever they may be.

People are myth-making beings. All of humanity has them. By the simplest and best definitions, myths are stories told out of time that give meaning to the things we humans do. Myths require belief, it should be noted, so there is a "we-and-they" aspect to them: One either accepts the truth of a myth — or stands outside those who do.

America's foundational myths share these characteristics. Providential nation, chosen people, City on a Hill, beacon of the world, humanity in its fullest possible accomplishment, history's unique exception: These are the parameters of the American mythology.

But America's myths are also singular, and there is a contradiction buried in them. They are modern, for one thing. They were meant not as tales of ancient deeds, but as accounts of things as they were in the present.

For another, there was supposed to be nothing fantastic about them. They were myths with flesh on them, we might say — to be taken as literally true as opposed to figuratively or metaphorically.

From its earliest days as a nation, the mythology seemed to confer what Americans took to be an inalienable mission to transform the world in their image. This produced the contradiction. The United States was "out of time," as an early historian put it, exempt from human history's ebb and flow and cause and effect. But all that America did came to the making of history itself.

I think of the problem inherent in the American mythology as "history without memory." Americans love history and possess a grand narrative, but it is full of fable, to put the point succinctly. American historians have struggled with this for a long time.

None of the 19th-century greats — Parkman, Prescott, Bancroft (who had training in Germany, no less) — quite managed to transcend the related problems of "story" and Providence in relating America's past as honestly as they could in their time.

Twentieth-century historians pushed the matter squarely on the table. This occurred just as the United States began to push beyond its own continent and make itself, from the Spanish-American War onward, a world power.

We must advance beyond our mythically informed, millennial habits of mind. We need to incorporate "historicity" into our history if we are to understand what we are about to do. This was the historicists' argument.

So were the lines of battle drawn, and the battle has by and large been decided, at least in the academy. Yes, one still finds many traces of mythical portraiture in the popular narrative histories and biographies. A distinguished scholar might still assert America's eternal uniqueness.

To illustrate the latter point, there is Seymour Martin Lipset's American Exceptionalism, published a little more than a decade ago. "However one comes to this debate," Lipset wrote as he set out, "there can be little question that the hand of providence has been on a nation that can produce a Washington, a Lincoln or a Roosevelt when it needs one." This, he explained, was his judgment as a scholar and patriot both.

Such thoughts are, indeed, exceptional now among the professionals. But what about the rest of America, down on the ground beneath the ivory tower? There the battle rages, for the mark of myth runs deep.

It is the contest being fought, at the core of them, in this autumn's elections. Is America a nation of grand myths and grand missions and eternal institutions? Or is it one with a new century to face, problems to solve, ideas about itself and its place in the world that are in need of a rethink?

Cast in this light, it would be difficult to overstate the consequences of next month's outcomes. Americans will decide much in a few weeks' time about how their nation will proceed.

It brings us to a paradox, but it is one easily resolved: They will decide much about their future by deciding how, fundamentally, they understand their past—historically, as it was and as it has brought the nation to this moment, or mythologically, as it might be imagined.

A friend put the matter in usefully simple terms not long ago as we discussed one of the Tea Party's most often heard credenda. "Take our country back" can be turned a couple of ways. Suspicion of government is a thread in the American fabric as old as America, I observed. "Try it this way," my friend replied. "Ask yourself,

More on this topic


Can America transform itself from a nation with a destiny into a nation with a purpose?

Americans love history and possess a grand narrative, but it is full of fable.

The United States was "out of time," exempt from human history's ebb and flow — and cause and effect.

Myths require belief, it should be noted, so there is a "we-and-they" aspect to them.

What is truly at issue this political year is America's divided ideas as to what it is.