The Story Wars

The conflict between Red and Blue America is a clash of national mythologies

Richard Slotkin

Tim Davies, Democrat and Republican (from My Life in Politics), 2002. Courtesy the artist

In the run-up to the 2024 presidential election, Red America and Blue America often seem to be two different countries. Each has a different understanding of who counts as American and of why our government exists. And each explains and justifies its beliefs by appealing to a different version of American history and of our national mythology.

That divergence matters, because myths are one of the cultural structures that allow modern nation-states to function as coherent societies. National myths are developed over time in every cultural medium: histories, school textbooks, newspapers, advertisements, sermons, political speeches, popular fiction, movies. They are the form in which we remember our history. And no country today is more dependent on its myths than the United States of America, because the ethnic origins of our people are the most diverse of any Western nation. We are born to our families and home communities. We have to learn to think of ourselves as “Americans,” as spiritual descendants of ancestors not related to us by blood, made kindred by our participation in a shared and ongoing history.

Four mythologies have been central to the development of American national identity. The Myth of the Frontier is our oldest myth, tracing the origin of our society to the settler states of the colonial period and the country’s phenomenal growth to the exploitation of abundant natural resources. The Myth of the Founding deals with the establishment of national independence and constitutional government. The Myth of the Civil War arose from the existential crisis that overtook the nation in the 1860s over slavery and Southern secession. It has three significant variants: the Liberation Myth, centered on Lincoln and emancipation; the Reconciliation Myth, which emphasizes the postwar coming together of whites from North and South; and the Lost Cause Myth, which sanctifies the Confederate cause and the postwar struggle to restore white supremacy. Finally, the Myth of the Good War emerged in the 1940s, as the nation for the first time embraced its racial and ethnic diversity, uniting its people in a struggle for the Free World.

Our history is a dark and bloody ground in which slavery shares space with freedom, dispossession with progress, hatred with heritage.

These myths haven’t just helped Americans define themselves as Americans. They’ve also been a way for people to use history as an instrument of political power. When faced with a crisis or challenging situation, Americans have scanned our common lexicon of myths for analogies that will help us make sense of the situation, and precedents on which to model a successful or even “heroic” response.

The peril of our current situation is that Red and Blue America no longer have a shared mythology that might unite them. Indeed, the MAGA movement has largely appropriated the myths and symbols that traditionally united Americans, turning them into the slogans and banners of a cultural civil war. MAGA is rooted in reaction against the social transformations which have, since the sixties, challenged the traditional hierarchies of race and gender and the norms of cultural expression. It is also a response to the loss of economic security attendant on the globalization and technological transformation of the economy. Its use of myth gives its adherents the sense of righteous empowerment that comes from association with a deeply rooted historical tradition.

MAGA’s use of Frontier symbolism—exemplified by the coonskin hats worn by the rioters who stormed the Capitol on January 6, 2021, and by the gun-rights slogans on their flags—sanctifies its assertion of American exceptionalism, its commitment to the unregulated exploitation of natural resources, and its politics of racial enmity. Its version of the Founding exalts the Second Amendment as justification for anti-government violence. And its embrace of the Lost Cause—exemplified by the Confederate Stars and Bars flag that a rioter carried into the Capitol—exalts white Southerners’ struggle first to defend and then to reestablish the order of white supremacy, cultural illiberalism, and quasi-authoritarian one-party rule. MAGA has used these myths to shape a distinctly American approach to fascism: more neo-Confederate than neo-Nazi, an amalgam of American exceptionalism, racial and ethnic bigotry, Christian nationalism, and economic nationalism.

By contrast, the Blue coalition that defeated MAGA in 2020 did not look to national myths to justify its vision. It had a program of positive action to address the immediate crisis arising from the Covid pandemic and longer-term economic problems and discontents. But, as has been true of the left and center-left since the 1970s, it lacked a unifying national myth that would root its approach in historical tradition. Different factions of the Democratic coalition do look to distinct historical narratives—labor invokes the New Deal to highlight the centrality of working people to liberal politics, while advocates of inclusion and minority rights point to the Civil Rights Movement. But the ideological and ethnic diversity of the Blue coalition (which requires it to encompass the interests of college-educated white suburbanites, labor unions, black voters, immigrants, and so on) makes it difficult for its spokespeople to tell a single coherent story that connects the nation’s past to a desired future. And that has given MAGA an advantage in what you might call the “story wars,” because it invokes narratives already sanctified in traditional mythology.

Constructing a satisfying and coherent national myth is challenging for the left, because its ideology is based on a critique of America’s historical practices of capitalist exploitation of land and labor, racial discrimination, Indigenous dispossession, and imperialism. Conservatives have a point when they worry that a full confession of America’s past failings might make patriotism suspect.

But the task is not an impossible one. There is no modern nation-state, after all, whose history is not rife with social injustice; with oppression based on race, class, and sex; with the violence of unjust wars. Our history is a dark and bloody ground in which slavery shares space with freedom, dispossession with progress, hatred with heritage. If there is anything admirable about America, it is not its supposed exception to these historical patterns but the persistence with which its people have struggled to amend injustice, relieve oppression, limit the exercise of state violence, and realize an extraordinarily broad and inclusive concept of nationality. If the dark side of U.S. history is the exploitation of land and labor by rampant capitalism and the rise of corporate oligarchy, its counterpart is the struggle for workers’ rights and environmental conservation and our determined efforts to strike a just and constructive balance between individual rights, corporate power, and the public good. It is because of that willingness to struggle, as much as for our achievements, that America has been the desired destination of immigrants from every country and culture on earth.

Liberals can fashion a myth out of such struggles, one potent enough to challenge the familiar myths MAGA relies on. This story would trace a path from Lincoln’s “new birth of freedom” and Reconstruction’s “Second Founding” to the New Deal’s grand but imperfect project of economic and social reform; the triumphs of the Good War, the Great Society, and the Civil Rights Movement. It would recognize that while the promise of these struggles has not been fulfilled, it still lives. Such a myth would link the struggle for racial justice to the broader task of securing economic justice for the working and middle classes, reversing the policies that aggrandize the wealthy at the expense of the rest, and breaking the monopolistic control of economic and financial operations by a few colossal corporations. In doing so, it would provide the left and center-left with something it has lacked since the 1970s: a narrative that roots its ideology and vision of the future firmly in the American past.

Richard Slotkin is a cultural historian and author of an award-winning trilogy on the myth of the frontier in American history, including Regeneration Through Violence and Gunfighter Nation.
Originally published:
March 11, 2024


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