Four Narratives of America

clairecloutier

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I wanted to share an article that I read in the Atlantic this week. I found it really interesting and thought other people here might enjoy it.

How America Fractured into Four Parts


The author, George Packer, argues that there are currently 4 major viewpoints, or narratives, about America and its politics that are fighting for dominance.

He identifies these as:

-- "Free America," the traditional conservative/libertarian view of the country, as sold by Reagan
-- "Smart America," the liberal meritocratic viewpoint common among traditional Democrats over the last 50 years, partly represented by Clinton/Obama
-- "Real America," the viewpoint of Trumpland (rural, non-professional America)
-- "Just America," the worldview of young, educated GenZers and millennials, which focuses on the historical faults, weaknesses, and inequity of America and society as a whole

Packer writes so well, and I found some of his descriptions of the positive/negative sides of each worldview super-resonant. His take on "Just America" was especially interesting to me. The existence/principles of this worldview is something that I feel like I've learned about more on Twitter and to some extent FSU than anywhere else. It's a worldview that kind of came into being without being "announced," so to speak, by someone like a politician or speechwriter who would break it down and streamline its main ideas. It's a way of thinking that I've sometimes struggled to understand/describe. So it was interesting to see Packer roll some of its ideas into a more complete thought construct.

I'll post some longish excerpts here just to give an idea of what's discussed in the article. It is a long read, but I found it pretty darn interesting.

On "Free America"--

In 1980, the first year I cast a vote, I feared and hated Reagan. Listening to his words 40 years later, I can hear their eloquence and understand their appeal, as long as I tune out many other things. Chief among them is Reagan’s half-spoken message to white Americans: Government helps only those people. Legal segregation was barely dead when Free America, using the libertarian language of individualism and property rights, pushed the country into its long decline in public investment. The advantages for business were easy to see. As for ordinary people, the Republican Party reckoned that some white Americans would rather go without than share the full benefits of prosperity with their newly equal Black compatriots.

The majority of Americans who elected Reagan president weren’t told that Free America would break unions and starve social programs, or that it would change antitrust policy to bring a new age of monopoly, making Walmart, Citigroup, Google, and Amazon the J.P. Morgan and Standard Oil of a second Gilded Age. They had never heard of Charles and David Koch—heirs to a family oil business, libertarian billionaires who would pour money into the lobbies and propaganda machines and political campaigns of Free America on behalf of corporate power and fossil fuels. Freedom sealed a deal between elected officials and business executives: campaign contributions in exchange for tax cuts and corporate welfare. The numerous scandals of the 1980s exposed the crony capitalism that lay at the heart of Free America.


On "Smart America"--

The new knowledge economy created a new class of Americans: men and women with college degrees, skilled with symbols and numbers—salaried professionals in information technology, computer engineering, scientific research, design, management consulting, the upper civil service, financial analysis, law, journalism, the arts, higher education. They go to college with one another, intermarry, gravitate to desirable neighborhoods in large metropolitan areas, and do all they can to pass on their advantages to their children. They are not 1 percenters—those are mainly executives and investors—but they dominate the top 10 percent of American incomes, with outsize economic and cultural influence.

They’re at ease in the world that modernity created. They were early adopters of things that make the surface of contemporary life agreeable: HBO, Lipitor, MileagePlus Platinum, the MacBook Pro, grass-fed organic beef, cold-brewed coffee, Amazon Prime. They welcome novelty and relish diversity. They believe that the transnational flow of human beings, information, goods, and capital ultimately benefits most people around the world. You have a hard time telling what part of the country they come from, because their local identities are submerged in the homogenizing culture of top universities and elite professions.

The winners in Smart America have withdrawn from national life. They spend inordinate amounts of time working (even in bed), researching their children’s schools and planning their activities, shopping for the right kind of food, learning to make sushi or play the mandolin, staying in shape, and following the news. None of this brings them in contact with fellow citizens outside their way of life. School, once the most universal and influential of our democratic institutions, now walls them off. The working class is terra incognita.


On "Real America"--

In the fall of 2008, Sarah Palin, then the Republican nominee for vice president, spoke at a fundraiser in Greensboro, North Carolina. Candidates reserve the truth for their donors, using the direct language they avoid with the press and the public (Obama: “cling to guns or religion”; Romney: the “47 percent”; Clinton: “basket of deplorables”), and Palin felt free to speak openly. “We believe that the best of America is in these small towns that we get to visit,” she said, “and in these wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America, being here with all of you hardworking, very patriotic, very pro-America areas of this great nation. Those who are running our factories and teaching our kids and growing our food and are fighting our wars for us.”

The overwhelmingly white crowds that lined up to hear Palin speak were nothing new. Real America has always been a country of white people. Jackson himself was a slaver and an Indian-killer, and his “farmers, mechanics, and laborers” were the all-white forebears of William Jennings Bryan’s “producing masses,” Huey Long’s “little man,” George Wallace’s “rednecks,” Patrick Buchanan’s “pitchfork brigade,” and Palin’s “hardworking patriots.” The political positions of these groups changed, but their Real American identity—their belief in themselves as the bedrock of self-government—stayed firm. From time to time the common people’s politics has been interracial—the Populist Party at its founding in the early 1890s, the industrial-labor movement of the 1930s—but that never lasted. The unity soon disintegrated under the pressure of white supremacy. Real America has always needed to feel that both a shiftless underclass and a parasitic elite depend on its labor. In this way, it renders the Black working class invisible.


On "Just America"--

In 2014, American character changed .... A large and influential generation came of age in the shadow of accumulating failures by the ruling class—especially by business and foreign-policy elites. This new generation had little faith in ideas that previous ones were raised on: All men are created equal. Work hard and you can be anything. Knowledge is power. Democracy and capitalism are the best systems—the only systems. America is a nation of immigrants. America is the leader of the free world.

Call this narrative “Just America.” It’s another rebellion from below. As Real America breaks down the ossified libertarianism of Free America, Just America assails the complacent meritocracy of Smart America. It does the hard, essential thing that the other three narratives avoid, that white Americans have avoided throughout history. It forces us to see the straight line that runs from slavery and segregation to the second-class life so many Black Americans live today—the betrayal of equality that has always been the country’s great moral shame, the heart of its social problems.

But Just America has a dissonant sound, for in its narrative, justice and America never rhyme. A more accurate name would be Unjust America, in a spirit of attack rather than aspiration. For Just Americans, the country is less a project of self-government to be improved than a site of continuous wrong to be battled. In some versions of the narrative, the country has no positive value at all—it can never be made better.

Just America has dramatically changed the way Americans think, talk, and act, but not the conditions in which they live. It reflects the fracturing distrust that defines our culture: Something is deeply wrong; our society is unjust; our institutions are corrupt. If the narrative helps to create a more humane criminal-justice system and bring Black Americans into the conditions of full equality, it will live up to its promise. But the grand systemic analysis usually ends in small symbolic politics. In some ways, Just America resembles Real America and has entered the same dubious conflict from the other side.

The rules in Just America are different, and they have been quickly learned by older liberals following a long series of defenestrations at The New York Times, Poetry magazine, Georgetown University, the Guggenheim Museum, and other leading institutions. The parameters of acceptable expression are a lot narrower than they used to be. A written thought can be a form of violence. The loudest public voices in a controversy will prevail. Offending them can cost your career. Justice is power. These new rules are not based on liberal values; they are post-liberal.

Just America’s origins in theory, its intolerant dogma, and its coercive tactics remind me of 1930s left-wing ideology. Liberalism as white supremacy recalls the Communist Party’s attack on social democracy as “social fascism.” Just American aesthetics are the new socialist realism.
 

caseyedwards

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I believe that’s a little overcomplicated. It made me remember “there is nothing wrong with America that can’t be cured by what is right with America” and some no longer believing there is anything right with America because white supremacy was woven into everything and everything about America even it’s constitution must be redone totally for equity. So I’m not sure if it’s 4 but 2 maybe.

But also the people in groups smart America and especially just America think all the real America and free America are horrible awful racists.

I bet a lot of smart America can vote Republican but hated real America so much when they decided to vote for trump they voted democrat.

I would prefer more discussion of issues.

Real America did love Reagan even after he signed what he called “amnesty for illegals.” smart America Republicans ran the Republican Party and who did want more Reagan amnesty and they preferred to hire cheaper immigrants than Americans. Eventually tearing apart the Republican Party

Basically I believe tons of free America republicans were becoming smart America types.
 
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Artistic Skaters

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But also the people in groups smart America and especially just America think all the real America and free America are horrible awful racists.
I don't really fit in either the Smart America or Just America category, however perhaps if people in those categories do tend to think that way, it is because significant players in the Real America and Free America categories have demonstrated they think that way themselves. For instance, who was it who brought us the welfare queen stereotype? Even though it was based on one woman who abused the system, Reagan cast everyone who received social assistance as lazy city dwellers who didn't want to work. Poor people were demonized and people publicly demeaned little children in the grocery store when their parents bought a birthday cake with food stamps. The narrative was very clearly that it wasn't a poverty issue but a POC issue. Since it was the leader of the Free America who created the narrative, why place the blame elsewhere?

As a contrast, today it has been clearly delineated that the non-urban clients are the main users of public assistance. Unlike during those years, I haven't read any leaders today who pursue a narrative that lazy small town white supremacists are all on the dole so they can spend any money they can scrape up to buy guns. Likewise I haven't really noticed people at the grocery checkout taking away the dignity of parents or belittling their young children since the turn of the century, but it was a weekly occurrence during much of the '80s and '90s. It just goes to show there is always the option not to stereotype and exaggerate welfare queens, or to support or look the other way as constituents beat Capitol Police with US flags, Trump flags, or wave Confederate flags in the lobby of Congress to avoid superficial labels.
 
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MacMadame

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Even though it was based on one woman who abused the system,
And possibly didn't exist.

My sisters got hassled when they bought food at the grocery store with food stamps btw. This was a real thing that happened. (I was a vegetarian at the time and I think that's what saved me from similar experiences.)
 

Japanfan

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I think there should also be a category for 'Alternative America' - for people who choose live outside the system as much as possible (e.g. some artists/writers/activists) and for people who choose alternative lifestyles like living off the grid or being a nomad.
 

Artistic Skaters

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I did find the article interesting, but it says it's based on four major viewpoints. As much as I would appreciate Alternative America to be in the mix, that group would definitely be a minority viewpoint. :lol:
 

once_upon

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And possibly didn't exist.

My sisters got hassled when they bought food at the grocery store with food stamps btw. This was a real thing that happened. (I was a vegetarian at the time and I think that's what saved me from similar experiences.)
My good friend, who has a doctorate in speech pathology and a good paying job, has expensive tattoos, an iPhone. When their house was destroyed in a flood - that they had exactly 10 minutes warning (a levee was breached), they got snap benefits to help replace all the food lost in the flood.

She was waiting in line to check out and heard the women behind her making horrific comments about lazy people who spend money (and where did she get that kind of money if she needed food stamps).

J said it took every ounce of self control and her anxiety meds she had taken before shopping, to not tell them how they no longer had their farm, their livestock, her husband's very expensive, extensive work tools because of an bleeping flood.

FEMA has still not paid the buyout, so they are paying mortgage on two places, one they can never rebuild on.
 

clairecloutier

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There's a new article in New York that criticizes the original "four narratives" article and says that it ignores another Democratic narrative of, or viewpoint on, America that is embodied in the Biden presidency. This consists of finding kind of a "middle way" that values working-class jobs (not just elite, white-collar jobs) and that supports the police while also supporting minority rights.

Out-of-touch media elites ignore Biden working-class voters

Packer wants a liberalism that disavows meritocratic elitism, champions economic redistribution, brims with unabashed patriotism, and recognizes the persistence of racial injustice — but also the feasibility of racial progress and the necessity of policing. In other words, he pines for the narrative of America’s sitting president.

Let’s table all debate about Biden’s policies. Our concern here is with narrative — with the vision that various political tendencies are oratorically offering. And in his rhetoric, Biden unquestionably disdains Smart America’s self-congratulation. One of the president’s refrains, on the campaign trail and in office, has been “Wall Street didn’t build this country. The middle class built the country. And unions built the middle class.” In his April address to Congress, Biden went out of his way to boast that “nearly 90 percent of the infrastructure jobs created in the American Jobs Plan do not require a college degree” and described his economic agenda as “a blue-collar blueprint to build America.” The president can scarcely be described as unpatriotic. He routinely spouts jingoistic nonsense like “We are the United States of America. There is not a single thing — nothing, nothing beyond our capacity.” He (of course) rejects Free America’s anarcho-capitalist conception of personal freedom as well as Real America’s white Christian nationalism. He tells “transgender Americans” that “your president has your back” and decries the “systemic racism” in “our criminal-justice system.” But he also believes the existing political order is more than capable of rooting out such racism, and he venerates the “vast majority” of police officers.

I don't know as I completely agree with this piece, but, if you want to read more, there it is ....
 

DORISPULASKI

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Imo, The whole 4 or is it 5? ideologies argument just seems the punditocracy's restaging of their noxious Democrats in Dissaray narrative as That and Republicans in Dissarray Too.

.
 

BlueRidge

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Imo, The whole 4 or is it 5? ideologies argument just seems the punditocracy's restaging of their noxious Democrats in Dissaray narrative as That and Republicans in Dissarray Too.

.
:lol:

I dislike this kind of categorizing because it inevitably leans toward stereotyping. Of people left of center, I know a handful that maybe fit the "just America" category but I don't know anyone in the "smart America" category.

When I read this article part way through (I got stuck on the seeming excuses for Trumpists which irks me) it made me want to look at what percentage of the country the smart America people are and therefore population numbers and then look at how many people voted Dem in the last election, because I think there's a huge group of Dem voters not accounted for here but the smart America category is given outsize attention by the media.

I generally don't know any right of center people but I'd make the projection based on how the left of center categories fail to account for most people that the right of center ones do to.
 

Karen-W

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:lol:

I dislike this kind of categorizing because it inevitably leans toward stereotyping. Of people left of center, I know a handful that maybe fit the "just America" category but I don't know anyone in the "smart America" category.

When I read this article part way through (I got stuck on the seeming excuses for Trumpists which irks me) it made me want to look at what percentage of the country the smart America people are and therefore population numbers and then look at how many people voted Dem in the last election, because I think there's a huge group of Dem voters not accounted for here but the smart America category is given outsize attention by the media.

I generally don't know any right of center people but I'd make the projection based on how the left of center categories fail to account for most people that the right of center ones do to.
I do know people who fit the "Smart America" category - they were the ones who were the most shell-shocked, IMO, at the results of the 2016 election. All these really smart people who couldn't fathom (and many still can't) how or why anyone would ever vote for Trump. It doesn't surprise me that you perceive they are given outsize attention by the media since that is the category into which the media itself falls.

I don't know that I agree with the broad categorizations the author outlines. I definitely skew to the center right/libertarian side but I don't feel like I fit into the "Free America" category and I certainly don't fall into the "Real America" category - though I know plenty of people who fit the "Real America" description. I also am not sure that the "Just America" category is an accurate description for the social activist liberals that are dominating so much of the political discourse and narrative currently - and I don't know of more than a handful of people who would fit that description either, to be perfectly fair.

In essence, I agree with your assessment that the "four Americas" premise is far too simplistic and doesn't really account for most of America - at least not how they came to their current political views/perspectives.
 

BlueRidge

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In essence, I agree with your assessment that the "four Americas" premise is far too simplistic and doesn't really account for most of America - at least not how they came to their current political views/perspectives.

Agreed. Some commentators seem drawn to this kind of categorization but I don't think it helps us understand the politics of our country. Instead I think it generates caricatures that the media embraces and which to an extent underlie many people's feeling that they are left out or dismissed by the mainstream narratives.
 

clairecloutier

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I have to say that the majority of adults/parents that I know probably have worldview/attitude/lifestyles that fall very squarely into the Smart America mindset. Not that any one of them embodies every aspect of that archetype. But the major outline, or key elements of it, probably fit for many. I'm Gen X and in a major metropolitan area ... not surprising.

(BTW, I don't believe the author means, or I certainly wouldn't take it to mean, that people in this group are "smarter." It just reflects the general educated meritocratic outlook.)

I do feel that the Just America construct helps me comprehend better the attitudes, postings, actions, I see from many younger people on social media. When I read that section, I immediately felt like--Okay. Now I understand. Particularly, the sense of needing to confront wrongs, slurs, injustices, where they appear. And the sense that there is a great deal of wrongness to confront. That the society, as a whole, is pretty seriously messed up in many different areas, or at least needs major improvement.

And I've definitely known some people for whom the Free America category would broadly fit--successful, rather libertarian, basically unconcerned with the gov't, business-centric worldview. The outlines of Free America/Real America archetypes do jibe with a lot of the history I've read about our country. I just finished reading a book about the politics of the 1968 election ... which was pivotal in bringing Reagan into national politics, and definitely involved a lot of the broader ideas of the Free America mindset (the implied racism--George Wallace; libertarianism/anti-government--Reagan; even traditional elitism--Rockefeller; anti-Communism--all).

I think it's interesting to consider archetypes/categorizations like this as a way of understanding the broader drifts of culture/society as a whole. Obviously such narratives can't come close to reflecting all individual viewpoints, etc., but to me, that does not mean they are valueless or invalid.
 

DORISPULASKI

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The thing missing from this discussion of types is YKW...and yet the people I know seem to be talking about voting based largely on the perceived competence of their incumbents in dealing with it. I just spent a couple days with my longtime Berniebro friend in VT. She is happy with her Rep. gov. Scott and will vote for him in 2022. Similarly with Mass. more or less Just America and Charlie Baker. And nonQ Trumpists in CT and Gov. Lamont.
 

DORISPULASKI

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I think the author sucks at naming things, tbh.

I haven't gotten all the way through the article yet. I am finding it a bit of a slog.
I think the author is suffering from the delusion that he is an author. Unfortunately, the Atlantic has bought into his delusion.

Couldn't we just read John Meacham's books instead of this article? At least the history part of it would be serious and well thought out.
 

clairecloutier

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I think the author is suffering from the delusion that he is an author. Unfortunately, the Atlantic has bought into his delusion.

Couldn't we just read John Meacham's books instead of this article? At least the history part of it would be serious and well thought out.


Uhhhh ....



I guess the National Book Award committee thought just a tad more highly of him than you .... :rofl:
 

DORISPULASKI

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I was joking, but it is not the first time I have disagreed with a book award committee.

I found it a pot boiler of an article. This shocked me, because I usually enjoy reading the political and historical articles The Atlantic publishes. Now that I see Packer has a medal, I understand why the Atlantic bought this pot boiler. How the mighty have fallen. ;)
 

ballettmaus

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-- "Real America," the viewpoint of Trumpland (rural, non-professional America)
Why would anyone think to attach the word "real" to that category? I don't think there's anything real about it, rather, it seems to refer to people who live in their little world and have built a world/nationwide view based on what they hear rather than what they've seen for themselves. (Eg, they believe immigrants are bad because Fox News and Trump said so and not because they've seen it for themselves).

I think the phrase Real America suggests that they're down-to-earth, solid and realistic and maybe somewhat of the backbone of America, kind of like this is the true America and I don't think any of that applies.
 

Karen-W

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Why would anyone think to attach the word "real" to that category? I don't think there's anything real about it, rather, it seems to refer to people who live in their little world and have built a world/nationwide view based on what they hear rather than what they've seen for themselves. (Eg, they believe immigrants are bad because Fox News and Trump said so and not because they've seen it for themselves).

I think the phrase Real America suggests that they're down-to-earth, solid and realistic and maybe somewhat of the backbone of America, kind of like this is the true America and I don't think any of that applies.
I think it is as much about how the four groups view themselves as anything else - and, in that regard, I think the broadly simplistic categories "work" except that there is far more nuance to American politics than what the author has defined.
 

Artistic Skaters

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That is how I read it also. Real America are people who consider themselves true Americans comparatively speaking, ala the Sarah Palin viewpoint. I would be considered an "other" to a group with this belief system. They view themselves this way and it crosses over to their assessment of various populations, i.e. how people on the east and west coasts often stereotype populations in the Midwestern states and vice-versa. It reminded me of books like Hillbilly Elegy that broadbrush the residents of small towns and Appalachia, like there are no Dave Chappelles or Jorma Kaukonens living in small towns or no Hare Krishna compound in WV.

The article was interesting but the downside for me is the usual - too much pundit commentary in the newspapers and magazines these days and not enough objective reporting and analysis of newsworthy events.
 
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MacMadame

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So I got to this part:

National loyalty is an attachment to what makes your country yours, distinct from the rest, even when you can’t stand it, even when it breaks your heart. This feeling can’t be wished out of existence. And because people still live their lives in an actual place, and the nation is the largest place with which they can identify—world citizenship is too abstract to be meaningful—patriotic feeling has to be tapped if you want to achieve anything big. If your goal is to slow climate change, or reverse inequality, or stop racism, or rebuild democracy, you will need the national solidarity that comes from patriotism.

And I have to say that I completely disagree particularly about slowing climate change. But for all of these things, the people who want to do them are people who see themselves as part of the world and are loyal to that and not people whose first loyalty is to their country. I actually see patriotism as being the cause of some of these problems, definitely not the solution.
 

BlueRidge

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So I got to this part:

National loyalty is an attachment to what makes your country yours, distinct from the rest, even when you can’t stand it, even when it breaks your heart. This feeling can’t be wished out of existence. And because people still live their lives in an actual place, and the nation is the largest place with which they can identify—world citizenship is too abstract to be meaningful—patriotic feeling has to be tapped if you want to achieve anything big. If your goal is to slow climate change, or reverse inequality, or stop racism, or rebuild democracy, you will need the national solidarity that comes from patriotism.

And I have to say that I completely disagree particularly about slowing climate change. But for all of these things, the people who want to do them are people who see themselves as part of the world and are loyal to that and not people whose first loyalty is to their country. I actually see patriotism as being the cause of some of these problems, definitely not the solution.

I don't think patriotism means loyalty to one's country in opposition to other countries or in disregard of human rights and welfare everywhere.

I think it means wanting to see one's country--because it is where one lives, what one knows most intimately, a place one has significant belonging to--be the best it can be, live up to its ideals as one sees them, conduct itself justly and fairly on the world stage, and more.

I do think that people have to have a view of more than their country; climate change requires a global view, but that does not negate a patriotism that seeks to have one's country do its share to address climate change and conduct itself in an ethical way in the world community.

I don't conflate patriotism and nationalism. I think that rightwing populists have no concept whatsoever of patriotism, only of a nationalism that is an us vs them concept.
 

Prancer

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I think it is as much about how the four groups view themselves as anything else - and, in that regard, I think the broadly simplistic categories "work" except that there is far more nuance to American politics than what the author has defined.
It seems to me that grouping people like this serves the same purpose as social statistics. No individual is likely to fit perfectly into a category; we're looking at broad general strokes.
 

DORISPULASKI

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The Christian Science Monitor used the three America's view of Elazar, (Traditionalistic, Moralistic, and Individualistic) and then uses it to explain why New England did better than other regions at handling the YKW. At least as far as New England is concerned, this article sounds ok to me. Town government is key to us here in New England where there is no county government at all, while in Florida, at least 200 of approximately 691 towns are unincorporated and so have no town government at all.

I found it an interesting article.
 

MacMadame

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I finally finished the article and I have to say that I found his description of Just America to be pretty condescending and biased. In comparison, he seemed to downplay a lot of the negatives of Real America. Because of that, I am now doubting some of his takes on historical issues where I don't have a good foundational knowledge myself. What do people who know more about our political history think of his analysis?
 

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