The Great State Narrative

Chinese-American women on Mott Street, 1965 and Michelangelo Lovelace “At The Intersection of Eddy Road and St. Clair Avenue” (1997)

The story of America is generally told through a single narrative, a single strand — with a distinct fealty to the wealthy and white — that tells us what America is, who America is. But America is not a single story, in fact, it’s much like a rope — several strands together; and this story of stories is often bound together by the violence and injustice inflicted by and upon America to this very day. It is vital to understand this story of stories, this rope, because there is power and insight in compelling national narratives that are impossible to ignore. Given that our story is so fraught — marred by hypocrisy, bought often in blood — we must pull on this rope not simply for the power it provides, but for the dangers of leaving America’s story as a singular, wealthy, white, male story to be steered by reactionaries. Frederick Douglass in “What, to the Slave, is The Fourth of July?” and Harry Jaffa in “American Conservatism and The Present Crisis” provide a dialectical conflict through which we might understand the narratives, if not the actual forces, that bind these many strands together.

Douglass argues, to borrow Langston Hughes’s phrasing, that America never really has been America.

That America, for many, has been no more than institutional violence executed at a grand scale. In fact, if America has never delivered on its central promise for all, does that not mean the American project has failed? After all, the American promise is universal. But Douglass never actually directly asserts this, he says,

For Douglass, for the marginalized, America has existed; we have just never actually been there — it has been their country. We are not the shining city on a hill, it is simply a mirage projected by those who already have the power. But, if America truly is this great rope, with many threads braided together, this presents a contradiction. We must either accept that these individual threads have never actually been drawn together; rather they have only existed in a distinct hierarchy,or, as I argue, America — as an ethos — has never really existed.

But Douglass makes a deeper argument than simply the failure, at some level, of the American system.

He argues that America faces the same obstacle as it did during the Revolution. To fight vigorously against injustice now, in the form of the Slave Power, even though it may be trying, will be the same as taking up arms to fight for freedom from British tyranny.

Henry Jaffa gives a description of America that is distinctly different than that of Douglass. Jaffa is the creator of a school of thought known as West Coast Straussianism, named for Leo Strauss, a German-Jewish immigrant and political philosopher. The West Coast Straussians have been a fundamental part of the modern conservative project: from Jaffa’s work on Barry Goldwater’s campaign to the famous essay, “The Flight 93 Election”, written by a pseudonymous West Coast Straussian, calling for the conservative movement to rally around Donald Trump.

West Coast Straussianism centers the classical doctrine of the natural right and the immutable standard of justice using three propositions: America is modern, Modernity is bad, and America is good. The West Coast Straussians argue that decadent liberalism, set in motion by the progressive era, is what fundamentally transformed America into a modern nation.

This form of “liberalism”, to The West Coast Straussians, is fundamentally bad because it rejects the Constitution and Declaration of Independence and posits that America is simply a nation of values that were contrived rather than a fundamental theory of justice.

The “liberal” view must be a fundamentally evil view of America because it cannot possibly mean that America is good in a measurable way, their philosophy rejects any utilitarian or even pragmatist views of measuring the good of a nation. So to the West Coast Straussians, America’s founding principles must be fundamentally good, and must never have incorporated the strand of relativism that liberalism promotes. And that lays out the fundamental premise of the modern conservative struggle.

America is a nation of a single strand of great values, and our job, just like Lincoln, is to restore those values — to Make America Great Again.

Rev. Warnock speaks at campaign event — Melton/NYT (Dec. 2020)

Jaffa and Douglass both understand the perilous moment of now perhaps better than any other set of thinkers; Douglass because he lived through it before, and Jaffa because he helped create it. In fact, they provide an analysis that seems similar; they both would see the insurrection on January 6th as an expression of the American Virtue.

Douglass would argue that those who stormed the Capitol were, in a way, fundamentally right about the nature of America. When they chant, “Whose House? Our House!”, in many ways they are right, they are reclaiming The People’s House, or, more accurately; The White People’s House. On January 6th, we saw The Soul of A Nation. As Black hope rises, like it did with the election of Georgia’s first Black senator, white supremacy comes to crush it. As Ta-Nehisi Coates, perhaps our most prominent interpreter of Douglass today, puts it:

January 6th not only was an expression of the worst of the American Virtue, but yet another example of the power in the great American rope; the power that some strands of the rope hold over the entire American project.

On the other hand, Jaffa and the West Coast Straussians would see January 6th as a restoration, or even a reclamation or expression, of our values. In fact, the insurrectionists are fundamentally part of the West Coast Straussian tradition, they have just co-opted Lincoln. January 6th is the greatest expression of their intended restoration, or perhaps, restriction. It is part of the great culture war to restore the natural right and immutable standard of justice of the constitution. When a sitting US Senator says that he did not feel threatened by the insurrectionists, it is not just a political statement. To Douglass, Senator Johnson is an agent of Slave Power, and thus has nothing to fear from its expression; to Jaffa, Johnson is agent of the restoration of our values, and thus is ushering in the insurrectionists (quite literally in Senator Hawley’s case) for a restoration of single, fundamentally good strand. Jaffa, and Senator Johnson have thus internalized the idea that

President Obama with Ruby Bridges (2011) in front of Norman Rockwell’s “The Problem We All Live With” (1964)
President Obama with Ruby Bridges (2011) in front of Norman Rockwell’s “The Problem We All Live With” (1964)

But we must seek to understand these two narratives not only as two analytical models for today; but as two models for what binds the American Rope together. A deeper understanding of the forces of their philosophical models reveals that they fundamentally cannot coexist. Looking beyond their analysis of a single event or the narrative rhetoric they may employ, reveals the diametric conflict between these two models.

In fact, it is dangerous to equate Douglass and Jaffa because fundamental to Jaffa’s political philosophy is a restoration of the very values that Douglass condemns. Douglass uses the rhetoric of a “your” America, which he seeks to extend, and that we face a similar challenge to the Revolution. Douglass’s argument, even though he may use the language of a restoration, is about expansion and progress to extend prosperity to all. Douglass uses the rhetoric of restoration to put forth the ideals of progress and pragmatism. To Douglass, the forces that bind us together as a nation; those of White Supremacy or Slave Power are exactly what tear us apart. He argues, in essence, that we should build dual-power through individual advocacy and state power, to create powerful movements to better our condition. This is a fundamental transformation of the American state, which he describes as a restoration of some lost ideal of American democracy.

Jaffa and the West Coast Straussians, on the other hand, are fundamentally making an argument of restriction. Just as the insurrectionists sought to restrict the Black franchise, the West Coast Straussians seek to restrict the modernity and progress of a nation to restore us to an absolute standard. This is also what makes their references to Lincoln a contradiction. Lincoln fundamentally represents an expansion and movement of progress, even though he may use the rhetoric of restoration, just like Douglass.

This thus reveals why modern race discourse is an enemy of the West Coast Straussians. To accept systemic racism (or as they call it “group rights”) is to accept not only that our founding virtues were fundamentally flawed, but that there exist forces larger than the virtue of the individual that govern much of this nation

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez speaks to a crowd of supporters for Sen. Bernie Sanders during a campaign rally on Oct. 19 in New York City.
AOC speaks at campaign event — Eisele/Getty Images (Oct. 2019)

But then the very premise of a narrative at all comes into question, especially if what matters is what lies beneath. The question must be asked, is it even useful to create one narrative about who America is, what America is, and what binds us together? Some analyses may be more cogent or applicable than others, but, at some level, any analysis will inherently leave someone, something out. But we may not have a choice about declaring what America is.

We need to create national narratives, not only as an academic exercise, but as a recognition of the power that national narratives hold.

This is a power that the West Coast Straussians recognize; a core part of their narrative is one of Noble Lies. Dr. Shadia Drury makes the point that Straussianism, especially West Coast Straussianism has always been about a Platonic Noble Lie to promote the ideas and ideals they view as good or just. Their ideals are just as contrived as the pragmatists and liberals they abhor. Much like the Puritans before them, they are using the language of the absolute to lend credence to the relative.

The point of a West Coast Straussian essay like “The Flight 93 Election” is not just to provide a narrative description of the forces that bind us together, it is to create a narrative, regardless of its truth. This power can be used to quite literally mold, shape, and create a nation, and it is the rhetoric of the Great State Narrative and restoration that Douglass, and Lincoln too, use to push for expansionary change. The power inherent in a compelling narrative requires us to build a more accurate depiction or face losing to a more insidious narrative.

How then do we make changes within that system? Must we then always appeal to the Great State Narrative? Its institutional inertia in the American project is so powerful that it is used not only cynically by the West Coast Straussians but with fundamentally modern politicians like Joe Biden when he calls for the restoration of The Soul of A Nation.

But we need not use the rhetoric of the Great State Narrative, even for expansionary ends. If we do, we only promote that same Noble Lie that precludes us from the reconciliation we so desperately need by obfuscating the parts of the American Virtue that must be confronted.

Our duty then is to craft a Composite Nationality that recognizes not only narrative’s power in telling our collective story, but in shaping our future.

It never was the People’s house, the People’s city; unless the People were white, unless the People didn’t believe in the basic dignity of others. This seems like a fundamentally pessimistic view of America, but to accept it, like Douglass does, is to also argue that America is also a nation of Modernity and Progress. We can move beyond the moment of now, not by capitulating to dangerous fundamentalist narratives, but by accepting the constructed nature of narratives to build those that encourage progress and justice.

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