Conventional wisdom declares that the United States is a superpower in decline. After ascending to global preeminence over its first two centuries and briefly leading a unipolar world following the fall of communism, the nation that has traditionally regarded itself as the world’s foremost vanguard and expositor of western ideals has watched its relative economic and military superiority diminish as emerging power blocs have carved out space on the international stage. Perhaps more alarmingly, the enlightenment values that comprise the ideological bedrock of the American order—namely liberalism, democracy, and capitalism—seem to be embattled not only abroad, but increasingly within the American domestic sphere as well. An aging, inept, and plutocratic political establishment seeks to expand the imperial frontiers under the aegis of the old Wilsonian liberal internationalism even while it attempts to ward off the gathering storm of a thoroughly-disenchanted populism on the home front. If America can no longer convince itself of its ideological vision, how can it hope to convince the rest of the world?
But what if, Bruno Maçães suggests, we are not witnessing the death rattle of American civilization—its perpetually-ballyhooed Roman implosion—but the birth pangs of its most original, vibrant, and authentic manifestation? What if America is not wilting on the vine, but merely shedding its faux-European cocoon and embracing, after two and a half centuries of adolescent tutelage, a more vital, self-generated, and organic way of being? What if such homegrown visionaries as Whitman and Emerson saw further than prosaic Eurocentrics like Tocqueville when they perceived America not as the terminus of an old and alien civilization, but rather as the seedbed in which a new organism was germinating that would inevitably break through its European veneer?
For Tocqueville, America represented the end stage of European liberalism. Because its political order had been crafted for a new people in a virgin environment, free from Europe’s centuries of cultural sedimentation, its founders had produced at a stroke the type of society towards which Europe was shuffling with a halting gait. A native of the nineteenth century, Tocqueville inhabited a world in which European political culture and civilization itself were taken to be synonymous. Tocqueville and most of his contemporaries could only understand America in relation to the European paradigm.
This ideological Eurocentrism was vindicated to some degree by the continent’s unparalleled geopolitical supremacy. Throughout most of the nineteenth century, the United States relied heavily upon European investment. It participated in a system of international trade regulated by the British Empire, and made secondhand use of European writings in its intellectual discourse. The “Cotton Kingdom” of the American south was so closely intertwined with the British economy that some have described the American Civil War as a second war of independence; an effort to actualize and harden the formal separation between the British and American realms.
In a prose poem titled Democratic Vistas, published in 1871, Whitman could still lament the paucity of indigenously American cultural products. “We see the sons and daughters of the New World, ignorant of its genius, not yet inaugurating the native, the universal and the near, still importing the distant, the partial, and the dead[…]where, on her own soil, do we see, in any faithful, highest, proud expression, America herself?”
Near the end of the nineteenth century, Whitman’s lonely prayers began to be answered. In the realm of statecraft, the United States was stepping onto the world stage. The American economy surpassed its British counterpart in size in 1893, and the nation began to demonstrate its imperial clout with a successful intervention in the Boxer Rebellion and a spectacular victory over Spain. The intellectual counterpart to this emergent chauvinism was William James, who Maçães considers the foremost prophet of the new American civilization. A founder of American pragmatism—his nation’s singular contribution to philosophy—James argued that truth cannot be conceived of as an external, disembodied reality, holding its validity in itself and needless of human experience. Instead, truth is a creature of utility. Truth is constituted by whatever augments human life and facilitates the achievement of human purpose. What’s true is what is useful for the truth-seeking agent, and nothing more. Since truth is borne out in lived experience, and experience is constantly expanding and adapting, truth itself evolves: “reality genuinely grows”. Because experience is only manifested over time and remains a cohesive whole from one moment to the next, the experiential truth of pragmatism can only be comprehended as a narrative. Whatever makes for a good story is reality.
James both recapitulated American history and articulated the nation’s essential mythos—just as its new civilization was finally self-actualizing. In the twentieth century, America discovered what it had always been: a movement to fuse reality and fantasy. Whereas Europeans believe in the objectivity of truth, and the disparate socio-political elements of their societies engage in an effort to uncover it for the education and improvement of the collective, Americans flee from conventional realities and create new ones. Rather than attempting to reform the Anglican Church from within through the persuasions of argument or martyrdom, the Pilgrims fled into a virtual space in which they were new Israelites undertaking a new Exodus. When Americans grew weary of inhabiting the truths of the cosmopolitan east, they spun out new imaginary worlds in the west.
The foundation of the American genius is what Maçães calls the “principle of unreality”. While Europe trades in facts and arguments, America trades in stories. While European liberalism proselytizes the paradox of an objective and universal relativism, deconstructing the narratives of religion, race, and nationality, America’s “post-truth” worldview acknowledges the subjectivity of narrative identities but then embraces them all the more on account of that subjectivity. While Europeans subordinate ideology to supposedly neutral procedures devoid of metaphysical substance, Americans accommodate a “society of stories”, encouraging the proliferation of simulated realities—even when they contradict one another, since pragmatic truths become no less true when they’re mutually exclusive—and demanding only that the inhabitants of each world refrain from asserting that their reality is true for everyone. While Europeans occupy a shared reality, Americans sequester themselves in a limitless array of vivid and sophisticated fictions.
When one understands that the American project is to replace the real with the artificial—to escape from reality into story—the American cultural idiosyncrasies that have exasperated Europeans for generations become more intelligible. Americans are conspicuously religious compared to their European counterparts, but they view religion not as a set of propositions about the nature of reality that one can either accept or deny, but rather as a means of intensifying their lives and endowing them with narrative power. They own firearms not out of paranoia, but because they like to imagine themselves as action movie heroes or minutemen awaiting a new Lexington and Concord. They support capital punishment not out of wanton cruelty or cultural primitivity, but because when someone commits a heinous crime, his own death is the appropriate end of the narrative arc. Their culture wars and their agonies over political correctness have little to do with the practical effects of these things on American lives, and much to do with the stories America tells itself about itself.
Disneyland is a fitting symbol for the American ambition; it represents the attempt to instantiate fantasy worlds in physical space. The artificial realms of television are not merely windows into American life, but are themselves part of its fabric. American civilization promises an infinite variety of life-ways that may be experienced with the utmost earnestness and intensity, but are also safely insulated from real consequences. One may hop between virtual worlds as easily as one changes channels. The internet is merely an intensification of the televisual society; it facilitates an infinite proliferation of “channels” of reality, and it compels its users not simply to be but to act in order to maintain an online “presence”; and this presence is enacted primarily through the vehicle of the profile: a self-curated “narrative” personality. Every user is a character in his own drama.
One might get the impression that Maçães is a critic of American culture and its attachment to unreality, but in fact he gently encourages the United States to incorporate its novel social premises more fully. There is something to be said for unreality; or rather, there is much to be said against reality. Namely, it sucks and it’s often boring.
He closes with an exposition on how America might order its international relationships in accordance with its post-truth ideology. The most fundamental geopolitical aim of the United States since the late nineteenth century has been to prevent any single power bloc from dominating the Eurasian landmass. It successfully prevented the political partition of China between the European powers in 1900, foiling Europe’s bid for Eurasian hegemony. It fought an expansionist Germany and Japan, encouraged the dismantling of the British Empire, and pursued a policy of containment towards the Soviet Union; all variable service to the same end. China is the newest contender for Eurasian supremacy, drawing Europe and Central Asia into its economic orbit. But any anti-Chinese coalition will have to include illiberal parties, like Russia, and will have to accommodate a wide variety of disparate cultures and ideologies.
America must play the same role in the world that the unreality principle plays in its domestic life. It must accept, or even encourage, a vast array of alternative political systems among its strategic partners, even when they cut directly against American values. The task of American foreign policy is to make the world safe for the United States without trying to turn it into the United States. The wars in Vietnam and Iraq were prosecuted under a whiggish European assumption that the destiny of all nations was to progress towards an objectively valid end state. A properly American foreign policy will incorporate many national truths and construct a compelling synthetic global order in which many actors may find their own place. The new America must not engage in evangelization, but in world building.