The Debate About What the 21st Century Will Look Like

I don’t often agree with David Brooks. But when it comes to the big picture of what is going on right now, he nailed it last Friday night during his discussion with Mark Shields on the PBS News Hour.

David Brooks: Steve Bannon has a theory about world history, and among them, that the post-world — post-World War II international order was a mistake and we should get rid of it. And Donald Trump sort of has that theory.

And no one has made the case for what was a bipartisan consensus in favor of that order, and in favor of a certain story of America, that we’re a country of immigrants, that we’re a country of the future, that we’re not a country and blood and soil.

And so Bannon and Trump have had the intellectual field to themselves, at least as far as elected officials have gone. And it’s true that neither Obama, Bush, or probably McCain are ever going to run for office again, but at least they’re making the case.

At least the counterargument is beginning to be made. And I think what’s occurring to a lot of people is that, first, we’re in a 50-year debate about what the 21st century — well, maybe an 83-year debate — about what the 21st century is going to look like, and it’s probably going to debate between some form of populism and some form of openness and diversity.

And so it’s occurring to people that they have to get involved in that debate.

And second, I think, as Steve Bannon has gone to pick off other Republicans, it’s become clear to a lot of people in the Republican Party, there’s no escaping this debate, that you can’t hide and hope you will get ignored and that Bannon will pass you over.

Mark Shields: Even in Wyoming.

David Brooks: Even in Wyoming. They’re coming after you…And so you might as well take a side. And so I think we’re finally beginning to see some two-sided debate out of this.

The words we use to describe the sides on this debate can be confusing. But there is a way in which “populism” lends itself to “nativism” or a kind of “nationalism” that is expressed in Trump’s “make America great again” slogan, which appeals to the mythological past that nostalgia voters pine for.

The truth is that this debate about the 21st century hasn’t been that salient up until recently when this country began to face the changes dictated by globalization and demographics. We all watched as Trump and his white supremacist friends defined those changes as a threat during the 2016 election.

Hillary Clinton had policies that she proposed to deal with the changes, but she never provided a definition about what is happening. In other words, the story Trump told about this country and what we are facing was the only one on the table. To the extent that Bernie Sanders told a story, it affirmed the one Trump was telling.

The biggest challenge Democrats face right now is the need to tell a story about America as a country of openness and diversity. For an example of what that sounds like, listen to what Obama said in Virginia last week starting at about 51:15 of this video.

He starts off telling his own story. While his father was from Kenya, his mother traces her lineage back to Jefferson Davis, the head of the Confederacy. Imagine that! The first African-American president of this union is a descendant of the man who fought to maintain slavery. That is the story of American because, as Obama said at the end of that clip, “America is a story of progress.” He expounded further on that theme in his speech at the 50th anniversary of the Selma March.

What greater expression of faith in the American experiment than this, what greater form of patriotism is there than the belief that America is not yet finished, that we are strong enough to be self-critical, that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals?

That’s why Selma is not some outlier in the American experience.  That’s why it’s not a museum or a static monument to behold from a distance.  It is instead the manifestation of a creed written into our founding documents:  “We the People…in order to form a more perfect union.”  “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

That is the story of America that Democrats must tell often and proudly. As we’ve seen in countless polls, voters tend to agree with Democrats overwhelmingly on the issues. But we are facing changes that are inevitable and have been defined as threatening. To the extent that people voted for Donald Trump, it was because he told a story that validated their fears. Democrats can counter that with a story of hope and determination.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.