The Atlantic is probably one most dangerous publications in the United States at this dangerous moment in history.
This piece, by George Packer, is a perfect example of the rank nonsense publications like The Atlantic pumps into the American media landscape.
To understand American media, you have to remember that virtually all American media aside is funded through subscriptions and/or advertising.
The business model of any American news organization depends on churning out eyeball attracting content. There are few exceptions — writers generally feed audiences stories that will feed their desire to read things they agree with.
The Atlantic is one of those that seeks to attract elite eyeballs — that is, it deliberately sells stories from the perspective of a self-appointed group of Americans who feel personally responsible for the country.
To write for the magazine, one has to have the right sort of credentials and also be willing to push the correct story about America.
This is a story of a flawed but unique nation filled by an equally flawed but unique people permanently joined by social bonds that may fray, but can never be dissolved. America, these writers instruct us to believe, is the most important country in the world and the hinge upon which democracy turns.
This is a brutal lie and a horrific insult to people living in the many more democratic countries of the world. But it is a powerful lie, justifying the inherited power of a group of Americans who believe they have a right to rule the rest of us.
It is an indirect sort of rule, to be sure — but it is rule nevertheless.
Since the end of the Second World War, a clique of well-connected, wealthy people has dominated the halls of power in Washington D.C. They have sold myths to Americans for 80 years to keep them united in fear of some threat — Fascism, then Communism, then Terrorism.
All the while the country has slowly disintegrated, its economic growth numbers manipulated to obscure the fact that virtually all the wealth the country has accumulated since the 1960s has flowed into the hands of a lucky few. The rest of the country has been hollowed out by the predatory style American capitalism backed by government support — with publications like The Atlantic making excuses for the excesses of the powerful week after week.
Packer is one of those American nationalists who has spent his career selling the poisonous myth of America, and in the above piece — a book excerpt, because these writers are always hawking their books — he divides the country into four groups.
These are “Free,” “Real,” “Smart,” and “Just.” And they live in mutually irreconcilable worlds defined by the kind of world they grew up in. Free Americans are libertarian-oriented pro-market types. Real Americans are evangelical Christians. Smart Americans are educated and hard-working, therefore well-off. And Just Americans are young and educated but obsessed with justice and equality.
It isn’t a bad split if you have to make one for the sake of analysis — and that’s the Atlantic’s dirty little secret. Its editors love to cultivate and publish articles that seem like they are taking an even, unbiased view of the topic, but in fact hide a deceptive argument designed to make the writer’s position — that America can’t ever be divided — difficult to disagree with.
Packer essentially describes an America splitting into four, spending the bulk of his piece describing how it happened over the past few generations. Which is true enough.
But his conclusion — and conclusions are where Atlantic pieces always reveal the fact that they are just navel-gazing think pieces meant for elites — is that despite this fragmentation, America is a perpetual creation that will always exist no matter what happens.
As the country — like so many before, for incredibly banal and simple scientific reasons in most cases — begins to fling apart, a new conventional wisdom is descending upon American elites. It shows up clearly in Packer’s article, and I saw another version of it repeated by Damon Linker in The Week:
Americans of all stripes live side by side, so an American Divorce isn’t possible. We’re stuck together as if this is a Catholic country, until death do us part.
Which is simply nonsense written by old white men who cannot comprehend the possibility that their world is going to die — as are they, sooner or later, no matter how much they pretend otherwise.
Nothing lasts forever. And the will of the people is what binds a nation together for as long as it does, not myths and legends, as much as we might wish otherwise.
People in America who consider themselves “thought leaders” and write for others of their class are caught up in a kind of religious obsession with a country they were taught in school to think is blessed by God. So much so that they would rather people be forced to live in this dystopian nightmare forever than give up the myth that America is or can ever be a united nation.
It is precisely this failure to understand that the country has always been fragile that will tear it apart.
The truth is that Americans are deeply divided. This is a basic reality of living in a continent-spanning federation of fifty states grouped into regions that each have their own history and culture.
But national publications are desperate to paper over these divisions and prevent the country’s political system from adapting because they have long enjoyed a position of power under the status quo. This power is tied to their ability to access political and celebrity figures to do interviews that produce eye-catching headlines.
As the United States falls deeper into terminal crisis, these publications are mobilizing to do what they always try to do: sell narratives to their readers that lead them to a preordained conclusion.
No matter how dire the situation becomes, these writers will try to convince readers that there is no alternative to the status quo. They might warn of dangers or decry certain figures or shift the tone on a few articles to try and appear open-minded, but the conclusion will always be the same.
Writers for nationalist outlets like The Atlantic — which actively supported the disastrous Iraq War, a nightmare partially responsible for the ongoing dissolution of the nation — are desperate to make readers believe that national unity comes before all else.
The actual breakup of America is something they can’t comprehend for a simple reason: they don’t care what America becomes so long as the federal government remains paramount.
Many publications, The Atlantic included, are publishing articles warning of the collapse of American democracy.
But what is notable is that they never talk about what happens after.
This is because no matter what happens, no matter if an outright American Nazi party seizes power, America’s elites will go full-on Vichy. They will tolerate a descent into fascism so long as America’s unity is preserved, regardless of the cost — just like most of France did when Hitler came in 1940.
The exceptions were nationalist conservatives like Charles de Gaulle and the French left, which formed the core of the resistance to Nazi rule.
Sadly ultimately, America’s liberal and conservative elites are only about the power: they live or die based on their ability to control the formal legal institutions of the nation.
When American elites talk about democracy, it is important to always remember that they don’t mean real Democracy. They mean American Democracy, what they call the Republic, imitating Rome as they love to do.
Their greatest power lies in the ability to convince the majority of Americans — whose authority-obsessed education leaves them woefully incapable of questioning the legitimacy of elite pronouncements — that the essence of democracy is simply following a set of rules.
Democracy in their vision is not about the will of the people, but simple adherence to a set of written procedures that in and of themselves are supposed to constitute a democratic system. Populism is dangerous because it asserts the will of the majority (which is never the elite) and not the will of the powerful.
This kind of rank legalism is what American Liberalism has degenerated into. Ultimately, if either the Republicans or Democrats are able to successfully rig the rules of the game in their favor, writers at The Atlantic will preach submission because the eternal nation subject to the State is what matters to their audience, not the basic human right to a government they freely elect.
What rankles most about the worldview espoused by writers like Packer is their presentation of their philosophy as inherently correct. If you bother to read the piece, note how by the time he gets to describing the “Just America” category how openly denigrating his language becomes. People on the right they respect as ideological equals, even if they decry their beliefs. Those on the left are dangerous, because any new idea threatens to supplant the dead world Liberalism seeks to build.
Centrist moderate liberals absolutely loathe Progressives, even if they say nice things about them in public. They wrap themselves in the language of Black Lives Matter or MeToo just long enough to be able to lay claim of how critical ideas and issues are defined, then turn around and engage in paternalistic shaming of anyone who fails to toe the company line, calling them naive and self-harming.
The way many liberals are beginning to approach the concept of “Critical Theory” is illustrative. Packer and other men— oddly mirroring the stance of the most violent conservatives — are casting what is actually a scientific framework as if it is a new Marxism or Libertarianism.
Real Critical Theory — which Packer probably deliberately conflates with Postmodernism — is an attempt to examine social phenomena in an unbiased way. In other words, trying to understand people as they are.
It emerged during the 70’s as part of a broad pushback by applied researchers against the tendency of classic Liberalism — the “Enlightenment Values” people go on about without really understanding their meaning — to separate the world into distinct, permanent categories of things that can all be counted and catalogued by those with the right training.
These being the enlightened, who are produced through an education system that trains them in the proper canon of their specialty, including the important categories of things and the natural laws that connect them.
Liberalism divides people into races like black and white and assumes these categories are intrinsic to a person and have meaning. In part, because Europeans invented the ideology and that’s what European philosophers from the colonial days always did to justify why their society seemed so much more “advanced” than those they were conquering and enslaving.
It is in fact Liberal political theory — not Critical Theory, as Packer alleges — that believes black people are inferior to white. Only, instead of adopting the classical Conservative position that this is the will of God, Liberals argue that government is supposed to play the role of equalizer.
Critical Theory asks why people were split into ephemeral “races” in the first place and tries to show the process by which that happened and the dynamics keeping the situation in place. Packer completely misrepresents critical theory when he asserts it holds black people to be permanently subjugated by whites when this is his own hidden position, part of his preferred intellectual heritage.
The point of Critical Theory is to understand how equality can be promoted not through separating people into races and adjusting their life outcomes with paternalistic intervention, but by dismantling the persistent physical manifestations of racial discrimination.
Which, by the way, has nothing to do with the Liberal obsession with “white guilt” or whatever, but deliberate political, economic, and social reform that benefits everyone, whatever their race or creed.
Liberals hate talking about power relations the same way they hate talking about the realities of money and wealth because they tend to be powerful and wealthy. These days, it is a proven fact that it is disproportionately those with the privilege to earn the kind of degrees from the right sort of universities who get to write feature columns in esteemed publications.
Liberalism is just as obsessed with hierarchy and control as Conservatism, differing by offering a path to salvation in this life: education into proper Liberal values. Telling a Liberal that the education system itself is laden with structural bias and power relations is like telling a Conservative God is a woman and gay.
Appropriation of issues by Liberals is a depressing and routine event — every issue of importance to young people terrified by what is happening to our planet, from climate change to student loans to the decline of American democracy, gets co-opted by wise old white men bend on deciding how much progress the rest of us are allowed. Liberals are the ones who are determined to police language — and they positively adore dominating discussions about language, because that dis-empowers everyone who isn’t them.
It also makes it easy for them to relegate you to an object of scorn. If you question their worldview you get tagged with a nasty label and placed in somewhere in the hierarchy that in the Liberal world determines who gets listened to and how often. This is why Martin Luther King Jr. isn’t remembered by white people for his strident anti-militarism and anti-capitalism, but for being more peaceable than Malcolm X.
Americans face a stark choice in the coming decade: reform our system of government or fight over who gets to perpetually rig the game in D.C. It is no longer possible to reconcile every different group of Americans’ — and there are way more than four!) — vision of the Constitution and the role of government in their lives.
There are solutions to this problem — more or less, the federal government needs to be fundamentally restructured. Geography matters, it underpins both social and economic values, and pretending that people in Kansas should be governed by exactly the same laws as those in Hawai’i is a frankly silly undemocratic notion.
The reason why so many Republican states are restricting voting with the support of their people is because they fear a federal government controlled by urban cities destroying their way of life. It isn’t justified, but in a democracy you don’t get to decide what motivates people to support or oppose their elected officials.
In fact, it is trying to hold Red and Blue together that is driving the destruction of America’s democratic institutions. Failure to reform them has caused the majority to lose faith in them, and once that trust is gone you do not have a unified society or nation, but the social equivalent of a nuclear meltdown waiting to go critical.
Deep down, most people know and believe a breakup of the country is coming. Elitists on the left and right will try to pretend this is impossible until the last possible moment (and maybe not even then), but their own apocalyptic rhetoric about the state of American democracy implies they know the chances are growing.
Historic forces are at work, difficult to counteract (Turchin, who Packer references, is wrong about the reasons)— especially if you lack the right scientific training to understand the evolution of the system. A series of feedback loops no less real than those driving climate change have engaged and real social pressures are driving an age of fragmentation.
But a new meme is appearing in elite circles: America can’t break apart because Red and Blue Americans live right next to each other.
This is obviously true, but misses a critical point: democracy on some level always comes down to majority rule within some geographic area. And as any Liberal should know, America is a federal nation, comprised of semi-sovereign States with their own governments.
So when it fractures, just like in 1860 the natural point of separation will be at the state level. It is too often forgotten in the national narrative about the Civil War that there were plenty of pro-slavery votes in the Union, and anti-slavery voices in the South.
Several slave states like Delaware (Biden’s home state!) and Maryland remained in the Union, exempted from Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. A number of border states like Kentucky and Missouri tried to remain totally neutral. When a federation fractures, the states group together according to common values.
The vast majority of voters in most American states see themselves as either Red or Blue. And if you are a hard-right person who chooses to live in California or someone on the hard left who chooses Florida, clearly you don’t care that much about the values you claim to espouse because to some degree you’re voluntarily paying taxes to the government you hate.
And moving across state lines is incredibly easy. People do it all the time — in fact, for decades Americans have been segregating according to common values in the Big Sort.
Under the Constitution, States have an enormous degree of reserved power. The primacy of the federal government over the fifty states since the end of the Second World War is an aberration — the Civil War ended not only through the military defeat of the Confederacy, but also by the federal government more or less letting the former slave states establish Jim Crow.
The Civil War was about slavery, but that doesn’t mean the Union’s leaders actually cared about the slaves, so long as they weren’t called slaves anymore. Sympathy for Black Americans in the Union only went so far — preserving the unity of the states was more important.
This remains true of Liberals today, and why when large chunks of the United States slide into effective apartheid you can be sure publications like The Atlantic will be telling us all to vote Democrat in 2028 if we want to change the situation. They’ll revert to being the loyal opposition they always are, enabling the worst actions of the American right at the same time they cry “Resist!”
But times are changing, and faith in the federal government — in united America — is crashing at home and abroad.
Remember, in an election of historic importance, almost 1/3 of American voters didn’t turn out. The will to keep the nation together is gone from all but the lobbyist class. The result is an almost perfectly divided government that will probably spend the next three and a half years desperately trying to put humpty-dumpty back together again, possibly at the cost of a shooting war with China.
But at the state level, things look very different across most of the United States. As one example, Pacific America — California, Oregon, Washington, Hawai’i, and the Pacific Territories — voted overwhelmingly for Biden-Harris, 15.2 million to 8.75 million.
That is damn close to a 2:1 margin. If these states were not part of the United States, the Republican Party would have nearly won the popular vote across the rest of the country.
In Pacific America the GOP is on life support, unable to appeal to an increasingly Progressive electorate. All eight senators are Democrats. The House delegation is 63–15. All four governorships and state legislatures are Democrat-controlled.
Pacific America has over 53 million residents and a combined GDP of over $4 Trillion, making it one of the richest nations on Earth with an economy larger than Germany. We are America’s gateway to Asia. And we’re also the most progressive parts of the country, save maybe the Northeast.
If a future Scottish independence vote comes out better than 60–40 in favor or against, that will be considered an unassailable democratic mandate for separation from the United Kingdom — and Scotland has less than 10% the population of Pacific America.
In 2024, if partisan electoral changes do give the Republicans the Presidency, Pacific America would have every moral right and responsibility to seek autonomy or even separation from the rest.
And if the Democrats win again, you can bet the Republicans in the 30-odd states they control will be feeling exactly the same way.
When young Pacific Americans realize that the only reason we lack a functioning healthcare system, are saddled with debt, can’t house the homeless or enact sane gun laws is a broken federal government, the demand for autonomy will rise.
When they realize that a majority of their fellow Pacific Americans want universal healthcare, a Green New Deal, a foreign policy rooted in humanitarian ethics and true democracy, the idea of living under Red State apartheid will become unacceptable.
The Atlantic will be a relic of the past — it’ll stick around, decrying the loss of the America-that-was like a contemporary British tabloid mourning the end of their empire.
Hell, maybe they’ll get to replace Pacific America with the UK, the way things are going in Britain.
But if America’s rightward march continues, if the pent-up demands of a generation whose dreams have been successively crushed by War on Terror and Financial Collapse and Pandemic, make no mistake:
The Great American divorce is underway.
And trying to keep the warring spouses together under the same roof is a recipe for turning this already dysfunctional nuclear family into the realm of Mutually Assured Destruction.