Recently, I came across an unexpected item in an artsy and hip San Francisco store. It was a lapel pin shaped like the state of California. Laying among the store’s many quirky curios, the pin seemed to be a response to the American flag lapel that has become a symbol of national politics, a sartorial signifier of spiritual secession. If California is emblematic of the coastal resistance to Trump’s White House, this pin was a literal emblem of blue state anti-federalism. There were only three left in a dish that must once have contained dozens.
Conventional wisdom would see the California lapel pin as a symptom of ideological polarization. I suspect it symbolizes both much less and much more. Less, because Americans—whether in San Francisco or South Carolina—are not especially ideologically polarized. More, because we are deeply divided, not in terms of ideology or policy preferences, but in terms of how we conceive of and identify our political communities. Conventional wisdom notwithstanding, Americans are not especially ideologically polarized because most Americans are not especially ideologically committed. All, apart from a handful of professional theorists and propagandists, are ideologically eclectic, especially with respect to the stylized left-right ideological spectrum of partisan politics. Hence the need to complicate the assignment of stereotypical ideological views with endless hyphenations: the socially conservative-economically liberal rust-belt labor union member; the socially liberal-economically conservative Silicon-Valley venture capitalist.
Indeed, partisan divisions do not reflect coherent ideologies but rather contingent and opportunistic coalitions. There is no ideological logic that joins, for instance, environmental activism and support for an expanded welfare state, sexual liberation and support for organized labor, a commitment to conventional sexual morality and opposition to the regulation of firearms, resistance to immigration and opposition to abortion. Far from being ideologues, most Americans are a combination of pragmatic and sentimental. This makes for an eclectic, often unpredictable and occasionally volatile blend of ideas and commitments. In the pragmatic mode, Americans are results-oriented and impatient with abstractions, favoring the straightforward path to a goal and the uncomplicated solution to a problem. This explains the willingness of many voters to abandon the ideal of free trade for the expedient of punitive tariffs, to reject the ideal of a fiscal austerity and balanced budgets in favor of tax cuts and ballooning deficits, and to sacrifice the abstract and too-often unrealized virtues of market competition in favor of the directness of state-run universal health care. In the sentimental mode, Americans put affective satisfaction above practicality and conceptual or moral coherence, which is why the often maudlin character of conservative anti-abortion activism can coexist with callous disregard for human lives destroyed by poverty or cut short by unwarranted police violence—and why liberal sympathy for the homeless coexists with an adamant resistance to new housing construction.
Our polarization is not ideological in the sense of reflecting deep-seated and considered differences in policy preferences or true philosophical conviction; instead, it is largely imagined. This is not to say it is imaginary: What I mean rather is that Americans differ markedly in how they imagine the world, their affective communities, and their place in them. It is increasingly commonplace to remark that American politics resembles a team sports rivalry, with raucous rallies, mascot names (Bernie Bros v. Trump’s Deplorables), group colors (red and blue, of course), branded gear (the MAGA hat was, in retrospect, a masterstroke), and, most of all, extra-rational, emotional investments. But what accounts for these affiliations? In sports, the answer is usually a geographic or institutional affiliation, which we can imagine stands in for more substantive connections: I root for Stanford, the Giants, and the 49ers because I am a Stanford alumnus and Professor and I live in the San Francisco Bay Area. These connections join me in an imagined community with thousands of other people I have never met and know nothing about. To the extent I feel affinity for them, it is because I am given information—or what seems like information—about them indirectly, through media reports and through institutional rituals that encourage me to focus selectively on the traits that resonate with my own experience, and ignore what doesn’t appeal to me.
The same is true for national communities. The historian Benedict Anderson points out that European national consolidation in the 19th century involved the active creation of imagined communities. Nationalism taught people who were embedded in distinctive local customs and spoke disparate regional dialects that they were all citizens or subjects of a larger nation-state. It did so through the dissemination of maps that depicted the territory of the nation (today we can recognize the territory of California in a lapel pin as a direct consequence of this cartographic signaling), through national media that informed citizens of the affairs of state and events in distant parts of the nation, through museums that displayed artifacts of national significance, telling a story of the nation and creating the elements of a unified national culture, and through standardization of languages, which demoted quotidian regional dialects and elevated a formal, unified “mother tongue.” When the project was successful, the Patriot was born—someone with primary allegiance to the nation-state, not from self-interest and not even because of principled agreement with any given policy or governmental arrangement, but because the nation had become a constitutive force in personal identity. “My country, right or wrong” is an exaggerated version of this ideologically indifferent patriotism; a less extreme version is on display every time a citizen feels morally bound by laws or political processes he or she disagrees with.
Lawyers and political philosophers often suggest that a commitment to “the rule of law,” rights, or a specific political system defines national communities. For Americans, this might be a dedication to the Constitution, a Republican form of government, the Bill of Rights, or representative democracy. But most Americans are remarkably ignorant of these commitments. When the President claims an “absolute right” to control the Department of Justice or defy a Congressional subpoena, one needs to have a good sense of the importance of the separation of powers and the independence of administrative agencies operating within the Executive Branch to assess the claim. Few people have such knowledge, and absent this, most will accept an answer that corresponds to their partisan prejudices. Norms don’t determine loyalties; loyalties determine norms—a fact that Trump has aggressively exploited.
Worse yet for a national community based on shared political ideals, many Americans are ignorant of even well-established core ideological values and actually reject them when queried: For instance, numerous surveys demonstrate that many Americans do not know what the Bill of Rights consists of and oppose many of its specific provisions. Moreover, even where there is awareness of ideals and agreement on them in the abstract, because political ideals are abstract and vague, they are subject to multiple interpretations and profound differences in emphasis. Most Americans venerate “the Constitution,” but for some it stands for divided and limited government; for others, a progressive interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment guarantee of Equal Protection or rights of reproductive freedom; and for others still, a specific and controversial interpretation of the Second Amendment right to bear arms.
Widespread ignorance of institutional arrangements combined with multiple interpretations of—and in some cases outright opposition to—foundational political ideals suggest these cannot be what joins a nation. Instead, what unites is a more visceral sense of connection—one that, tragically, can include race in its most retrograde form, or culture in its more inclusive variations. A shared cultural imagination is the most promising alternative to an ideology of racial exclusion. Indeed, a long-standing strategy of racial justice—one which President Barack Obama epitomized—has been to replace racial solidarity with a sense of shared values, norms, sensibilities, and aesthetics. Sometimes, this strategy involves what some on the left now imprudently deride as “the politics of respectability:” For instance, civil rights protestors in the 1960s wore their Sunday best in order to confound racial stereotypes and signal that they shared the values and norms of American society. Other times, it involves evoking widely embraced multiracial cultural expressions such as jazz, which diplomats and the military have made into a global ambassador of American culture since World War I, or, more recently, hip-hop, as when Obama responded to an insult by brushing off his shoulder, a wry reference to a gesture popularized by Jay-Z. An obligatory citation here is the musical Hamilton, which reimagines the birth of America as a multiracial and multicultural story, centering the action in the quintessentially cosmopolitan city of New York instead of the more culturally provincial New England that features most prominently in conventional histories. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s New York City is the cradle of an imagined America, an alternative myth to that of the heartland or the frontier that still informs the worldview of many Americans.
One could, of course, dispute whether or not America has a shared culture, and if so what it consists in. But this is beside the point because no one ever encounters the totality of a national community—we experience only tiny, selected fractions of it, through our limited social and professional interactions and through the curated images of the press, the culture industries, and, increasingly (often disastrously), social media. As Anderson insists, national communities are to be judged, “not by their falsity or genuineness but by the style in which they are imagined.”
Of course, shared ideals and policy preferences matter, but they must always come clothed in the less abstract and less analytical garb of cultural and aesthetic practices that can inspire us to imagine a community we can never really know or experience. This is more than propaganda; it is an indispensable part of any national project and no one serious about politics can afford to eschew it as trivial. Whether MAGA Hats, pussy hats, Sunday go-to-meeting suits, or Black Power Afros, symbols and images can unite or divide more effectively than any political philosophy or ideal. Liberals sneer at Trump’s Space Force uniforms or plans to promote neo-classical architecture to their peril—he understands the power of imagined community better than anyone currently in national politics, and his mastery in this respect may well outweigh his profound faults and misdeeds on election day. Our current division is not ideological; it is imagined. That does not make it any less consequential, but it does suggest that the way to heal it lies as much in the domain of the symbolic and expressive as in the world of principle and policy.