Hello again, my friends.
We Americans live in a dazzling variety of circumstances. Not merely geographical locales, with which our nation is blessed by a fantastic range, but instead our domiciles. We live in glittering hi-rises, humble trailer parks, the ‘single-family’ home, the rental apartment, the mobile home, RVs, cabins in the woods, the ‘Projects’, stately mansions and tarps under bridge abutments. We live in the widest variety of domestic situations ever before seen in human history.
We tell ourselves that one thing unites us all; that we are ALL Americans (well, mostly . . .) And on the face of it that statement is accurate in that each of us is a citizen- of an America. But we all do not live in the SAME America. Because while geographically the ‘United States’ is one nation, economically and even legally there are three Americas.
I’ve written here before about the three rough socio-economic groupings in our nation and why they differ in many ways from the socio-economic or ‘class’ structures in other ‘Western’ nations. It’s a difference glossed over in our history education, news media, and national conversations. It’s embarrassing to many of the citizens of two of our Americas, while the citizens of the third one, although having spoken out about it for centuries, have until now rarely been heard in earnest.
Without diving too deeply into the nature of the social media revolution of the past decade, it has put the existence of the three ‘Americas’, if not in those terms, front-and-center in our national debate over our identity; or more importantly, our identities, plural. Albeit represented and served by the very same governmental organs, the experience of living here is itself breath-takingly different depending upon which America one is a citizen of.
Because, despite the letter of the law (and in some cases because of it!) there are marked differences in how a person gets treated from America to America. Differences in legal protection and representation, medical care, education, treatment by law enforcement and social services, even transportation and available foodstuffs. The national narrative says that all of these differences are the unavoidable result of economics; that the money available to each citizen is the sole determinant of one’s quality of life.
In the words of Nobel-Prize winning physicist Wolfgang Pauli, ‘that is not only not right; it is not even wrong‘ (italics mine). Income and to a more subtle but even greater extent wealth is the primary determinant of the services and treatment available to each citizen; this I cannot deny. It is the way that income is obtained and MUCH more importantly how wealth is attained and maintained that delineates the fundamental difference between the three Americas.
This distribution of income and more importantly wealth is NOT a geographical function, though it sorts geographically to an extent. It is driven by something subtle and not immediately apparent, a fundamental feature of the structure of the socio-economic engine that has obtained in the (geographical) America for four centuries and is wholly unique to it.
I have also written about narratives and their central importance to human societies elsewhere in these blogs. For the purposes of my discussion today, a ‘narrative’ is an encapsulation of the ideals and explanations a culture uses to define its primary features and social relationships. It is NOT a factual argument, though it may contain ‘facts’ in the same way a blueberry muffin has blueberries in it but does not consist wholly of blueberries. Instead, it is a fiction that a society tells itself to justify its existence and activities; in Corporate lingo it is a ‘mission statement’.
Two of the Americas share a lot of the same content (factual or otherwise) in their narratives, though each cast in subtly different ways to explain and justify their existence as well as that of the other two Americas. Their ‘mission statements’, although similar in that each stresses the maintenance and furtherance of their America ‘for the good of all’, also differ on one subtle though important point.
The ‘First’ America, consisting of 1% of the population but collectively holding half of the nation’s wealth, stresses a false egalitarianism; ‘anyone can get rich if they WORK hard enough’ is a popular statement in their narrative. The actual ‘understood’ truth behind it- the mission- is ‘use whatever means are necessary to maintain wealth and obtain as much more of it as physically (not necessarily legally or morally) possible’. It has served them well for the past four centuries, and in that it is not any different than the narrative of any other oligarchy or aristocracy in the past 6,000 or so years of human history. It is immediately understandable by any student of history, economics, or sociology.
The ‘Second’ America, which consists of half the population and collectively holds 40% of the nation’s total wealth, stresses the same false egalitarianism of the ‘First’ America though necessarily casts it slightly differently; ‘if you just work hard and make sure that WE retain political supremacy over everyone under us, we’ll be able to keep everything our ancestors had’. There is a strong identification with and support of the citizens of the ‘First’ America and the maintenance of the status quo, though economically and culturally the ‘Second’ America has much more in common with the ‘Third’ America than the ‘First’. The identification of the ‘Second’ America with the ‘First’ has been emphasized for centuries, and not by accident because it is a basic feature of the socio-economic structure of this nation, and has been since long before it became a ‘nation’ de jure.
(Full disclosure; I grew up as and am still a member of the ‘Second’ America, at least socio-economically- although I’ll let the reader decide where my ideological sympathies lay.)
The ‘Third’ America consists of everyone else living within the geographical area of the United States. It has ten percent of the collective wealth but half of the population, with perhaps 20 million of them not US citizens or even legal residents. The Third America includes Native Americans, immigrants of whatever ‘legal’ status, people of color, women of any ‘color’, LGBTQ+ people, prisoners, and the homeless. Most of them, though, would still be counted as ‘white’ on a Census form. Note that I did not say that ALL people of the ‘non-white’ categories listed above are in this ‘Third’ America. Those categories are not indicative of membership but are still strongly statistically represented to the point that being one (or more) of those ‘non-white’ categories gives a much better than ‘random’ chance of being in the ‘Third’ America; just as nearly all citizens of the ‘First America’ are white males (or dependents of one) while white males also make up the greater proportion of the ‘Second’ America.
This is where the awesome and abiding ‘power of narrative’ comes into the picture. The ‘First’ and ‘Second’ Americas have a strong narrative and sense of cohesion; the ‘First’ nearly monolithic in their support of their exceedingly simple ‘mission statement’ and the ‘Second’ still pretty solidly behind theirs (though not without dissent in the ranks). The ‘First’ America has maintained control over the economy and government for nearly four centuries, despite a Revolution and a Civil War and a Civil Rights Amendment and the rise of social media and a general undercurrent of dissatisfaction of the ‘Third’ America and some elements of the ‘Second’.
The ‘Third’ America unfortunately lacks a coherent narrative. Oh, there are dozens of narratives and identities in the Third America. Its members aren’t stupid and they are quite aware of what’s happening to them and why they are in the ‘Third’ America, but they have (as yet) no solid or wide-ranging narrative powerful enough to unify half of the population of the nation against the other two Americas. It’s that way on purpose; a feature and not a bug, managed assiduously by the First America using the fears of the Second America as part of their narrative. ‘Trickle-down economics’ is ridiculous and unworkable, but trickle-down cultural values and narratives work fantastically.
Social media, though currently used by the minions of the First America (they own Madison Avenue, after all!) to keep the Second America focused on the ‘danger’ of the Third America, may be the only hope of the Third America to gain some measure of social and economic justice. I don’t care which America you belong to, dear reader; the very fact that you have read this blog means that you’re THINKING about these topics. It transcends political ideologies and Party memberships, and it speaks to citizens of ALL of the Americas.
Keep striving, folks.