Americans are a people of paradox. For any claim about “the American character,” there is always abundant evidence of its opposite. U.S. history does not merely demonstrate opposing qualities flourishing side by side, as if these opposites appeared at random. Rather, the nation’s history has been marked by so much paradox because seemingly opposite historical processes have so often evoked and then either reinforced or undermined each other. Certainly the two great mythologies have simultaneously evoked, reinforced, and undermined each other.
Consider one especially important example: The demand for a clearly defined frontier separating the safety of America from the danger beyond — civilized order from chaotic savagery — is as central to the one mythology as to the other. Every effort to push back the frontier and tame the wilderness can enact the mythology of hope and change. At the same time, though, it is bound to reinforce the image of whatever lies beyond the frontier as a threat, which must be confronted with resolute will and a use, or at least a show, of force. Every such confrontation, in turn, further reinforces the sense of threat, which demands a more strongly fortified frontier and more readiness to defend it. So it makes the mythology of homeland insecurity seem more credible, and perhaps inevitable.
The more threatening the forces beyond the frontier seem to be, though, the more logical it is to summon up hope and try harder to push back the frontier, to mitigate or even eliminate the perceived peril. So the cycle begins again. As long as the American project of moving westward and into the future is defined as a project of overcoming threats to the homeland, bolstered by promises that the project is bound to succeed, the cycle is bound to go on forever.
This pattern would hold true whether the two mythologies have always had roughly equal weight in American culture or whether hope and change once outweighed homeland insecurity. Which of those two alternative views is more accurate? It’s a question that can never be answered quantitatively. Historians will each have to make their own subjective judgment.
But even if, as the popular belief assumes, hope and change was traditionally THE distinctively American mythology, it seems clear that, by the early 1940s, the tables had turned: The mythology of homeland insecurity became the dominant narrative shaping American political life. And it arose, ironically, because Franklin D. Roosevelt worked so effectively to see his own liberal internationalist version of the mythology of hope and change turned into government policy.
Since then, change has come to seem more dangerous than promising. Insecurity about change has eclipsed the embrace of change as the dominant characteristic of American political culture. The American project has become one of preventing fundamental change more than promoting it.
There are other, less obvious, differences between the two mythologies. While the mythology of hope and change is riddled with internal paradoxes and inconsistencies, the mythology of homeland insecurity is noticeably more consistent in its internal logic — except for its one huge inconsistency: Whenever security becomes the highest priority (and, as might be said of post-World War II America, an obsession) it is bound to foster growing insecurity, in a vicious downward spiral.
Moreover, the mythology of hope and change is based on claims about the future, which can never be empirically verified in the present. The mythology of homeland insecurity, on the other the hand, is based on a supposedly factual claim of danger in the present. Of course, like every myth, this story carries its own criteria of what can count as empirical fact; it cannot be falsified as long as one’s perceptions remain within the framework it creates. Again, there is no escape from the insecurity that the mythology breeds.
But a nation like the United States, with a relatively undefined and unstable sense of national identity, may very well be willing to pay the price of insecurity in exchange of a powerful sense of certainty. And this may go far to explain why the mythology of homeland insecurity has become preeminent in the last three-quarters of a century. Since the sense of certainty comes largely from the contrast between “us” and the “other,” the more stark that contrast the stronger the certainty. The mythology of hope and change opens up the possibility that there may well be positive values in the wilderness beyond the border, which somewhat mitigates the contrast. The mythology of national insecurity, by denying that possibility of positive values, makes the contrast between “us” and “other” absolute.
Of course the national insecurity narrative also rose to and retained preeminence in part because it has been so vigorously promoted by elite figures to generate popular support for their liberal internationalist policies and goals. Those goals are rarely articulated openly, because they would be so controversial among the public at large. It is much more politically effective to wrap the goals in a proverbial (and sometimes literal) flag that must be protected against all enemies, foreign and domestic.
The claim that homeland insecurity clearly dominates the cultural landscape may seem counter-intuitive, because political candidates of every ideological stripe, even the most conservative, often have great electoral success by promising the voters “change.” That’s usually taken as evidence that American voters always want or endorse change, which suggests the continuing preeminence of the mythology of hope and change.
But the success of conservative candidates who trade on the word change suggests a rather different picture: The change many voters want is often merely an escape from the present conditions, which are often felt to be unfavorable precisely because it seems that things are changing too rapidly, leaving the present unfamiliar, unsettling, and seemingly out of control. Candidates’ promises of change are most often (and most obviously among conservatives) promises to change things back to the way many voters imagine things once were: settled, secure, and impervious to fundamental change.
The popularity of the call for change becomes quite understandable when we recognize how time and space coincide in the national mythology. The frontier is not only an imagined geographical line separating civilization from wilderness but an imagined temporal line separating past and present from future. The future, being inherently unpredictable, readily becomes synonymous with the uncharted wilderness, which seems so inherently dangerous. The past, on the other hand, becomes synonymous with the old, civilized territory. Thus it seems inherently familiar, reassuring, and safe.
One of the most effective ways to reassure voters that they are safe, because nothing fundamental has changed, is to use the oldest, most familiar language in the nation’s mythic lexicon. So politicians of all stripes, even the most conservative, constantly use the language of hope and change. And it’s little wonder that they have so much success with it. Their call for change is actually, most often, a call to stand firmly against fundamental change, to restore an America that (supposedly) used to be.
Elite figures are usually happy to endorse this language and have voters opt for a “back to the future” kind of change. Their own fortunes (political, financial, and otherwise) are largely invested in the status quo that has made them successful. And they generally support liberal internationalist policies. Although anti-interventionist tendencies (often labeled “isolationist”) are always present among a substantial number of Americans, the dominant cultural trend since the 1940s has supported U.S. engagement around the world to promote positive change. But “positive” change is defined, in effect, as change that serves to protect Americans against the threat of fundamental change in their own lives. And that protection is at the root of the liberal internationalist project of a single, global, democratic capitalist system.
By appealing to the supposed virtues of life in an earlier era, though, this contemporary usage of the “hope and change” story undermines the meaning and power of the word change. The old idea that America is the quintessential land of progress, optimism about the future, and even millennialism can no longer be assumed or perhaps even taken seriously. So the traditional foundations of American identity are called into question and begin to quiver. At the same time, the old language still receives plenty of lip service. So it continues to raise the specter of real change and all the anxieties it brings — the very anxieties that old, familiar myths are supposed to allay. As a result, the narrative of national insecurity comes to seem, more and more, the story that best fits the facts of American life.
Because the language national insecurity is so often intertwined with the language of hope and change, it is easy to miss the profound change in mythology that has taken place since the 1940s. It is easy to miss that change, too, because the two mythologies are so often acted out in the same concrete behaviors and policies, which the discourse legitimates. The more the two are intertwined in the nation’s political culture, though, the stronger is the ultimate effect of their paradoxical interaction: Every effort to promote positive change underscores the fear of change and thus promotes the sense of national insecurity, which undermines whatever real power remains in the myth of hope and change.
Yet another reason it is so easy to miss the great transformation in American political culture is that no one talks about it. Why scholars have overlooked this shift is a question that remains to be answered. It is easier to see why elites have good reason to keep it out of the public discourse: The old narrative of hope and change continues to serve their purposes well, and they don’t want to see the ideological foundations of liberal internationalism become a matter of public debate.
The general public has just as much reason to avoid directly facing the triumph of national insecurity: It is no doubt disturbing, discouraging, and frustrating to live in a society so suffused with insecurity. No one likes the feeling of living without hope. Denial obviously has its advantages.
Of course there is no denying the widespread sense that America is “on the wrong track,” as the pollsters put it. Since about 2005, it at least two-thirds of all Americans have told the pollsters they agree with that pessimistic assessment. If the pessimism is not attributed to a pervasive mythology of insecurity, then some other factors must be invoked to take the blame.
Once again, the two great mythologies work together to offer the solution, since both lead to the same conclusion: Some evil “other” must be responsible for the loss of hope. Of course the name of the “other” continues to change and the list of potential candidates remains endless. But wherever and whenever the finger of blame is pointed, the result is the same. It creates new supposed “evidence” to support the mythology of national insecurity; that mythology seems more than ever an accurate description of reality; the sense of threat it breeds grows stronger; and the nation becomes locked more firmly into the vicious spiral of insecurity.