Trumpian ethno-nationalism was probably the loudest political story of the past year, but in the long run it will probably not turn out to be the most important. The simmering, hazily defined anger standing in for Trump’s policy agenda gives it the distinct air of a rearguard action—his popularity is disturbing, and not to be underestimated, but it’s also not likely to set the trajectory of American politics in coming decades. Moreover, there’s another story that partly explains the desperate shriek of Trumpism and is far more consequential: the growing clout of a re-emergent black radicalism. This is the rare development capable of shifting the tectonic plates of American politics, and you are unlikely to find a better explanation of why than this brief but thorough piece by Aziz Rana in n+1.
Fueling the past year of protest, Rana writes, is the “fundamental paradox” of race in the United States today: “superficial equality amid widespread deprivation.” This paradox has refocused attention from individual bigotry to structural racism—and, crucially, to a venerable strain of American self-understanding that, according to radicals, has allowed that structural racism to persist. This is what Rana and others call the “creedal story”—a triumphant narrative which paints American history as, in Rana’s words, a “steady fulfillment” of the country’s egalitarian founding ideals. This optimistic self-understanding, by casting the country as a noble but incomplete achievement, privileges reform rather than revolution (as would befit a polity that was fundamentally rigged and rotten). In the same way, the creedal narrative encourages identification with the whole nation, discouraging separatist movements and radical challenges to the American self. Since the nineteenth century, these visions of liberty and solidarity—while never completely uncontested—have reigned supreme, buttressed powerfully by a story that convincingly (for many people) interprets America to itself.
All the more striking, then, is the signal failure of the creedal story to convince growing numbers of Americans that its reassuring narrative, and not the experiences of Ferguson, Baltimore, and Charleston, really captures the truth about their country. It rings hollow alongside what Rana calls “sustained institutional failures on race,” failures which undercut its signature promise of inevitable improvement. “More than anything else,” according to Rana, “creedal reform has been tied to the idea of the inevitability of racial progress. For more than half a century, the proof that American history has a particular direction has been grounded in claims about the overcoming of both slavery and segregation.”
Rana is absolutely right to identify inevitability as the key to the political significance of the creedal story, and to its crisis today. The creedal story can fend off the most radical challenges to Americans’ self-understanding only so long as it successfully delivers on its promise of progress—and failure to deliver such progress is likely to catalyze such a challenge, one that could do more to upend the dominant American self-understanding than at any time since at least the late ’60s. There is already disagreement about whether this is troubling or long overdue, but there’s little disagreement about whether it’s important.
Yet there is perhaps a further distinction to make within the creedal story, one that might complicate the corresponding portrait of radicalism. As Rana describes, the standard creedal narrative relies on the familiar presumption of inevitable progress, in which America improves, slowly but surely, by becoming more itself. But perhaps there could be another creedal story that replaces inevitable progress with protracted, uncertain political struggle. This narrative abandons the exculpatory use to which interpretations of America’s founding values are normally put—locating a radical imperative squarely within American history. Such a move wouldn’t comfort Americans by explaining how they are, day by day, inching towards their best selves; instead, it would discomfort them by unveiling ghastly hypocrisies and insisting that only intentional action can resolve them. The upshot of this story would be to insist upon the long, difficult work of politics.
Political work of this sort is seldom (if ever) done without relying, even implicitly, on shared traditions and history. Leftists normally greet that sort of thing with suspicion, a product of the right’s tendency to dress reactionary politics in historical garb. But selective misuse of history by conservatives is no reason to give up on building better narratives, or to forgo the considerable power that the most compelling stories have. A major achievement of Rana’s analysis is to show just how monumental the current challenge is for the creedal narrative—one that, in the end, it may well prove incapable of meeting. As Rana notes, “finding and defending” an alternative that is “similarly grounded in a strong political tradition” is both the “difficulty” and the “promise” of the current radical moment. But the radicalism of a vastly different interpretation is not the only radicalism on offer, and the way that distinction is addressed will shape the future of racial politics in America—how the appeals of the new radicals are framed, and what form their proposals take.