On March 4, 1933, the newly elected President of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, addressed a nation shaken to its core by an economic collapse unprecedented in its short history. He faced the essence of the matter head-on, within two minutes of beginning his first inaugural address, in words that would resonate throughout history: “…let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
Though history has generally been kind to FDR, he had fierce opponents then and equally fierce detractors today. Yet, whatever one may think of him, there is little arguing that Roosevelt was as adept at taking the pulse of his fellow citizens as any Chief Executive we have known. Choosing words like fear, terror, paralyzes, and retreat, then flinging them so brashly into the faces of his audience was a masterstroke, for those words touched the essence of the American psyche: that instinctive, glorious, and almost pathological need to overcome adversity. Roosevelt challenged a nation with those words, words that might have been taken as an insult had they be directed at an enemy great or small, or even at the occupant of an adjacent bar stool. Directed at the American people, they were a challenge. A call to action more effective than any patriotic recruiting poster ever devised. For Americans of all stripes love, and many quite frankly live, to be the Underdog.
America found a way to battle through the Great Depression, just as we had slogged through the muck of political differences to find peaceful solutions to many a crisis that preceded it. The only exception was the Civil War, which found Americans fighting Americans in what Lincoln famously called our “house divided.” Today, we find ourselves a house divided once again, with each side as seemingly irreconcilable as any southern plantation owner and northern abolitionist preacher in 1861. The difference is that, this time, the chasm is not so much about where we believe our nation should go—it’s about where our nation is. One side largely believes that while America has its flaws, we are and have been a force for good in the world. The other side believes that America is deeply flawed and always has been, and that much of what has been traditionally celebrated as American values are in fact American vices.
How did our house become so divided once again? The answer, I believe, involves the radical changes that occurred in the way many—by no means all—Americans view themselves and their nation. This book explores that uniquely American journey in introspection.
Now I make no pretense of being an historian, though I will flatter myself that I am more versed in history than the average person is. It is not my intention to write another history of the United States of America, but rather to examine that history through a particular lens: the lens of American self-perception.
It is, of course, as foolish to assert there is or has been one universal self-perception common to all Americans as it is to assert that any large body of people, no matter how superficially homogenous, march in lockstep. No matter one’s race, creed, color, sex, occupation, political affiliation, or any other seemingly defining characteristic, groups are made up of individuals.
Yet, just as there are sometimes broad if not universal truths to be found in stereotypes, so does a wide-angle view of the tapestry of history reveal themes and causes that can also be broadly applied. So let us not, for purposes of this exercise, become bogged down by closely examining each individual thread of that tapestry. Just as it is famously said that no battle plan survives first contact, it is equally true that no wide-ranging historical hypothesis can survive examination by microscope. Perhaps that is what makes the begetting of such hypotheses so enjoyable an exercise, if maddening at the same time.
My hypothesis is this: The essence of the American character, and therefore one of the strongest motivating forces behind the decisions that have shaped our history as a nation, includes the desire to overcome, to grasp victory from the jaws of defeat, to protect the downtrodden (or those we perceive as downtrodden) when all hope seems lost. To be, in other words, the victorious, noble, selfless Underdog.
For the first one hundred and seventy years of our existence, that is indeed how we perceived ourselves. We were the intrepid, irreverent, come-from-behind, you-never-expected-that-didja? Underdog extraordinaire. Then, just over seventy years ago, that all changed. America grew up, for better or worse, transforming almost overnight from the plucky, sassy adolescent we had been on the world stage into a worried, grey-haired adult, full of self-doubt and remorse. To some extent, the pride, drive, and ideals of the adolescent remain part of the American character. Even our lucid elderly can channel their youthful joyfulness from more than seven decades past. But for many of us, it’s a part we’re uncomfortable with at best, and downright ashamed of at worst. Many, but nowhere near all of us, now shrink from words that used to make Americans swell with pride, words like patriot, glory, and victory.
That is not to say that Americans, even those most ashamed of America, have abandoned that well-ingrained national need to be the Underdog. It is still every bit as much a driving force as it was when Adams and Hancock and Otis first got together to discuss what might be done to bring King George and the mightiest nation then on earth to heel. But, for many, the nexus has changed. To be an Underdog, an enemy is required. There can be no protagonist without an antagonist to balance the card. Without the necessary external opponents, many now seek them within.