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2 September 2020updated 09 Sep 2021 1:54pm

How mask wearing revealed the great American fracture

In a culture of hyper-polarised political identities, Americans now wear their politics on their faces. 

By Daniel T Rodgers

Historians looking back on 2020 will call it the year of the pandemic, the year of a watershed American presidential election, a year that teetered on the edge of a new Great Depression. They are less likely to call it the year of the great cacophony over mask wearing. But no other event has more acutely revealed the fractured state of public culture in the early 21st-century US.

In a culture of hyper-polarised political identities, Americans now wear their politics on their faces. Democrats make a public display of mask wearing; Donald Trump’s most loyal supporters rail against mask ordinances as an invasion of their basic freedoms. Young people party without masks as if they were immune to the future. Left-wing radicals wear masks as badges of a newly militant anarchism. Epidemiologists plead for mask wearing as a public health necessity. Conservative pundits such as Rush Limbaugh dismiss the Covid emergency as a plot to topple the president.  

As cultural authority fragments, medical truth is what any individual chooses to make of it. You can click on any conclusion you desire about the pros and cons of mask wearing. Panaceas promising protection against Covid-19 are on sale in virtually every corner of the internet. Even mask wearing Americans cannot fully escape the language of choice. When asked why they wear masks, they tend to say they do so to protect themselves and their families, only secondly as a duty to others or as a contribution to the social good.  

Foreign pundits are quick to interpret these signs as evidence of timeless American hyper-individualism. But American political culture has never been timeless. What we are witnessing now is the culmination of half a century’s erosion of the language of the “social” in American public life.

American political culture during the Depression and Cold War years was full of strong words for the common good and public obligations, from the solidarity language of the New Deal to the mass society theories of the 1950s.

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In the “age of fracture” that followed, the emphasis on social relations was overtaken by more fragmented ways of understanding selves and society. Claims of individual rights grew stronger, notions of identity grew more individual and fluid, theoriesof personhood grew more transactional, and the metaphor of “the market” saturated everyday speech. Choice became the new age’s synonym for “freedom”.  

A confluence of forces helped fracture the mid-century language of the social. Most important was the dramatic expansion of rights talk, as black Americans, women, immigrants, gay people and others seized on rights as legal and rhetorical tools for resisting oppressive laws and social norms.

But rights talk quickly spun off in a dizzying number of other directions. Conservatives, once the arch-defenders of custom and social order, found new traction in the “rights and choice”-infused language of libertarianism. A new generation of microeconomists, following Gary Becker, set about explaining how much of human behaviour could be understood as outcomes of choice and preference satisfaction. Psychologists left behind mid 20th-century studies of the socially structured roots of personality to prioritise micro-studies of individual subjects.

Society did not disappear in any of these characterisations of the human condition, but it became thinner and less authoritative in its dictates.

On this intellectual soil, neoliberal economic policies flourished. Tax-cutting was heralded not simply for its macroeconomic effects but for freeing up citizens’ choices over their money. Privatisation schemes flourished. Markets were constructed in public schooling, healthcare, the prison system and other public services. In the criminal justice realm, bargaining largely replaced trials not only on grounds of economy, but on the rationale that, by its very nature, bargaining satisfied more wants than adversarial justice. The social responsibility of corporations was pared down to its minima; in neoliberal America, corporations have no legal obligations to their workers or communities, only to the shareholders who putatively own them.  

And yet, the waning of the social was not only a boon for more aggressive, entrepreneurial capitalism. It expanded possibilities for people and groups that had been socially subordinated before. It amplified rights of dissent.  

“Society” had been a partial fiction all along, and to many Americans it had been an oppressive one. To pit rights against rights, expertise against expertise, opened new spaces for non-conforming identities. Mass political actions remained possible. Political activists mobilised in women’s marches, in the Seattle WTO protests in 1999, and in Black Lives Matter demonstrations.

Still, mass movements are now easier to initiate than to sustain against the forces of choice and political identities. Whether the let-every-affinity-group-do-its-own-thing compromises being made on the streets of Seattle, Portland and elsewhere are adequate to the injustices those citizens rally against remains to be seen.  

The furore over mask wearing has brought into relief all these cultural transformations.  Where individual choice dominates social imaginations, one’s obligations to others cannot but be a fraught point of contention.

Yet there are also signs that the age of fracture may have begun to run its course. Within the past year, the structures of racism, the institutions of carceral justice and the engines of economic inequality have come dramatically to the front of the Democratic Party agenda. On the political right, Trump’s relish for national greatness and concentrated executive power have complicated the libertarian agenda of the Tea Party.  

These visions of solidarity are profoundly oppositional. Trump conjures up a solidarity of the aggrieved, the fearful and the angry: a movement massed together by its furious negations. By contrast, the 2020 Democratic Party convention broached terms that have not been heard in US politics for a long time: love, national purpose, even empathy. This year will be the nation’s first test of a post-fracture politics. The stakes could not be higher. 

Daniel T Rodgers’ “Age of Fracture” (Harvard) won the Bancroft Prize in 2012

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