Pick up any newspaper and it’s clear that the United States is facing a democratic crisis. Conventional definitions of citizenship and national identity have been thrown into question by ruptures in the global political landscape, changing post-industrial economic relations, shifting racial demographics, and new attitudes toward sexuality and religion. In a post-cold war era lacking in superpower conflicts, old fears of foreign insurgency have been supplanted by anxieties about trade deficits, declining educational standards, and a loss of common purpose. As social inequities continue to increase, citizens are losing faith in the government and the master narratives supporting it.
Few could have predicted the speed with which Europe would be reconfigured by the collapse of the Eastern Bloc. Yet rather than easing international tensions, these events have triggered new forms of national chauvinism and regional antagonism. Complicating matters further is the so-called post-Fordist restructuring of global capitalism. As the world evolves into a transnational marketplace and the production of goods and services has become more fluid and decentralized, the distance between rich and poor nations has continued to widen. Meanwhile, within the U.S. a once dominant white majority is quickly being diminished by communities of color. Factor in the growing influence of feminism, challenges to the traditional nuclear family, and more recent activism supporting the rights of lesbians and gay men, and it becomes clear that a massive movement—indeed, a majority movement—is rising to confront the reigning order.
Not surprisingly, these shifts have produced considerable public tension, along with a disturbing tendency to reach for quick and easy ways to settle disputes. Witness recent social unrest in cities from Los Angles to Atlanta, the broad-based hostility toward legislative and judicial figures, and the remarkable popularity of such reactionary personas as the self-proclaimed “doctor of democracy” Rush Limbaugh. Claiming to appeal to populist sentiments this new breed of would-be demagogues has emerged to promote a xenophobic politics of fear and hatred propped up by an ever more puritanical set of cultural standards.