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  • Looking Backward, Looking ForwardUtopia, Avatar, and the Loss of Progressive Metanarrative
  • David R. Shumway (bio)

When Barack Obama rose to the lectern on Inauguration Day, the nation was in tatters. Americans were scared and angry. The economy was spinning in reverse. Three-quarters of a million people lost their jobs that month. Many had lost their homes, and with them the only nest eggs they had. Even the usually impervious upper middle class had seen a decade of stagnant or declining investment, with the stock market dropping in value with no end in sight. Hope was as scarce as credit.

In that context, Americans needed their president to tell them a story that made sense of what they had just been through, what caused it, and how it was going to end. They needed to hear that he understood what they were feeling, that he would track down those responsible for their pain and suffering, and that he would restore order and safety. . . . But there was no story—and there has been none since.

Drew Westen, New York Times, August 6, 2011

Michael Bérubé begins The Left at War with a statement, written he says early in 2009, hailing the election of Barack Obama “as a hopeful sign that the [End Page 45] Bush-Cheney regime will now be decisively repudiated, along with its corrosive lawlessness at home and abroad.” He continues in this vein, citing the results of that election to argue that the “Democrats have finally broken the forty-year Republican stranglehold on the presidency (save for the electoral flukes known as Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, no darlings of the left they)” (2009: 1). Bérubé cannot be blamed expressing the hopefulness many of us felt in that moment. When Obama took office, the nation had fallen into its worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. As the Time cover of November 24, 2008, depicting Obama as Franklin Roosevelt suggested, many to the left of center thought that happy days were here again and that Obama would use the economic crisis to try to reverse the decades-long pattern of upward redistribution of wealth. But we should have known better, and some of us did. It should have been obvious given whom Obama appointed to key economic positions—Geithner, Summers, and others imported from Goldman Sachs and the Rubin (or right) side of Clinton’s cabinet—that he would not attempt to challenge Wall Street and the corporations. Yet, how do we explain Obama’s cozying up to his enemies (that they were his enemies is demonstrated by their political contributions in the 2010 elections) rather than fighting for those who elected him? There are explanations one could make that are rooted in Obama’s biography or his beliefs, and they may be partially correct. Westen attributes Obama’s failure to “tell a story” about the nation’s economic failure and a road to recovery to the president’s personal failings or political miscalculations.

While I think those explanations have some merit, I want to suggest that the president’s rhetorical failure—which Westen has convincingly identified—is an instance of a larger problem that precedes him by at least three decades, namely, the decline of the progressive metanarrative in American culture and politics. Obama has no story to tell because the story he needs is not readily available to him. There used to be a widely shared narrative of progress toward a just society, a narrative that influenced not only those who embraced it but also those who did not. Sometime in the 1970s, however, our politicians stopped telling versions of this story, and, perhaps even earlier, it receded in the larger culture. My claim here is somewhat different from Lyotard’s (1984) claim for a collapse of legitimizing metanarrative, because, although his point is [End Page 46] that postmodern culture lacks metanarratives, mine is that as the progressive metanarrative has declined, others, including a reactionary one, have risen up to replace it. In this essay I will need to discuss the theory of metanarratives and master narratives, with an eye to distinguishing these concepts. I will trace some of the history of the...