The college students we keep hearing about aren’t in the new book by Andrew Burt, but they sure meet the definition of American Hysteria: The Untold Story of Mass Political Extremism in the United States. Burt, a journalist and lawyer who writes for Slate, El País, and other left-of-center publications, in fact may not want to study the hypersensitivities that are spreading from campus to campus, from coast to coast—like when that Yalie confronted one of the faculty with: “It is your job to create a place of comfort and home for the students who live in Silliman. . . . It is not about creating an intellectual space! It is not!”
In politics, our myths are more important than our history. The stories that tell us who we are as a nation are the most powerful political tools in times of economic, military or cultural stress. Good or useful myths marshal populist anxieties, giving to people who are fearful of dispossession or political dislocation a story that simultaneously affirms their central role in this nation and explains the causes of their present turmoil. In 2008 the nation needed a useable myth that could tap into American populism and turn this potent political force into a conserving power. Obama’s myth has not created a sustainable narrative of America, but it might have weakened the very capacity of the nation to believe in and live as part of a better story of ourselves.