A nation of Willy Lomans

In her upcoming new book, Patriotic Grace, a wistful Peggy Noonan asks: Where is America? And the Reagan nostalgist finds it at Gate 14 of the airport -- where CNN is reporting the election but nobody is watching:

The TV monitor is on. It is Wolf Blitzer. He is telling us with a voiceof urgency about the latest polls. But no one looks up. We are a nation of Willy Lomans, dragging our wheelies through acres of airport, walking through life with a suitcase and a slack jaw, trying to get home after a long day of meetings, of moving product.

America, Noonan says sadly, isn't really paying attention to Wolf Blitzer. The America that perpetually drags its black wheelies through airports is made up of small town folk who are "curiously unillusioned" by national politics. This America of disbelieving salesmen aren't sold on the sales talk of either candidates:  both the left and the right, she thinks, suspect that their candidate isn't up for the job; both know that America has somehow gone wrong, that its institutions and elites have lost their way. And this nation of Willy Lomans, Noonan says, is acting out its own theatrical tragedy -- not dissimilar to the fate of the fictional Willy Loman in Arthur Miller's 1949 play Death of a Salesman.

There is even a feeling, a faint sense sometimes that we have been relegated to the role of walk-on in someone else's drama, that as citizens we are crucial and yet somehow...extraneous.

In this observation that her citizens are simultaneously crucial and extraneous to the election, Noonan gets to the theatrical truth about the tragedy of American democracy today. All around them -- in airports and shopping malls and bars, online and on television -- "somebody elses" like powerful politicians and wealthy commentators are speaking on behalf of the "American people." But at Gate 14 of the airport, this nation of Willy Lomans is too tired, too disbelieving, too confused, too irrelevant perhaps to watch its own drama.

The idea of America as a small town nation of exhausted Willy Lomans alienated from its own reality is fine as the theatrical metaphor of a Reaganite journalist on a scavenger hunt for patriotic grace. Let's just hope that the American story hasn't, in truth, become indistinguishable from the tragic plot of Death of a Salesman.