The American nation, arguably the most unique experiment in the history of modern nation-states whose foundational ideals have been passed from one generation to the next for over two centuries, is fracturing, with stress fissures more visible each day. The once-accepted view of America as one nation, with the attendant sense of pride rooted in the belief in its exceptionalism, has been steadily losing ground over the last three decades, while secondary drivers of group identity, such as race and ethnicity, claim ever-greater prominence in our public discourse.
A byproduct of the post-Cold War globalist ideology, the deconstruction of the American nation has been aided by the spread of a broad form of neo-Marxist progressivism now dominant at our colleges and universities and our major media outlets, and has been reinforced by a failed immigration policy that no longer demands the acculturation of newcomers. The American national idea is being “deconstructed” into tribal narratives, with the attendant loss of self-confidence that historically imbued Americans with a shared national identity and dedication to individual freedom. Consequently, our historical and cultural DNA is no longer being passed onto subsequent generations. Rather, our elites, especially the youngest among them, are increasingly intent on replacing the traditional American national narrative of the “melting pot” with what Samuel Huntington aptly called a multicultural “salad bowl” of different cultures and ethnic groups, living side by side but retaining their distinct values and identity markers. The same goes for basic knowledge of the “what” and “how” of our republican form of government. We have essentially stopped teaching civics in American schools,1 and as a result it is not uncommon today to encounter a college freshman with only a vague notion of our national history and the workings of our government.
The progressive politicization of American academia, especially in the humanities, has all but reduced the complex and rich civilizational heritage of modern America to group narratives built around the tone of one’s skin or gender identity. This reductive recompilation of American national identity is exemplified by the opaque term “people of color,” hurled with abandon against the equally broad but vacuous category of “whites” amidst incessant charges of racism and discrimination. In our quotidian existence in which we transact business, engage with government, consume media and pursue education, we are presented today with a system in which bureaucratically mandated racial, ethnic and gender categories impact access to jobs, education and other public benefits—this in a country whose “greatest generation” went to war to eradicate two totalitarian regimes committed to the belief that a person’s racial identity should define his or her place in the social order.
As America as a cohesive, binding concept loses definition, so too does support for it. In a poll conducted last year by Gallup, only 47 percent of all Americans declared themselves “extremely proud” of their nationality—the first time in the 18 years in which the poll has been conducted that fewer than half of the respondents expressed those levels of national pride. Only fifteen years ago, less than one generation, this number stood at 70 percent. According to the poll, decline in national pride was especially manifest among self-declared Democrats (32 percent, down from 43 percent in 2017, and 56 percent in 2013), and less than half of independents (42 percent, down from 48 percent in 2017 and 50 percent in 2013). By contrast, over twice the number of respondents self-identifying as Republican answered affirmatively when asked if they were extremely proud of their nationality, at 74 percent in 2018, with a two percent increase relative to the year before, and a three percent increase compared to 2013. The lowest level of national pride was found among the youngest American cohort, aged 18-29 (33 percent—a drop from 55 percent in 2013); those groups among whom a majority expressed extreme pride were the two oldest, ages 50-64 and 65 and older, with 56 and 58 percent respectively. Perhaps most strikingly, college graduates were significantly less proud of being American (only 39 percent), compared to the majority of those without a college education at 52 percent.
The current fracturing of the American nation into warring tribes augurs poorly for our future. A sense of national cohesion and the attendant mutuality of obligations remain essential to national security, for without it we will lack the resilience that only a cohesive nation can bring, whether to a crisis or to the state-on-state competition with China and Russia that is looming over the horizon. A people riven by internal discord and increasingly bereft of a sense of pride in its own nation is vulnerable to external meddling in its national affairs, and, ultimately may lack the requisite resilience to come together in a national crisis or war. As the assault on American exceptionalism in our public sphere gathers speed, a tired citizenry, offered an ever-more restrictive menu of choices when it comes to which events from the collective national memory it is allowed to preserve and which it must censure, feels the bonds of mutual loyalty and obligation fray at the seams.
But to speak of a nation in the 21st century is not to engage in ethno-nationalism or to build nativist theories; rather, the American nation needs to restore and pass forward the idea of an “extended kinship” which allows each citizen to experience a sense of communion and solidarity with his/her people. Progressives brought up on a steady diet of postmodernist ideology have for decades pushed forth the notion that nationalism is by definition a negative sentiment to be suppressed, conflating patriotic national pride with the worst totalitarian excesses of fascism and Nazism. In reality, national pride is the sine qua non of a modern working polity, for this sense of “extended kinship” embodied in a shared language and values, as well as the maintenance of a broad consensus on a people’s historic narrative, are the necessary glue that fosters the sense of mutuality of obligation critical to a properly functioning civic culture as its make compromise in politics a shared public good. We even have a word to distinguish this feeling from the kind of ethno-nationalism more prevalent in Europe: Patriotism.
For Teddy Roosevelt, patriotism was simply Americanism, the “spirit and purpose” of American citizenship. Speaking on a campaign trail in Milwaukee in 1912 (soon after he was shot), TR defined Americanism as entailing a patriotic commitment to the nation, with one’s dedication to the country as the overarching value of the citizen. TR recognized that without that special inherent “quality” of American citizenship, the national ideal of equality under the law would become politicized, and ultimately transmogrify into relativism and tribalism. In his 1919 letter to the American Defense Society, TR was even blunter about the imperative of patriotism as the core American virtue: “There can be no divided allegiance here. Any man who says he is an American, but something else also, isn’t an American at all.”
To start reversing the deconstruction of Americanism, we need a concerted counter-revolution, one in which traditional American common sense is elevated above grievance-mongering and tribalist point-scoring. We should start with the schools. Congress ought to take a hard look at how government funds are spent by our college and university administrators. The pressure could be even more effective if alumni donors and parents start to demand accountability from the academic institutions they endow. The one-sided indoctrination of our future generation must stop now. Furthermore, Congress needs to bring back the idea of mandatory national service, be that in military form or through some kind of mandatory community work, so that Americans from all socio-economic backgrounds can discover their fellow citizens“out there”—so that they can put a real face and name to the broader nation to which they all owe allegiance.
The media, of course, bears a great deal of responsibility for the coarsening of our public discourse and the overall decline of public morals, for the race for ratings has become an all-out race to the bottom—what Senator Moynihan once called “defining deviancy down,” whereby what used to be unacceptable is now mainstream and what was once decent has disappeared from our public agora. Nowhere is this problem more urgent than in the new digital space, with the largest social media platforms nearly unusable, with insults, verbal jousting and offensive images intended to shock standing in for reasoned argument. But the digital media space, while certainly bringing out the worst in us, is more of a mirror of what we have become. Fixing it starts by fixing us first.
The American people are at an inflection point, with the binary being increasingly that of a “North American Balkans” or a return to “E Pluribus Unum.” To stop and reverse the deconstruction of what the Framers intended to be a decent society of free individuals, connected by shared American values and democratic ideals that transcend one’s creed or national origin, will require an all-out effort. In the final analysis, this is fundamentally a question of preserving as opposed to abandoning the values and principles that for over two centuries have underpinned this great nation.