What Follows American National Identity?

pledge-of-allegianceNo disrespect is meant by this title.

I’m simply trying to make a critical point about the future of American nationalism.

Some 40-plus years ago when I was an adolescent, American identity perhaps was best expressed in the song, “The House I Live In,” which is most often associated with Frank Sinatra’s stirring rendition.

The song, featured occasionally on Captain Kangaroo, which I watched assiduously as I child, conveyed a vision of American identity that virtually everyone at the time took for granted.

The World’s First Universal Nation

Yes, in terms of race, ethnicity and religion, we already were a diverse nation, well on our way toward becoming what the late Ben Wattenberg would ultimately  and aptly describe as the world’s first “universal nation.” But despite all of that, American identity was still as largely bound up in a shared culture as it was in an ideology grounded in democracy and tolerance.

So much has changed.  Today, no television program, certainly one targeted to children, would dare feature “The House I Live In.”  Many of the cultural and ideological ideals conveyed by its lyrics not only would be regarded as passe but even as politically incorrect, notably this one: “And the right to speak my mind out, that’s America to me.”

David Brooks and “The Practical Uses of Patriotism”

I found myself reflecting on this quaint song  and the myriad of memories it conveyed about American national identity  reading David Brooks’ recent column, “The Uses of Patriotism.”

As a conservative with strong Tory sentiments, Brooks is right to stress the practical uses of patriotism, certainly in a nation as large and as diverse as the United States.  But his use of the term “traditional universal nationalism” is an instructive one – instructive in the way it illustrates how  the ideals associated with American national identity have been lost within the last few decades.

Americans no longer share anything approaching a civil religion and the notion of a commonly shared American culture rubs against the grain of ruling-class notions of America as a multicultural nation.

Thick Stew, Thin Gruel

The thick, lavish beef stew that once characterized American national identity has been reduced to a thinning, malnourishing gruel. A handful – a rather paltry handful, as I see it – of values still, theoretically, at least, bind us together as a nation.  But as Brooks observes, even these values are increasingly being challenged.

And with fewer and fewer values to bind us as a national community, Brooks contends, Americans face a growing crisis of solidarity.  Our weakening ties of national solidarity hamper our ability to interact with each other. Consequently,  we increasingly are being forced to deal with national challenges in what Brooks starkly describes as”cold instrumental terms.”

Over the last 80 years, standing during the playing of the National Anthem at least afforded us Americans with a modest way of building on our national solidarity. But even this has come under fire, not only as a result of Colin Kaepernick’s protest.  His protest also shed public light on a few of the old anthem’s unsavory lyrics,which has intensified the debate.

The American nationalism that seemed so  pervasive, so palpable and substantive not so long ago is ebbing like the tides.

Searching for Alternatives

This ebbing of American national identity is coinciding with another trend: the growing awareness expressed by a number of seminal political thinkers, notably Yuval Levin, that the solutions to many of our most basic problems no longer can be supplied at the national level. Sooner or later,  this hard political reality, coupled with the decline of American national identity, will prompt growing numbers of Americans to search for new sources of intellectual and emotional sustenance, which isn’t surprising at all, considering that our evolution as a species has equipped us with such deep yearnings for solidarity and identity.

Brooks regards Donald Trump’s ethnic nationalism as an unpalatable alternative, and I agree.

But there are other palatable and even more desirable alternatives, and I remain hopeful that over the next few years growing numbers of Americans, particularly Southerners, will embrace an earlier form of identity that once complemented and arguably even completed our overarching American identity: namely, regionalism.

My fervent hope is that a new definition of Southern regionalism, one enhanced by a sense of shared cultural and religious identity, will not only  inspire and encompass  black and white Southerners alike but will also provide inspiration to Americans in other regions of the country.

 

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About Jim Langcuster

A Southern late-Baby Boomer whose post-retirement focus is on building a post-racial, post-Confederate Southern regional identity. If the election of 2016 underscored one thing, it is that this country is intractably divided and that radical devolution of power to localities and states is the only way to save the American Union.
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