What is America and what is it to us? It’s an odd and difficult question, even more so perhaps than what it is to be British. It’s nonetheless a pressing one in time of cultural transformation and war.
America has defined herself through a shifting combination of things: people, place, ideas, and institutions. People and place were the initial and most natural basis of American nationality. Over time, however, their importance declined as the Union grew, immigrants arrived from ever more exotic sources, the descendents of black slaves were integrated into political society, foreign entanglements developed, and life became industrial, mobile, cosmopolitan, and eventually electronic.
Natural personal connections were therefore replaced by ideas.
Lincoln said America was “dedicated to [a] proposition,” and Chesterton called America “a nation with the soul of a church.” The faith of that church was liberty and equality. However, liberty and equality also changed with the times, adapting themselves to a setting in which men are no longer understood as agents who make their lives through their labor and dealings with others but as component units in a vast social machine of production and consumption. Equality is no longer mutual recognition of agency but the right to be treated equally by the machine. Liberty is no longer self-government but the right within limits to choose one’s particular position within the machine, and to be affirmed and supported by it in one’s private tastes and indulgences. One consequence is that American ideals no longer mean limited government. Instead, they mean government that pervades the whole of society and reorders all human relations in accordance with the needs of a technocratic economic order.
So what makes America the particular thing it is today? Attachment to people and place and traditional understandings of American ideals are dwindling and increasingly understood as divisive. It’s hard to see how they can be viewed as principles of unity for America as it is now. Demographic trends, if nothing else, seem to doom them as such, and even patriotic conservatives view them with contempt. Indeed, they are more and more associated with neosecessionists and others who reject America as an object of final social loyalty. Respectable people view them as un-American.
It is difficult to divorce what a country is from what it is understood to be by the enduring common consent of respectable citizens and authoritative institutions. It seems therefore that America today must be understood in accordance with its official self-understanding as (1) a set of institutional arrangements and stated principles that are formally much the same as they were in 1800 but function in the service of very different interests and ideals of life, (2) the aggregate of people, land, and other goods and interests presently subject to those arrangements and principles, and (3) the common way of life associated with the foregoing.
If all that’s so then America is a problem for American traditionalists. It is now less a homeland than a sort of machine for promoting things that we don’t like and imposing them on us and the rest of the world. To be a good American is to participate in those things and approve of them. If you don’t like them then it’s almost as if you aren’t an American at all. And to promote American interests, for example by supporting America in war, is—among other things—to promote the worldwide propagation of the same system.
So what then? Man is still social, after all, and we still have an obligation to the people among whom we live and to the institutions that guard them and make possible whatever good there is in their lives. The problem is that it is difficult to identify our people and the good things in their lives wholeheartedly with “America.” America, after all, is also the thing that in accordance with the defining principles it proudly asserts is destroying the connections among our people and degrading their way of life.
It seems then that we have several possibilities:
- The paleo tendency: throw in the towel, and give up America as the object of one’s highest social loyalty. A problem is that it’s hard to find another loyalty that works as a replacement except perhaps a church. Since most paleos are fundamentally as secular as anyone else that doesn’t work for them and as a result they get grouchy and complain all the time.
- The mainstream conservative tendency: throw in the towel, and sign on to whatever America has become. A problem with this approach is that it adopts a sort of cultural relativism that tells us that no society can ever take a fundamentally wrong turn. It seems to lack principle and sometimes even integrity.
- The populist right tendency: continue to identify “America” with some other America than the one we’ve been talking about. A problem is that the approach if well-informed seems willful. One would have to be a sort of Don Quixote, always interpreting things in a sense far more charitable or optimistic than the facts seem to allow, to pursue it.
- The Candide tendency: give up the Don Quixote bit, throw in the towel on politics, and cultivate your own garden. An obvious issue, though, is how far you’ll be left in peace to cultivate much of anything under a government that wants to reform things that are as domestic as dietary habits and family and gender relations.
- The regular guy tendency: give up on the idea of a coherent principled relation to one’s society, and in what comes up do what seems best at the time.That’s probably what most people do, and it’s a sane way to respond to problems that seem too difficult to solve. It’s not good for everyone to take the approach, though, especially in time of war when clarity is important.
None of these possibilities seems really satisfactory, except—for those called to it—allegiance to a church. It seems to me the extreme difficulty of the situation is behind the fractiousness and ill temper among conservatives today. After all, if it were clear what to do we could simply do it and ignore those who disagree. Since it isn’t, we get upset with each other.