Building On What?

While I agree with the sentiments Joel Kotkin expresses in his piece at City Journal:

Our present trajectory is ruinous; it will exacerbate political antagonism and likely produce even more politicized violence. The only solution to greater polarization lies in reestablishing the norms of a civic nationalism that transcends identity politics of all kinds.

Developing a renewed sense of American identity won’t be easy. As a lifelong Democrat, I saw nothing remotely unpatriotic in the rhetoric of George McGovern—a World War II hero—and certainly not from Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton. Yet today, according to Gallup, only 22 percent of Democrats today say that they are “proud to be Americans,” down from 65 percent in 2003, when the widely disliked George W. Bush was in the White House. Modern progressives generally reject any thought of American exceptionalism, maintaining, in the words of Pete Buttigieg, that America was “never as great as advertised.”

It’s hard to build a positive agenda without some sense of national pride and shared culture. Fortunately, America’s founding principles—rule of law, protection of minority rights, market-based capitalism—are not dependent on race and heritage. Unlike Europe, we don’t have one great historic tradition that we must embrace or lose. By contrast, America, based on ideas that transcend race, boasts a remarkable record of incorporating newcomers, first from Ireland and Germany, then Italy and Eastern Europe, and more recently from Latin America and Asia. These generations of new Americans constitute the secret sauce that makes this country work and could sustain it in the future.

This expansive civic nationalism also represents an economic imperative. Due to sharply lower birthrates, most of our prime competitors—the EU, Japan, and even China—are on the verge of demographic collapse. Europeans may need immigrants, but their welfare states, slow growth, and lack of cultural cohesion will make absorbing these newcomers problematic at best. Most Asian countries have little interest in large-scale immigration.

America’s future will depend on believing in a shared mission. Calling progressives “Communists” or conservatives “fascists” gets us nowhere. Convincing young people, particularly young men, that they have no future won’t dissuade them from authoritarian views—or even violence. The road to sanity starts with a renewed embrace of a shared American identity that transcends all others.

I can’t for the life of me see how we might cultivate a “sense of national pride and shared culture”. The national myths require, in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s memorable phrase, a willing suspension of disbelief. The Founding Fathers were not without fault but, unless they are remembered as such, our civic religion cannot be maintained. Parson Weems, who spread the story of George Washington and the cherry tree, must be believed uncritically. Being an American must transcend, as Mr. Kotkin puts it, being an Irish-American or black or Hispanic or any of the other hyphenations. As long as there’s good money to be made in dividing us, it’s hard to see what can put us back together again.

8 comments… add one
  • TarsTarkas Link

    The problem with the America-haters is that they’ve conflated the ideal with the possible. So because American isn’t perfect (in their point of view) it is a completely bigoted piece of s**t that deserves to be violently destroyed in order to build the perfect society on its ruins. The anti-Americans are so unaware how good they have it, so take for granted the rights, privileges, and luxuries that they enjoy, that they would end up destroying it all because they’re not fully satisfied with what they have. This attitude seems to be more prevalent among the richer and idler portion of society. Working-class people generally have a better appreciation for the country despite its many flaws and faults because they don’t have it all and want more than they currently have. I hope I don’t sound too cloudy.

  • PD Shaw Link

    I think there is a misrepresentation in the piece: 22% percent of Democrats are “extremely proud” as opposed to very proud, moderately proud, only a little proud or not proud at all. It’s still true that 65% of Democrats polled were “extremely proud” to be Americans in 2003, so there has been a sea change. And it looks like the real decline started in 2013 during Obama’s second term, so it’s not just about Trump.

  • PD Shaw Link

    And I write this as someone who probably wouldn’t say “extremely” to about anything. I probably would tell a pollster “very.”

  • bob sykes Link

    Civic nationalism is an ideal, because it minimizes conflict, but it is only possible if there is one, numerically dominate ethnic group. The US was about 85% white in the 1940’s, and that was the heigh-day of civil nationalism. Our grandparents could argue over economics or politics or the Cubs/White Sox.

    In a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic state, civic nationalism is utterly impossible. Basic, genetically determined behavior patterns cause everyone (as in everyone) to align with their co-ethnics: identitarianism. There is no example in history of a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic society that functioned on civil nationalism. All such societies were top down, often brutal dictatorships: Tsarist Russia, Austro-Hungarian Empire, Hussein’s Iraq…

    Joel Kotkin has obvious reasons for wishing the US could be governed under civic nationalism, but it can’t be and won’t be. Unfortunately, identity politics, which is a Democrat specialty and monopoly these days, will intensify. Minorities the identitarian Democrats especially despise, will have an especially hard time in the future. The Republicans, also, are drifting into identity politics, white in their case, and when they get to the point the Democrats have reached, our political scene will be truly Hellish.

    I am old enough that I expect I will not see the complete destruction of America, supposedly by 2050 when whites are a minority, too, but I fear for my younger relatives.

  • steve Link

    ” The Founding Fathers were not without fault but, unless they are remembered as such, our civic religion cannot be maintained.”

    Maintained to whose benefit? Take the 1940s or 1950s, times that were supposedly better. Well over half the population had pretty limited job choices and were not seen as equal under the law. Is that what we want go back to experience? Back then it was OK if religious leaders were screwing altar boys. Why was that better than now?

    The thing is that the truth is still pretty spectacular, even if we have been flawed. We may fall short of our own ideals, but in general we move towards them. I dont see how we continue that movement if we fail to acknowledge our shortcomings. Without that acknowledgement we dont change.

    “the story of George Washington and the cherry tree, must be believed uncritically.”

    I thought the point of that story was not that Washington never told a lie, but that character matters, and that our leaders should not be chosen by inheritance but by positive personal attributes, like honesty. I think that other people have a different take on it, but are there really people who accept this uncritically?


  • In 1970 90% of the wealth was held by 90% of the people. It is since the decline of the American civil religion in favor of a transnational global order that the wealthiest have benefited so mightily. The people who benefit most from preserving and enhancing our civil religion are the poorest. It cultivates a social cohesion that make things like Social Security, the Civil Rights Act, and Medicare possible.

    1925-1970 was the period of the greatest influence of John Dewey’s theory of education and it was also the period of greatest acceptance of our civic religion. During that period immigrants were 110% Americans. That is very easily seen in the popular culture of the period. It didn’t mean we denied our shortcomings but that they were placed in perspective. Between 1945 and 1970 the situation of blacks in the United States improved more than in the 80 years since emancipation.

    Steve, presently we aren’t just “acknowledging our shortcomings”, our shortcomings are overwhelming any sense of national unity or solidarity.

  • steve Link

    “1925-1970 was the period of the greatest influence of John Dewey’s theory of education and it was also the period of greatest acceptance of our civic religion.”

    And as I said, most of America during that time period did not benefit from that acceptance very much. Full benefits were received only by a minority of Americans. What advances were seen were mostly in the 50s-60s, and the 60s was such a time of turmoil that I think it is hard to claim that we weren’t questioning whether or not we were living up to our claimed values. Surely you remember Vietnam and its fallout? Pentagon Papers, My Lai, etc. The inner city riots of the 60s? MLK and JFK assassinations?

    What you had from 1925-1960 was very public acceptance and belief in the civic religion by those who most benefitted from it. Then you had the rest of the country, the majority, very much wanting to join in the benefits of that religion while knowing that they were very much not included when people talked about the benefits of our beliefs.


  • CuriousOnlooker Link

    Is pride and love the right emotions to ask for?

    Pride can be negative; if it is based on ignorance.
    Love… you ask, is it healthy love; i.e. is it an infatuation? Is it an obsession?

    I prefer the word “appreciate”. To appreciate; you have to know the object of appreciation, it implies that object is worthy is some way, and it is associated with gratefulness.

    Americans have a lot to appreciate for.

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