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What holds a country together?

October 14, 2008

When you consider the enormous differences that exist across regions and traditions in the United States, it raises an interesting question: what factors serve to knit this population together into a single polity? We don’t share a single set of cultural values, a single religion, or a single political tradition. So what helps this population of some 300 million achieve some degree of civic or national identity?

One possible answer is a skeptical one: there is no such common strand of civic identity in the United States. Instead, we are a nation of overlapping identities and traditions, with the remarkable good fortune that these differences have only rarely developed into serious inter-group conflict. On this approach, the general history of harmony among groups and regions is only a happy accident.

Another possible approach goes a bit further than this one, in noticing that in fact there is quite a bit of social dis-harmony in the history of the United States. Racism and the violent oppression of African-Americans and Latinos during various periods, the hostile reception offered to internal migrants during the Great Depression, the violence and hostility offered to gay and lesbian Americans at various junctures, and the harsh words Sarah Palin directs against Easterners all point in that direction. We might say that it is the generally effective reach of the state rather than a shared civic or national identity that usually maintains a large degree of inter-group peace in the United States.

There is also, of course, the identity that derives from patriotism and the flag. This is a political psychology of nationalism, and it doesn’t have much to do with reflective values. It is a constructed identity, aimed at making an identity group out of a mixed population. And if this is the best we can do, then the performances of patriotic songs and speeches are obvious mechanisms through which leaders attempt to instill the appropriate emotions. And the act of dissent may seem deeply disruptive, if this is all that holds us together.

It may be that there are other mechanisms of political identity formation that work in the direction of forging a national identity. Film and television are candidates here, and large events of shared history may play a role too. I particularly admire Lincoln’s pease, “the mystic chords of memory.” But shared memories don’t always create a shared identity — for example, we can validly ask whether the remembered experience of the Vietnam War contributes more to identity or division.

But here is another and more positive possibility. We might hope that the United States has painfully and haltingly created a shared civic culture that stands above the more visceral strands of religious, ethnic, or nationalistic identity. It is a moral value system that stands deliberately above more specific value commitments that derive from our particular philosophies or traditions. This culture is the value system of liberal democracy. It valorizes the idea of the equal worth of all persons; the moral importance of mutual respect; the idea that everyone has the same rights to freedom of action and legal protection; the recognition that disagreements about values and policies are normal parts of a democracy; and the conviction that this system of equal citizenship and dignity is a morally worthwhile achievement in American history and politics.

This approach says that we do have the makings of a civic identity. But how does this approach avoid amounting to an amalgam of bromides from high school civics courses or the political theories of Locke and Rousseau?

It avoids this unhappy fate by being so hard. This political identity of equality, respect, and liberty has to be constructed rather than assumed. This requires the best efforts of leaders and citizens. And it runs into conflict with some very powerful currents in American culture — xenophobia, racism, mistrust, and the politics of division, for example. Some of our national leaders have been articulate in nurturing these values — Johnson amd Clinton, for example. Others have chosen a language of division — Richard Nixon comes to mind (“the silent majority”) along with Spiro Agnew and his “nattering nabobs of negativism”. Unity around the values of justice, equality, and democracy is more difficult to achieve than division across group identities and interests. But it is a much more admirable basis for a human polity, and a better guide for a pluralistic America.

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