A country is a land and a people. A people, in turn, are constituted by interlocking networks of common ways, memories, and understandings, together with symbols that serve as rallying points, all of which enable them to carry on life together and look forward to a common future.
So who are the American people? The question is not likely to have a unique natural answer, since there are degrees, overlaps, and mismatches, but conditions limit possibilities. Benjamin Franklin, born in Boston and settled in Philadelphia, thought of himself for most of his life as a British subject. As time went on conditions changed, and with them his outlook, and he became an American first and foremost. (Those who remained loyal to the mother country had to move to Canada.)
After America stopped being British in nationality she remained largely so in heritage. In the Federalist, John Jay described Americans as
one united people, a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in manners and customs.
The purpose of the Constitution was to provide for the common welfare of that people and their posterity, and that was indeed the purpose of American government in the period that followed.
Ambiguities as to the nature of America and her people nonetheless remained: When secession came Robert E. Lee thought he owed more to Virginia than to the Union. Such a view would make little sense in present-day Arlington. Nor did it make sense to many others even then. To Abraham Lincoln, born in Kentucky and transplanted to Indiana and then Illinois, it seemed obvious that immigration, westward movement, and the creation of new states had changed things since the days of John Jay. It had become difficult to see Americans as united by religion, ancestry, and inherited culture, or primarily as citizens of particular states. Instead, it seemed, America had to be understood as a single nation defined by the principles of 1776, and the American people as those who accepted those principles and the political order based on them.
Many people nonetheless continued to define America and her people in a more traditional way, one less based on commitment to a political project. Some still defined her as Anglo-Saxon, others as white and Christian, others as a complex of sectional identities. But no such definition seemed usable as a principle of unity in a mass industrial and then postindustrial society that emphasized equality, commerce, individualism, mobility, and largeness of scale, and included ever more—and ever more influential—non-Anglo-Saxons, nonwhites, and non-Christians. The Moral Majority was a last gasp of the particularist tendency, although some trace of it lingers in episodes such as Sarah Palin’s comments on small towns as the real America.
In any case, it’s hard to maintain an idealized image of a society when the image has been rejected by the society’s own elites. Sectionalism couldn’t survive abandonment by sectional elites, and white Christian civilization didn’t look nearly so good after a couple of world wars and after the occupation of the intellectual world by several generations of debunkers. The outcome is that today native-born elites push immigration and inclusiveness, every remotely respectable form of white culture takes rejection of whiteness as given, all forms of religion are pushed out of public life, and mainstream Christianity rejects the concept of Christian civilization and considers the notion of “white Christian civilization” downright evil.
So we’re left with the idea of Americans as a people that exist simply by their political ideals and the legal institutions embodying them. If you want to be part of America and you accept American institutions and ideals, you’re American, or should be allowed to become so. If you don’t you’re anti- and un-American, even if your ancestors have been here since the 17th century. That principle is increasingly applied even to “undocumented Americans,” illegal aliens who have taken risks and overcome obstacles to join the American project by their presence here. Such people are now seen by our leaders as exemplary Americans, and that is the way they are increasingly portrayed in public discussion.
So what are the ideals that make us a people? They are said to be freedom and equality, with freedom historically more emphasized in political rhetoric and equality in philosophical and moral discussion. The definition raises more questions than it answers. Freedom and equality—but why, with respect to what, and brought about how?
The words originally implied abolition of privilege and an open field for enterprise, goals that supported local self-rule and upward mobility in an expanding market economy. They were thought to follow from God’s creation of man as free and equal, and so were closely connected to American civil religion and a view of government as essentially limited and ordered toward personal independence. Those connections brought with them limitations on what freedom allowed based on natural law and biblical morality.
The religious connection, its moral consequences, and ideals of limited government and personal independence eventually dissipated for reasons that included industrialization, demographic diversification, the all-pervasive print and then electronic media, and the rise of the credentialed and managerial classes. As a result, freedom and equality became increasingly abstract and radical in their demands. In the absence of substantive religious and cultural limitations they came to mean that we all should be able to do whatever we want, as much and as equally as possible, with government providing material and moral support for doing so. That support has come to include a legal regime intended to promote what are called tolerance and inclusion by suppressing sexual and cultural distinctions, and insisting that everyone line up behind the effort.
The result is that freedom and equality now imply a combination of indulgent consumerism and politically correct managerialism that celebrates private vices, because they destroy the presumed tyranny of inherited standards, and suppresses public virtue, because it interferes with the smooth functioning of the system in line with economic efficiency and the determinations of supposedly neutral expertise.
The smooth operation and unquestioned legitimacy of the system, not to mention the untroubled dominion of its ruling elites, requires destruction of traditional religious and cultural authorities. The method used is to multiply those authorities while insisting that each have equal validity, so that none can have any authority at all. The result is that America is now officially defined by diversity and the promotion of diversity—first in America, so that no trace of traditional peoplehood remains among us, and then in the whole world. To reject that commitment would be to connive at racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of hatred and oppression, and therefore in effect to support those things.
The proposition nation has thus become an antinational project that allows only global markets and neutral expert bureaucracies as social authorities, and to that end attempts to eradicate fundamental aspects of all previous human societies. Radical though the project is, there is no real opposition to it in public life. Mainstream politics offers only the choice between a faction that wants to further the new form of society through markets, enterprise, and the global triumph of the American team, and a faction that prefers to further it through a comprehensive bureaucratic system of supervision and control established by international agreement.
That situation makes America today less a nation (or even a cause any informed and well-intentioned person could rationally adopt) than an ideological fantasy and a predicament. It is our land and people, because we are connected to it by birth, family, friendship, education, residence, and history, and by institutions of government to which there seems to be no alternative, but it’s a mess, and it’s insane.
When republic declines to empire, a natural reaction is to maintain loyalty to the republic and speak of its restoration. That’s what many Romans did, and it’s the same among us. The response does some good—it maintains ideals that motivate public spirit and help people live a decent life—but something more fundamental is needed when republican institutions no longer match the outlook and way of life of actual Americans. For basic improvement those things will have to change, and politics won’t change them: The most government can do is allow change to come about.
That means stabilizing the situation to the extent possible so that informal local order can re-establish itself. With public life less disruptive it would perhaps become possible for public reason to return, issues to be clarified, attention to be directed to goods that take into account more varied aspects of human nature and natural human ends, and more adequate forms of social order to develop and work their way into the functioning of society as a whole.
The constant arrival of large numbers of culturally diverse newcomers rules out the somewhat coherent common culture those developments would require, so promoting them means allowing far less immigration. It also means rejection of empire, which by definition is an attempt to construct a universal order under unitary control equally applicable to all men everywhere. And it means of course abandonment of projects of social reconstruction motivated by the current version of American ideals.
Such goals are worth fighting for, but success is unlikely in the near future. It is more likely that our ruling classes, which grow ever more independent of the people to whom they are supposedly answerable, will push their project to the point of systemic failure. Under such circumstances it appears likely that the best we can do is clarify our thoughts, present them to others, support common discussion and action where there seems a glimmering of hope, live decently and well, maintain our ties to God, family, and community, and hope for the future, in the sure expectation that insanity—rejection of obvious fundamental human realities—will not in the end prevail.