A recent column in Vox explores the decline of dominant American identity and the ways that this identity could be rebuilt amid widespread demographic division and economic distress.
Ezra Klein, the author, contends that the vibrant, effusive American identity that prevailed throughout the 20th century was forged primarily on the basis of two world wars and the 70-year threat of Soviet communism.
I’m inclined to take a slightly different view. The modest imperial standing America acquired in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War formed a critical component of 20th century America identity too. Millions of Americans were carried on a wave of imperial euphoria, confident that the acquisition of a modest, backwater empire heralded our virtually unimpeded ascent to national greatness. And much of this was bound up in the war’s success in re-enlisting the defeated South in nation- and empire-building that followed in the aftermath of this war.
Up to that time, many people in the former Confederate states spent the Fourth of July commemorating the fall of Vicksburg rather than celebrating American Independence.
At the turn of century, some 35 years after one of the bloodiest struggles in history, the South reasoned that if it couldn’t have its own nation, it at least could participate in the building of a nation destined to ascend to the front ranks of global leadership.
This was a fortuitous turn of events for the American national enterprise: The post-Civil War South ended up supplying this nation not only with a significant share of its patriotic ballast but also a generous portion of men and women to guard the outposts of the global American empire that emerged after World War II.
Yet, we seem to be reaching an critical juncture, if not a major impasse, in defining American identity. And one wonders: How much practical value is derived from doubling down on one-nation rhetoric and insisting on more dialogue?
In the view of a growing number of heartland Americans, the only rhetoric deemed unifying by our ruling classes is that which conforms to the agenda of the left.
Moreover, another vital adhesive of American identity, centralized federalism, seems to be losing its efficacy too. Americans seem less inclined than ever to operate off the same page on issues that were once seen as vital to national security, such as regulating immigration and guarding our borders. Some on the left are even calling for the elimination of the Immigration and Customs Service (ICE).
Perhaps most disturbing of all, though, we seem to be rapidly approaching a cultural impasse that surprisingly few pundits have considered: namely, how this country will manage to soldier on when it is no longer regarded by ordinary Americans as standing at the pinnacle of the world’s most successful and exceptional nations.
So much of American unity and national identity is bound up with its perceived greatness and singularity.
A recent study ranked tiny Finland and several of the other Scandinavian countries as the world’s happiest, although the United States failed to rank in the top ten. Indeed, the results of the study point out a remarkable anomaly: Despite the United States possessing the world’s largest economy, millions of its citizens grapple with rising levels of obesity, substance abuse and high rates of depression, not unlike the problems that plagued the Soviet Union in the years leading up to its collapse.
Some on the left have expressed a desire to build a new national identity on the basis of socialism and identitarian politics, with the long-term goal of ridding the country of what they characterize as a historically evil and malignant white patrimony that has existed since the nation’s founding.
Given all these deep divisions over how to define the American enterprise in the future, perhaps we will return to some version of Thomas Jefferson’s 18th century vision of an American Empire: a continent of smaller states, either loosely tied or wholly independent of each other, sharing some degree of historical and cultural affinity.
Jefferson, it seems, may prove to a prophet of post-national American unity. At least, one can hope, amid all of this national division and rancor, that we can muster some semblance of mutual affinity and continental unity.
Whatever the case, a socialist, identitarian America should hold no appeal for any decent person, irrespective of race or ethnicity, who cherishes ordered liberty and constitutional government.
But if, God forbid, such an America emerges in the next 30 years, I suppose I’ll be one of those passing my autumn and winter years in a socialist gulag, at least, deriving a measure of solace that I will be living among what remains of sane people in America.