Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search

The American idea of nation. Diverse public coalesced around values -- individualism, freedom, equality, private property, democracy

By Everett Carll Ladd / September 30, 1985

IN the 1970s, political analysts often worried about what they thought was a growing national ``malaise'' -- which, President Jimmy Carter told his fellow citizens in 1979, was prompting ``a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul of our national will.'' Now in the 1980s, the talk is quite the opposite: We hear of a presumed resurgence of national pride, patriotism, and optimism, evident in the rhythmic shouts of ``USA, USA'' at last year's Olympics and in the buoyant preparations for ne xt year's rededication of the Lady of Liberty in New York Harbor. This commentary has got things all wrong. When someone remarks that I have put on too much weight, I don't experience a ``crisis of confidence''; I pout. And when a friend says he likes an article I have written, my self-esteem is not ``buoyantly resurgent''; I am pleased. I mean to suggest only that distinguishing among levels of response is basic to understanding -- of things small and large. American nationalism, or sense of nation, something very large, is made of pretty stern stuff. And through the

Skip to next paragraph

considerable tumult of the last two decades, as over the last two centuries, it has remained remarkably constant and unchanging. CAUSES: A number of astute observers, many from foreign lands, have long understood the strength and durability of the American self-conception. Nations commonly have their roots in ethnic experiences and identities. The United States is ethnically diverse, however, and for it to develop unity and identity, some other glue was needed. A body of ideas known as classical liberalism provided it. As the American Creed, liberalism quickly came to define what it means to be an American: adherence to values (and institutions) stressing individualism, freedom, equality, private property, and democracy. After his visit to the US in the early 1920s, G. K. Chesterton wrote that much had been made of the great American experiment ``of a democracy of diverse races, which has been compared to a melting pot. But even the metaphor implies that the pot itself is of a certain shape and a certain substance; a pretty solid substance. The melting pot must not melt.'' America is the only nation in the world, Chesterton continued , that is ``founded on a creed. That creed is set forth with dogmatic and even theological lucidity in the Declaration of Independence; perhaps the only piece of practical politics that is also theoretical politics and also great literature.'' It mattered much that the creed was widely seen as both progressive and universalistic: It accorded with the future, and it was open to all.

Established under and propped up by ageless ideological commitments, the central political institutions of the US have shown an extraordinary staying power. When institutions last as long as this, they acquire an element of legitimacy because of their duration. Attempts to change them even modestly, as a very popular Franklin Roosevelt found in 1937 when he sponsored a plan to end a perceived obstructionism in the Supreme Court by expanding the number of judges, have met with singular public disfavor. T he principal political institutions of ``the first new nation'' are today the oldest on the planet -- and the most jealously guarded.

What, then, is the American nation? It is defined by adherence to values seen as universalistic and progressive. One becomes American by manifesting attachments to these values and, relatedly, to the regime established in their name. The strength of this trinity of nation/ideology/regime has made American nationalism unusually robust. Americans have seen their nation exceptionally endowed, with a special mission. Recent survey research makes clear that these perspectives passed through the 1970s untouch ed, and are today widely shared among all principal groups -- class, regional, ethnic -- making up the US population. CONSEQUENCES: Non-Americans surely have cause to find American nationalism more than a little annoying. What is one to make of a big, strong, wealthy, country whose citizens are constantly congratulating themselves on how exceptional they are -- their historic mission, ``city-on-a-hillishness,'' special political virtues, their immense good fortune in history's crap-shoot or, even more, their divine ordination? And this has been going on for two centuries! ``The Americans,'' Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in 1835, ``appear impatient of the smallest censure and insatiable of praise. If I say to an American that the country he lives in is a fine one, `Ay,' he replies, `there is not its equal in the world.' If I applaud the freedom that its inhabitants enjoy, he answers: `Freedom is a fine thing, but few nations are worthy to enjoy it.' If I remark on the purity of morals that distinguishes the United States, `I can imagine,' says he, `that a stranger, who has witnessed the corruption that prevails in other nation s, would be astonished at the difference.' '' Today's de Tocqueville hears much the same thing.