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

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

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.

At times annoying, yes. Still, the nature of its nationalism has been extraordinarily beneficial to the United States. America's integration of people of ethnic diversity is an enormous accomplishment -- and one that would have been quite impossible without a sense of nationness based on adherence to a universalistic idea. In this regard, a comparison to Canada, another new nation, is in order. From the beginning, Ontario's British said, in effect, ``We're British first, Canadian second.'' Q uebec's French reciprocated: ``We're French first, Canadian second.'' The country has paid an enormous price for the historic absence of a muscular sense of Canadianness.

In contrast, by the 1760s in what was to become the United States, many of the then-predominantly British subjects had already decided that they were not really British -- they were a new people and, indeed, something better than British. John Adams rightly described this development as the ``real American revolution.'' If the British were not really British, then the Irish didn't have to be Irish, the Germans German, and so on. The US did not avoid some severe ethnic growing pains, of course, but it wa s able to contain the centrifugal pressures. Between 1900 and 1914 alone, 3.1 million people migrated to the US from central Europe, 2.6 million from Russia and the Baltic states, and 3 million from Italy. H. G. Wells saw this stream of migration and marveled over it: ``In one record day this month 21,000 immigrants came into the port of New York alone; in one week over 50,000. This year [1906] the total will be 1,200,000 souls pouring in, finding work at once, producing no fall in wages. They start digging

and building and making. Just think of the dimensions of it!'' That this were possible is an enormous tribute to the functionality of America's sense of itself.

American nationalism remains the cornerstone of the American polity and society. For instance, the country's foreign policy has evidenced continuities since World War II, not just because the United States has had some enduring interests over this span, but also because it has manifested an enduring sense of itself and its mission -- yes, mission, because most Americans still think of it that way, even those who are too sophisticated to say so. Although we sometimes dwell on our internal dif fernces -- in the case of Vietnam, Nicaragua, or now South Africa -- commonalities in Americans' foreign-policy outlook are far more striking.

Domestic politics often hinges on this pervasive sense of nation. In 1984 Reagan won overwhelmingly not only because the economy was doing well, but because he had plugged into the nation's somewhat exalted self-conception so effectively. Jimmy Carter's greatest strategic failure as a politician was his profound misreading of American national self-image: He thought it had changed in the tumult of the late 1960s and early 1970s, when in fact it remained exactly what it had always been.

Someday, of course, American nationalism may erode or metamorphose. When and if that happens, the country will experience change such as it has never seen. Up to now, though, one finds exceptional continuities in American life, hinging on the historic persistence of the national idea.

Everett Carll Ladd, executive director of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research and professor of political science at the University of Connecticut, is the author of ``The American Polity.''

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