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America Isn’t an Idea

It's a place with unique customs that people are proud of. Why do country singers get this but so many scholars don't?
American farm

This past weekend, there was a wedding some 4,000 miles away that nonetheless captivated the American psyche. Across the country, bars opened early, women donned ornate hats, and talk shows gossiped about every detail of a quintessentially British tradition. Yes, the bride was American. Yes, the ceremony indulged more modern accommodations than any of its regal predecessors. Yet despite these moves way from tradition, the spectacle remained unmistakably British. It reflected the culture, tradition, and mores of a specific national identity.

Perhaps this unabashed Britishness is part of the reason the royal wedding captured America’s attention. Its ceremony reflected a certainty (albeit a fading one) about national identity that Americans have always lacked. The debate over the nature of American identity—one weaved throughout the history of our New World nation—has come to the fore again with the immigration question. What is America? What does it mean to be an American?

For many, these questions are answered by the “American idea.” Rishabh Bandari and Thomas Hopson, writing in National Affairs, define this view as “civic-nationalist” and place conservatives like Senator Ben Sasse within this camp. This American identity places an emphasis on citizenship, but also a mythological perception of the American founding. Under this view, subscribing to the philosophy of the founding—equality, opportunity, perhaps individualism and self-reliance—is the defining trait of the American people. Recognizing the civic sainthood of the Founding Fathers is an added boon to one’s American bona fides.

The appeal of this civic-nationalist view is readily apparent. It forges a sense of unity out of a naturally fractured polity. Americans’ diverse ancestral homelands were always going to pose a challenge to the creation of a national identity. The thousands of years of custom and tradition that form the basis of the Britishness on display at the royal wedding are inherently absent in the United States.

This civic-nationalist Americanism also finds appeal in what it refutes: the nefarious strands of ethnic nationalism that attempt to resolve the question of national unity with a toxic, race-based Americanism. The civic-nationalist view is open to anyone from any background, so long as one signs on to the “American idea.” In this way, the multicultural nature of the nation is affirmed, with the political philosophy of the Founding providing the unity necessary for a functioning polity.

The problem, though, is that reducing American identity to an idea neglects the visceral connection—the patriotism—that is felt by those who call the United States home. Bill Kauffman, in his toast at The American Conservative’s 15th anniversary gala, lauded America “not as an idea, or an abstraction, or a cynical marketing slogan, but as our home, and the land we love above all others.” We don’t feel American out of a reverence for the Lockean liberalism that animates our Founding documents, but because man is inherently shaped by his place. Relying on an idea to provide meaning to national identity is anthropologically unsound; man requires more elementary cultural practices to foster the type of allegiance necessary for national unity. The places that we call home—and the cultural practices that emerge from those places—elicit a much greater allegiance than any abstract idea ever could.

This is precisely why even those who can’t name a single signer of the Declaration of Independence, or name a single amendment in the Bill of Rights, are still as undeniably American as the most renowned scholar of our history. It’s why those who critique the philosophy of the Founding don’t forfeit their American-ness by doing so. Despite the relative youth of this country, particular cultural elements have emerged that provide the deeper sense of familiarity and home that the civic-nationalist view of identity lacks.

But what are these cultural elements? In his 2009 hit “It’s America,” country singer Rodney Atkins, not exactly an expert in the finer points of the “American idea,” nonetheless provides a clearer understanding of American identity than many constitutional scholars do. Throughout the song, Atkins sketches a view of America based on a list of cultural practices:

Driving down the street today I saw a sign for lemonade
They were the cutest kids I’d ever seen in this front yard
As they handed me my glass, smiling thinking to myself
Man, what a picture-perfect postcard this would make of America

It’s a high school prom, it’s a Springsteen song, it’s a ride in a Chevrolet
It’s a man on the moon and fireflies in June and kids selling lemonade
It’s cities and farms, it’s open arms, one nation under God
It’s America

The suggestion here is not that seemingly trivial things like proms, Bruce Springsteen, and lemonade suffice to define this country. Rather, Atkins’ lyrics speak to the existence of uniquely American practices that order the rhythms of life in the United States differently than in other countries. It’s these references—which, it’s important to note, are accessible to all in this country, regardless of race, ethnicity, and education level—that make Rodney Atkins declare, “There’s no place else I’d rather build my life.” Mere ideas are insufficient to engender the patriotism that exists in much of America.

This concept of “America as home,” with specific practices, traditions, and customs—indeed, a specific culture—is increasingly necessary in a modernity shaped by a rapidly accelerating global anti-culture. Pop “culture,” which is largely untethered to place, doesn’t simply lack the customs, practices, and rituals of a true culture, but rather actively works against culture by promulgating individual autonomy as the highest good. In this paradigm, enculturating norms are not only unnecessary, but retrograde; they by definition serve to constrain unfettered autonomy for the benefit of the larger polity.

The Norman Rockwell-esque picture painted by Rodney Atkins shouldn’t be taken as prescriptive for America’s cultural ills. After all, lemonade and Chevrolets don’t exactly constitute the thickest of culture. But perhaps that’s the point. Ours is a young nation whose very genesis was a repudiation of established tradition, so it’s wholly unsurprising that the United States would have a thin culture. Yet if we care about our home, if we want this to remain “the land we love above all others,” we must preserve these seemingly trivial, uniquely American practices. They are, after all, what make us American.

Emile A. Doak is director of events & outreach at The American Conservative. He lives in his hometown of Herndon, Virginia.