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America Isn’t an Idea

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 [1] 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 [2], 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.

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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,” [3] 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 [4]. 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.

62 Comments (Open | Close)

62 Comments To "America Isn’t an Idea"

#1 Comment By VikingLS On May 25, 2018 @ 11:49 pm

” The idea of America is the hope of Humanity so get your act together and bring it to the World. The Liberal European democracies will help. ”

Really? Most of the Western Europeans I’ve met seem to delight in mocking Americans as ignorant rubes.

#2 Comment By Jeeves On May 28, 2018 @ 1:21 pm

It’s commonplace among academics to say America is a credal country, one built on an idea rather than a racial, ethnic, geographic or linguistic unity.

Perhaps there’s some truth in that, but just using attitudes toward immigration as a litmus test, it’s hard to see how our allegiance to Locke and Hume is what we fear will be most diluted by the presence of so many asylum-seekers and refugees. The ball of wax is bigger than that.

On the other hand, it’s possible that after many years, enclaves of Somalis will be thought of as “American” as any niche culture of hillbillies. Even absent a taste for country music.

#3 Comment By Winston On July 4, 2018 @ 2:24 am

The people who have an “idea of America” are dying out. What America is and means will change drastically because of those who will replace the dying population.

#4 Comment By SteveM On July 4, 2018 @ 8:57 am

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.

Civic-nationalist Americanism is embodied by the sanctification of Warfare State. It celebrates the engine of death, destruction and waste. Flags now aren’t planted on the 4th of July to acknowledge America’s detachment from the world of war as envisioned by the Founders but rather its warped embrace of it.

It may not be ethnic or race-based, but what could be more toxic?

#5 Comment By E.J. Worthing On July 4, 2018 @ 11:32 am

“It’s a place with unique customs that people are proud of.”

One of those customs is welcoming immigrants.

#6 Comment By Ken T On July 4, 2018 @ 11:46 am

Its ceremony reflected a certainty (albeit a fading one) about national identity that Americans have always lacked.

Yes, and that is exactly the point, isn’t it? At no time in America’s history, going back to the day the second boatload of colonists arrived, has America had a single national cultural identity. The Massachusetts puritans, the Philadelphia Quakers, the Virginia plantation owners, the Louisiana bayou fishermen were as different from each other then as any of today’s cultural groups. The American “identity” promoted by Rodney Atkins is just one of many identities that have always made up this country. To other people who have been American just as long as Atkins, his idea of “America” is just as alien as, say, a Bangkok street market would be to him. Which is why it is so ridiculous for people to keep insisting that the “rural Midwest” or the “rural South” or the “rural West (not counting the Hispanics who lived there long before the first WASPs arrived)” is the only “real” America. It’s all real, it’s all America. Yes, it is an “idea”. But it is also much more than that.

#7 Comment By Cynthia McLean On July 4, 2018 @ 1:36 pm

If we Americans care about our Land-Our Home we need to be rid of Scott Pruitt at the EPA and Zinke at the Interior. Both are happy to abandon the Health of the Land that belongs to us all, for the Profit of a few, including themselves.

#8 Comment By Janek On July 4, 2018 @ 1:47 pm

@ John Constable
You wrote it just right and I could not write it better then you. I agree you 100%.
Happy 4th of July America.

#9 Comment By Black On July 4, 2018 @ 6:43 pm

Singing about a ‘small town Saturday Night’ and 4x4s only work when there is a worker and a Planter “Class”…the worker accepts his role as a worker in principle…he/she wont make it, but his/her child will/can/perhaps…This faux music aka Country Music is just an manifestation of Americas love affair with the simple and banal, inasmuch as the “simps” dont make too much fuss (and they dont). Rolling back worker protections are ok…check. Anti Union….check. Environmental protections…fine…too many…Fire and hire….check(A poor man can create jobs)…The Authoritarian Southern Way is leading Down the Road to Ruin…but its Ok and BIBLICAL, RIGHT>

#10 Comment By Kumar Choudhuri On August 14, 2018 @ 9:31 pm

I believe in simple things. A country I live in that honors integrity, hard work and meritocracy. This is the America I emigrated to.

These are ideas! For heavens sake what culture did America have when Germans, Italian and the Irish emigrated to America. They brought their own to the mix. So let’s get away from this cultural preservation myth!

American from Germans, Italians and even the Japanese heritage fought in WWII for their nation (America).

Please get used to the idea. That what attracts folks from all over the world to America is it’s very ideas and freedom to do just about anything they want!

#11 Comment By george rodart On August 30, 2018 @ 8:13 pm

America is an idea of individual freedom for all.
We must not forget that American( British Subjects – yes, you know discardable) came to North American but were not the first, but The Spaniards were and for those of you who do not understand – they are of white race. Many equate a Spanish name with being Mexican, which in some cases is not accurate, because they are mixed with the white Spaniard.
Pure Mexicans are Indians dark skin. There were no white skinned Indians( unless you’re color blind). One of the many tribes in South America includng Central America were the Aztecs. They conquered and controlled.
The true Americans both in North, Central, and South America were the Indians – the name given to them by the Italian fellow sailing under the flag of Spain.
The scenario was set. Both the British who came with the word of God ,as well as, the Spaniards ,well they missed the boat. They saw the abundance of the agricultural lands, metals and minerals – gold , silver, coal,etc. Their eyes dazzled and hearts filled with love – no with greed ! God’s law was set aside and used their interpretation to justify the extermination of the Indian race and culture.
This tactic was used by the British and Spaniards.
They had already used this method against the Catholics and Jews.
The idea that the Europeans brought freedom to the new world wastheir fantasy. Freedom was already being practiced.
No new world was discovered. It was always there.
Freedom is not an idea,but a reality of the law of nature. The Indian people understood this.
Any good Indian is a dead Indian. As far as I am concerned that is very true because I rather die fihting for my Freedom than to live in chains and be stripped of my human God given rights.
It does not matter whether you are white, black, or brown the idea of being a real true American is to keep the idea alive at all cost , even death.
I am an American , but also part Comanche Indian. America for me is more than an idea it is my home. Thank you or rather thank the Sun,the Moon,the Stars, Mother Earth, the Water – The gift of God to mankind.

#12 Comment By Kyle On September 11, 2018 @ 5:46 am

The things that Atkins sings about in that song are all expressions of his American cultural identity, and probably the cultural identity of his hometown and many places like it all over the country, but that’s not the cultural identity everywhere. Its important to remember that this is a great big, diverse country that has never had a monolithic cultural identity. For instance, if we were to talk about this in purely regional terms I think everyone would agree that the cultural identity and practices in the Northeast differ from that of the American South, or the Midwest, West Coast, or Alaska or Hawaii, even if there may be various degrees of crossover. Individual states often have unique cultural identities, such as that of Colorado, Texas, Vermont, or Maryland and certainly the cultural practices and identity of a city like New York differs substantially from not just rural America, but also from other big cities like Miami or Los Angeles.

And while our cultural identity may be important to who we are as individual Americans, its not what makes us Americans. Rather, it is simply the byproduct of the ideas and traits that define the American identity, and one could even say they actually help illustrate their realization.

Kids at a lemonade stand is a Norman Rockwell-esque practice, sure. But its really just the expression of our ideals in cultural form. It is the byproduct of our freedom, and what we consider to be uniquely American traits such as our individualism and self reliance. High School proms and Springsteen songs represent much the same, along with our freedom of opportunities in education and our ability to use our talents to acquire fortune and fame, not to mention our rights to free expression and association.

Chevrolet, the moonshot, and American cities and farms are more byproducts of freedom, our economic opportunity, and our American individualism and ingenuity at work. They demonstrate that our liberties and ideals make it so that we can accomplish anything with enough hard work and dedication, and America’s open arms and unity as one nation under God expresses our goodness, our decency, our fairness, and our equal acceptance of these willing to embrace these ideals and become an American. Those ideas are the common thread that connect all the various expressions of American cultural identity together, and they represent some of the greatest ideas in human history. That our country was conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal; that we are endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights; that government is intended to secure and protect those rights for the People; and government power is only legitimate if it is derived from the consent of the governed; and is used to serve the People, and not kings or individuals.

Not that you need to be a constitutional scholar to be an American. You simply need to accept the idea of America and what it has to offer, such as by participating in all the cultural expressions and identity it makes possible.

Bottomline is that America is an idea. Its what defines us. And while the American idea has been modified and copied by many countries, including pretty much all America’s allies in some form, it simply doesn’t define them. Its uniquely American. Strip freedom, human rights, democracy and the rule of law from the United States and what we represent to the world and America itself is gutted. If that happened, and the idea of America that makes all these things possible were to disappear, then our cultural expressions and identity like the things Atkins sings about could end up disappearing as well. They’re not evidence that America is not an idea. They’re proof that it is.