America is a unique place.
The concept of nations is relatively new in the history of mankind, even though large and small political units have existed for 8 to 10,000 years.
Political units either tended to be based upon shared identities–from tribes to cities–or upon conquest by force–empires.
The nations, however, are more complex political units. The modern admixture is a mix of empires and tribes, with a shared identity that has grown out of changes in the modern age. Even Germany and Italy, which seem to us to be enduring units that obviously belong as a single unit, didn’t exist much more than 150 years ago. Italy’s full unification came after WWI, and only really began in 1871.
In the ancient world, cities were the primary unit of government. This was because everybody knew everyone else in the city. (Cities back then would have been like small towns now). In a way, you identified with them all because they were in a way your neighbors and your lot had been thrown into theirs.
Rome was a bit of an exception. It was more like America, but it was still an empire. Rome was the closest thing the ancient West had to a Nation. China was its equivalent in the East. Proto-nations. The existence of large groups with shared identities was rare as a hen’s tooth.
Today, the shared identity of nations is largely based on language and ethnic similarities and a shared sense of history. While nationhood seems an obvious thing to us today, it didn’t solidify as an idea until the 19th Century, really. They thought that someone in the south of France had little in common with someone in the north, and France as a whole was the most nationalistic region in Europe.
The Peace of Westphalia in the 17th century is often cited by political scientists as the birth of the nation-state. There are intellectual arguments to support this idea, especially when it comes to international relations. But regarding real nationhood for peoples themselves–the idea that one is English or French–I date to the late 18th century with the French and American revolutions, with the former being more important than the latter.
The French Revolution sparked the psychological creation of the state in my view, with the Revolution creating the spark, and Napoleon’s mobilization of France for war putting the idea into form. Up until Napoleon, most governments were small, elite institutions with limited control and a distinct distance from the everyday. Most people did not consider themselves part of a larger political unit unless forced to.
Napoleon created the concept of a National Purpose by mobilizing millions in one unit.
The majority of nations that are stable today all share the same basic formula. They have a relatively homogeneous ethnic and linguistic group where people can see themselves in each other. They are not geographic or government areas, but reflect the fundamental cultural unity of a group. In countries where this isn’t the case, people tend to feel alienated by the government and fellow citizens. Africa’s mess is due to the fact that its political units do not reflect the identity units of ethnic groups or tribes, which are still the majority.
What does this have to do with America’s success and now trouble?
America is unique, because we are united by a sense of shared history and a devotion to underlying ideas that have been embodied in the Constitution and Declaration of Independence.
Contrast this with France–which is now in its 6th or 7th governmental iteration since the French Revolution. Most people don’t think of it this way, but the current government is the Fifth French Republic, with the revolutionary government being the first. France is still France, even though the government has changed so often. The government is just the icing that covers a very stable cake, namely the French identity.
Americans are culturally more diverse and have no shared ethnicity. But until very recently, Americans of all backgrounds, immigrants or natives, had an appreciation and understanding for their shared history. The immigrants came here for this reason, and they were just as American as the descendants who fought the Revolutionary War.
The waves of immigration were not all sunshine and roses. As the number of immigrants grew too large to be absorbed by the country, tensions began to rise because the immigrant communities seemed separated from the rest of the population. Slaves, and their descendants, were largely left out of the American concept and shared history. Over the years, integration has allowed people of all races and creeds to see themselves as fundamentally American.
“It’s a free country” It was a common creed that we all held dear.
Since World War II the military has been a microcosm as well as the best example for this peculiarity in our nation. For all of the talk about “diversity” In civilian society, the military is a true example of diversity in action. People who look and think different come together for a common cause to achieve common goals. In theory, but not always, it is a Band of Brothers with a common goal that overrides any differences.
All World War II movies have emphasized the uniquely American culture. All of these movies show people of all colors, nationalities, and religions united by a common goal. All of them are Americans, whether they’re Christian or Jewish, or from Brooklyn or Mississippi.
What makes a Frenchman French differs fundamentally from what makes an American American. Frenchmen, are they not obnoxious cheese-eating frog legs and wine-swilling sacrificial monkeys? Although the French did have a proud military history, they remain obnoxious. Americans? George Washington is all of us, right?
America is eroding today because without a common purpose, we are no longer united. Most Americans are not rooted in a place–we move constantly. We don’t share the same religion or ethnic background or any of the traditional ties that bind us. Our sense of trust has been based on the idea that we all believe in the same basic political philosophy, which many political scientists and sociologists have characterized as America’s civil religion.
Civil religion is what has been eroding. We all believe that we’re essentially equal, that we share a common American History and that we are all free. This is our religion. George Washington, the Founders, The Great Emancipator, World War II, The Cold War, America the liberator…
The vast majority of Americans do not believe this idea to be true or beneficial, and a significant portion of Democrats consider the civil religion to be a blatantly fabricated lie designed to oppress the disadvantaged. Marxist and critical theory undermine our civil religion. Nothing else unites us.
The real founding date of our nation is 1619 and not 1776. This argument sums up everything: Is America fundamentally about freedom or oppression?
There is a lot of talk about civil conflict. We don’t see ourselves in each other, and the differences are becoming vast. Neither side believes in the fairness of the process, and we don’t share the same goals.
The military is the best example of an America that works. Not because the military is the most efficient part of our society (hint: it isn’t!) Not because they are run well, or for any other reason. It’s because we believe that for all its flaws, when the chips are down everybody has each others’ back.
My view comes from the outside, as I have not served in the armed forces. I am pretty cynical about the top leadership in the military–they are, after all, primarily politicians. But my outsider’s sense is that the military has been regarded so highly since it became all volunteer because it came to embody our ideals, if in imperfect form. All people, regardless of their backgrounds, are working together to achieve the same goal.
What do you think? In the next decade, do you think our society will move closer or further away from that ideal? Do you think that the system is fair in its core? You believe that everybody has the chance to succeed?
If not–and few of us do–we have identified why America is facing trouble. There is nothing else that ties these ideas together, except for a common money and the IRS.
We need to find a path back to where we can all agree that the playing fields are level. It’s going to be a long journey, but the first step is to get rid of those who are bent on destroying the American ideal.
After Vietnam, the military took two decades to take on a form that we can recognize today. The road to becoming a hollow force after Vietnam was long. But it had to be done.
Let’s hope that the same can be done with America herself, and work to make that happen.