The only effective solution to bridging America’s seemingly insurmountable partisan divide is as simple as it is controversial: We need a renewed American nationalism.
Nationalism? The very word no doubt triggers the protesters pulling down our founders’ statues. They’re certain that progress demands weakening our allegiance to the nation, not tying ourselves closer to it. They want less America, not more.
Revolutionaries rarely stop for reality checks; this is the responsibility of conservatives. Since Edmund Burke first warned about the excesses of the French Revolution, conservative thinkers have reminded us that human beings are fallen creatures. We are selfish and tribal. We achieve real progress only when we seek to co-opt rather than transcend our hardwired human reality.
In economics, for example, conservatives have long recognized that human beings are driven by self-interest. We will work our fingers to the bone for ourselves and our families, but often not lift a finger if the best fruits of our labor are redistributed to strangers. That’s why we’re capitalists. Capitalism turns our self-interest into an engine that can propel the entire nation forward. By ignoring this reality, communism and socialism have consistently impoverished their practitioners.
A similar pragmatism must govern our response to the current crisis of racial tension in America. Conservatives understand that human beings are tribal creatures. Throughout history, humans have been quick to sacrifice ourselves for members of our own family and clan, but we’ve typically had more brutal relationships with those outside our in-group.
The racism that exists in this country is an expression of this hardwired human reality. Yet the founders didn’t plant this hate within us, and tearing down their statues won’t purge it from our hearts.
American Nationalism Unites Us
Rather than try to transcend our tribalism, we should instead co-opt it though a renewed American nationalism, educating our children to do what comes naturally: to love their tribe. We must also teach them that their tribe includes every single American, regardless of race, religion, or country of origin. They must understand that any definition of the nation that seeks to divide us by race, such as white nationalism or saviorism, is a perversion that betrays our creed and endangers our brethren.
Our nation is vast, but it is not so abstract that a love for it cannot be a powerful force in our lives. Our military cemeteries provide beautiful testimony to the fact that national loyalty has inspired a multitude of heroes to make the greatest of sacrifices. If nationalism can motivate us to die for our fellow citizens, is it really so hard to believe it can also move us to love them?
Experience shows that when Americans are united by a higher cause, superficial distinctions of skin color fade in importance. The American military, for example, long ago achieved a level of integration beyond that of our larger society. American soldiers, united by ideals of country, duty, and honor, have consistently been transformed from diverse strangers into bands of brothers. Even when they’ve grown disillusioned with the wars they’re asked to fight, most soldiers continue to risk life and limb for one another.
A similar phenomenon plays out in America’s churches. Yes, many churches remain self-segregated, but many are integrated — and profoundly so. Anyone who spends time in these faith communities understands that people united by a love of God and humanity end up connecting to one another in ways that baffle both the racist and the woke.
We must guard against excess, as all healthy loyalties can be taken to ugly extremes. There have been times when love of country has waxed so strong that it’s crossed the line into chauvinism. This, however, is not one of those times. The challenge we face today is not one of reigning in excessive national zeal but of rekindling sufficient national unity to bind up our wounds.
Imagine a Better America, Not No America
Recent events highlight just how degraded our national feelings have become. Every day seems to bring the rejection of another national hero and the disposal of another national symbol. As if to prove nothing is sacred, some activists have recently proposed replacing “The Star-Spangled Banner” with a new national anthem because its author, Francis Scott Key, owned slaves. Rubbing coarse salt in the wound, they’ve suggested John Lennon’s “Imagine” as the alternative.
There is probably no song conservatives dislike more. Lennon’s ballad famously invites us to imagine a world without “countries” and “religion.” He thinks removing these institutions will usher in a “brotherhood of man” in which we no longer have anything to “kill or die for.”
Conservatives know, however, that we kill and die because of a poison that’s already inside us. Take away countries, religion, and the other institutional glue bonding people together, and you’ll see this poison express itself in the ugliest of ways. It has already begun.
Rather than imagining Lennon’s disastrous world, contemplate wiser visions. Imagine instead that there are countries, that America continues to be one of them, and that each of us develops an American identity so profound it renders our differences of skin color irrelevant.
Imagine an America in which each child learns that our history is the story of a sinful nation that dedicated itself to the highest of ideals and then did what had never been done before in human history: It slowly but steadily progressed toward achieving those ideals. Imagine a generation of Americans committed to learning this history and participating in this still-unfolding drama, rather than attacking this rare and fragile experiment in human progress.
These might be dreams, but they are the dreams of our forefathers, of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King Jr. American citizenship is not a free pass to an earthly utopia. It’s an invitation to preserve the work of these heroes and, if we’re up to the task, possibly nudge it forward. Given the possibilities in our imperfect world, this is a dream we should cherish and an invitation we should accept.