Its easy to be gloomy these days. Financial markets convulse almost every day, and the general economic situation does not look good. Editorial writers predict the end of American capitalism. All this is taking place against the background of a long-running anxiety that America is somehow losing¯losing in Iraq, losing ground to China, losing the respect and loyalty of European allies.
And did I mention that the presidential candidate whom I think best suited to guide us through the looming recession, preserve global security, and promote a culture of life in the United States is falling behind in the polls? Like I said, its easy to feel pessimistic.
The strange thing, however, is that when I turn away from daily news and take the dog for a walk, I end up smiling. Underneath all my anxious hand wringing, Im an optimist about the future of America.
No doubt my optimism arises, at least in part, from an only semi-rational patriotism. Its natural to see strength in the country one loves. But what I see is, I think, real. America has a collective identity, a shared story that is strikingly powerful. Paul Revere, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Robert E. Lee, the Statue of Liberty, revival preachers, Grange halls, Woody Guthrie, soldiers on Iwo Jima, Joe DiMaggio, Martin Luther King Jr.¯Im not saying that its a coherent identity, but it pulses with life.
Today, Im willing to bet that there is a nineteen-year-old son of Mexican immigrants who is serving in the U.S. Army in Iraq who is now and will remain fiercely loyal to our national ideal¯while not denying or forgetting the painful betrayals of that ideal that his parents (and perhaps he) had to and continue to endure.
There is doubtless also a student at Yale or Michigan or Berkeley whose parents are from Korea. She will be cooler, more ironical, and more politically correct. She may not tremble with pride during the national anthem. But when she studies abroad in Spain during her junior year, she will feel her American identity, and, unless she is a good actress, her Spanish friends will chuckle at her hopelessly American personality.
The multicultural ideologues and the post-patriotic, postmodern, self-styled citizens of the world have tried to reduce the power of the American myth with critique, counter-history, and a carefully cultivated pedagogy of ignorance. But they have not been terribly successful, in large part because collective self-criticism, whether measured and constructive or loud and petulant, has long been a central element of the American character. Not since the Roman Empire has a society in the West been so capable of absorbing and socializing diverse peoples into its national project. By my reckoning this record of success is likely to continue.
People like to say that America is powerful because she is wealthy and can afford a large military budget. But this confuses consequences with causes. We live in a country of extraordinary wealth and military might because of the deeper power of our collective identities as Americans. At the end of the day, people¯their values, their loyalties, their aspirations¯make the difference. And when they can cooperate toward a common end, their talents and strengths are magnified manyfold. The Greeks discovered this in their cities: A small army of Athenians is far more powerful than a large army of slaves.
Weve seen this truth in action over the last month as the rest of the world has poured billions and billions of dollars into the U.S. Treasury bonds, signaling a global judgment that our country is the safest haven in dangerous times. The judgment is wise. A few weeks ago, Congress voted to allow the Treasury Department to spend up to $700 billion, and it did so under extraordinarily difficult political circumstances (see my analysis ” The Car Wreck ). Does anyone doubt that we are capable, as a nation, of setting aside another $700 billion? Or that we are capable of nationalizing our entire banking system?
These steps or others may be unnecessary. They may be unwise. But the point holds. Until we get rid of greed, stupidity, the lust for power, and other human failings¯until, that is, someone solves the problem of evil¯we will continue to face economic, political, and military crises that require dramatic collective action.
Hence my optimism. We have a very large nation with a high level of what management consultants like to call buy in. By no means does everyone agree. The debates never end. Elections continue to be held. But the gravitational force of the underlying American-ness keeps the strange, vibrant, diverse solar system of our society together, capable of collective action. To my mind, this is the essential strength of any democratic society: the sense of participation and ownership that makes us invested in our common future.
America is not forever. I can envision her diminishment by self-inflicted wounds. The biggest threat to our global predominance are the efforts by conflicting political parties to manipulate and restrict the power of the American myth in order to gain or retain control.
It is obvious for all to see that the Democratic Party often yields to the temptation to give legislative form to the multicultural agenda, because it promises to consolidate perpetual client populations who depend upon political leaders to distribute spoils. The approach has a long history. The urban Democratic political machines ran along these lines from the Civil War until 1965. Universities have adopted aspects of this approach since 1975. The essential move involves re-interpreting the American myth so that it is inaccessible to designated outsiders . These supposed outsiders are therefore dependent upon legatees to negotiate their interests with the real Americans, who (the designated outsider population is told) retain a monopoly on the true sources of wealth and power. Jesse Jacksons bitter comments about Barack Obama exposed the underlying logic: No real black man can be an ordinary, confident American.
The Republican Party has also been tempted by various approaches that deny the power of the American myth by restricting its scope. The right has often pandered to those who anxiously fear that our national identity cannot survive the current wave of new Americans¯or in the case of African-Americans, longtime-resident but supposedly alien Americans. These days, the Republican Party also attracts those who imagine that one cannot be an atheist and an American. The political strategy is simple: Find a formula to convince voters that only Republicans are reliable and trustworthy custodians of a fragile American identity.
Ten years ago, a retired black man at my church made a presentation about the Tuskegee airmen, a squadron of courageous African-American pilots trained to fight in World War II, who were ill-treated by the U.S. Army and the American society they sought to serve. The presenter held back his tears as he choked out his dismay that our country had failed those men. It was an arresting moment. He believed in America the way a man believes in his wife, and he grieved over her betrayal as someone utterly unable to detach himself and withdraw his love. Then and there, I saw into the depths what Abraham Lincoln rightly identified as mystic chords of memory. Any country capable of so binding the heart of a man¯a man who himself lived through the bitter and sometimes violent death-throes of Jim Crow¯will have little difficulty overcoming economic crises, meeting the challenges of an emergent China, and defeating the death-loving architects of modern terrorism.
R.R. Reno is features editor of First Things and professor of theology at Creighton University.