Learning to Be an American
Our national project rests on transcendent ideas — including a belief in capitalism.


Charles C. W. Cooke

So prominent are ideas in America that they are put on the money: “In God We Trust,” “E Pluribus Unum,” and “Liberty” are — literally — forged into the currency of the nation. In Britain, by way of contrast — a nation that helped write America’s values and then largely abandoned them at home — the money features a picture of the Queen, some functional words, and a few decorations. This difference is important.

In an episode of Da Ali G Show, the fictional character Borat interviews an American and asks her why America is the best country in the world:

Borat: “Which country is the number one in the world?”
American: “I think, right now the US.”
Borat: “Don’t you think maybe Kazakhstan is the number one?”
American: “No.”
Borat: “But we have a man with the biggest amount of fingers. He has eight fingers. Do you have it?”
American: “Does he have the right to vote? The freedom to speak?”
Borat: “Weeell . . . Not so much. But we have the biggest goat in the world. Oh no. Hungary has number one. But US has number five. Are we number one country now?”

True to Sacha Baron Cohen’s style, this is heavy-handed. But it strikes at something important. Borat proudly lists many of the commendable (albeit fictional) virtues of his country — “Kazakhstan number one exporter of potassium!” — and the American calmly reminds him that American ideas are why the country transcends all others. Is it too radical to propose that national greatness thus relies upon people following these very ideas?

Reflexive, frivolous, and opportunistic charges of “racism” aside, the reason that Sununu stirred such controversy with his comment about Obama’s learning to be American was that it dealt with something not explicitly articulated in any of the founding documents. As I understand it, the outcry against Sununu derives, at least in part, from the fact that he was criticizing Obama for not being a very good capitalist — and that, per Oliver Wendell Holmes, “capitalism” and “America” are not interchangeable. I’m not at all convinced of that. Capitalism is the only economic system compatible with the form of government laid out in the Constitution. And, even if capitalism is not enumerated in that document, the role of government is. You really cannot have American constitutional government with a different economic system. Progressives ultimately know this, which is why they disdain the charter and seek fundamentally to transform it.

So uncontroversial is this notion that the citizenship test explicitly asks which system of economics the United States enjoys: The correct answer is “capitalism.” I would argue that, if it is reasonable to potentially deny people citizenship based on their failure to understand this tenet of the republic, then it is also reasonable to judge someone’s capacity to be a good or a bad American by the same token.

Abraham Lincoln started his Gettysburg Address with these words:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure.

Lincoln was fighting both to keep the union intact and to rid the nation of slavery. But he also understood acutely that, if America disappeared, so did its underlying ideas, which is why he finished his short oration with the earnest hope that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” He was correct to so worry. If the Union had lost the war, then others could well have interpreted the Civil War as living proof that a republic built on presumptions of liberty simply could not persist. As such, America’s survival was important not only to Americans but to all free people.

F. Scott Fitzgerald put it this way in “The Swimmers”:

France was a land, England was a people, but America, having about it still that quality of the idea, was harder to utter — it was the graves at Shiloh and the tired, drawn, nervous faces of its great men, and the country boys dying in the Argonne for a phrase that was empty before their bodies withered. It was a willingness of the heart.

Ideas require willing, and some hearts are more willing than others.

 — Charles C. W. Cooke is an editorial associate for National Review.