First let me tardily congratulate Rich Lowry, Charlie Cooke, Ian Tuttle, and Michael Brendan Dougherty for a really outstanding episode of The Editors podcast. It was a joy to listen to, given how much all four really love the American Founding and the debates around it. I learned a lot from it. Just because the Fourth is behind us doesn’t mean it’s not worth your time.
Here comes the But . . .
Around the 50-minute mark I was quite surprised to hear Rich pretty much echo the often-caricatured version of Barack Obama’s American exceptionalism.
Rich started by saying that America is a nation, not an idea. He then went on to demonstrate the ways in which America is a nation (it’s got borders and a people and a culture and the like).
That’s fine with me, I suppose. I concluded a while ago that the “Nation vs. Idea” argument is poorly framed. If all you have to do is cite borders, roads, and a post office to prove it’s not an idea, then what’s the point?
Of course America is a nation. I just don’t think it’s just any other nation. But Rich, in his riff on America’s nation-ness, went on to say that pretty much every country thinks it’s special and a “Shining City on a Hill.”
And that’s correct. Every country does have ideals. But the specifics matter. It’s a bit like saying every human has talents — sure, but some talents are greater than others. A great composer and a great armpit-farter may be equally rich in their degree of talent, but not in the quality or desirability of their talents. I am just a bit shocked that Rich would so blithely reduce all national ideals to the same any three-for-a-dollar bargain bin on sale to every nation on the U.N. roll call from Albania to Zimbabwe. Are our ideals really no better than any other country’s? Are they worth defending only because they are ours?
It seems The Editors are closer to this position than I would have ever guessed. (And here we should note they do not speak with an editorial voice for the magazine. I would very much like to see the internal discussion of an NR editorial dedicated to the proposition, “American Ideals: ‘Meh.’”)
Rich asked an exit question: “If America had different ideals, would you still love her?”
They all said yes.
Ian offered little more than an “absolutely” to Rich’s question. Michael almost let down his guard to reveal he might like it better if we had different ideals. And Rich was of course a full throated yes. He then went on to say that he’s coming around to the idea that “there’s no such thing as a bad nation, only bad governments.”
Couldn’t someone ask, What ideals are we talking about here? Forget dystopian scenarios from The Man in the High Castle or The Handmaid’s Tale. What if America just had the social and political priorities of Sweden or Norway? It’s fine to say you’d still love her, but you know what? It’s also fine to say you wouldn’t.
Charlie came closest to making this point. When asked if he’d still love America if it had different ideals, he said “Yes, but less.” He went on to explain that as an immigrant from a decent country, what appealed to him about America most is its culture and its system of law. He conceded, grudgingly, that if we changed our ideals we’d lose some of the stuff he loves. But at the end of the day he’d still love America regardless of her ideals.
Going by the text alone, without knowing the gentlemen involved, I would say this is all terribly wrongheaded. But I am more than confident that all of my colleagues do, in fact, believe it depends on what ideals we’re talking about. But they didn’t say it. Rather they nodded along (I heard nodding!) as Rich argued for the “everybody’s special” school of patriotism and nationalism.
Still, at least Charlie acknowledged that there is some relationship between a nation’s ideals and our love for it (another word for patriotism). He just couldn’t bring himself to say he could stop loving America.
The rest of the gang didn’t even acknowledge that such a relationship between ideas and love exists. If National Review had completely different editorial positions — pro-choice, pro–gun control, etc. — would the cast of The Editors not be less in the love with National Review? The question answers itself.
Ideals say a lot about a person and nation. Change the ideals, you change the person — and the nation. It sounds nice to say that you’d still love the American people if America became a continental socialist commune in the Republic of Berniestan. It sounds patriotic to say that American culture is bigger and more important than the government. It’s also true. But what shapes government and culture? Well, lots of things. But very near the top of the list are ideals, broadly understood. Change the ideals and you change the people (and vice versa).
Yet Rich’s uncontested formulation is that there are no bad nations, only bad governments. How can that be? Wasn’t the whole idea, as promulgated by the Founders, that the people should get the governments they deserve? Don’t some bad governments reflect the shortcomings of their people?
Wasn’t the whole idea, as promulgated by the Founders, that the people should get the governments they deserve?
I’m being a bit unfair, I know. But they had just spent the better part of the hour celebrating the glory and genius of the Founding in expert and loving detail. And then, when it came time to defend the exceptional essence of American patriotism from the grubbiness of generic nationalism, the only nod to the importance of the American idea came from the gun-nut immigrant (I say that with love).
And this brings me back to this whole nation-versus-idea thing.
Imagine one person tells you that his ideal form of government would be to get rid of the Constitution and make Kim Kardashian queen. You’d think that person is silly, probably even deranged. Now imagine that 270 million Americans believed that and, having the necessary supermajority to pull it off, voted away our Constitution. As the coronation of Queen Kim, First of Her Name, unfolded on every channel, would you not change your view of America, her culture, and her people? Might you not fall out of love with America as it is?
My hunch is Rich et al. would still love America, but you know what America they would love? The America That Was. They might even join the resistance to the regime of Queen Kim (I’m fairly certain Charlie would) in an effort to restore self-government to America. And here’s the funny thing: They’d be fighting against the American nation in the name of that great and glorious cause, the American Idea. And that’s the crucial difference.