In The Atlantic, Yoni Appelbaum has a thoughtful and at times depressing reflection on the crisis of “the American idea.” He summarizes the 19th-century preacher Theodore Parker’s articulation of this “American idea”: “that all people are created equal, that all possess unalienable rights, and that all should have the opportunity to develop and enjoy those rights.” Now, warns Appelbaum, that trinity of equality, rights, and opportunity is under attack. The Left subscribes to “a strange sort of universalism, focusing on America’s flaws while admiring other nations’ virtues.” Meanwhile, the Right has begun “to define American identity around culture, not principles.” Appelbaum notes many real challenges in his essay (such as a deteriorating commitment to some of the core principles of a free society), and he traces the powerful call toward a principle-driven politics that weaves through American history like a bright red, white, and blue ribbon. A brutish national chauvinism is a poor foundation indeed for the American republic.
Nevertheless, we should be careful about throwing the cultural baby out with the jingoistic bathwater. (For the record: I’m not accusing Appelbaum of such a toss.) There are many advantages to a principles-driven politics, especially when those principles are the ones espoused by the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. But principles alone might be an insufficient foundation for a nation. A government, after all, is a government of men — not ideas alone. “Culture” — that combination of practices, artistic works, history, ceremonies, and so forth — can give life and energy to a body politic.
Not only does culture afford a way of giving substance to a country, but it can also facilitate diversity, too. One of the problems with basing a national discourse solely on principles is that such a foundation might end up exaggerating differences and making them irreconcilable. If a nation is only a check-list of principles, what do we do with those citizens who dissent from one of those principles? Who gets to decide which principles really do constitute the “idea” of America or any other nation? An expansive cultural sense of belonging helps mediate these intellectual disagreements: You think the American idea supports redistribution, I think it supports paring back the welfare state, but we both watch baseball and love Taco Bell, so can’t we all just get along? Culture affords a common ground even when principles clash.
This culture does not need to be homogeneous. The United States embodies a web of diverse subcultures. Every person might not share in every subculture, but people participate in so many forms and practices that common ground can be found with countless other Americans. One of the more dangerous effects of heightening partisan polarization is the way that it has bled over into culture, splitting Americans into two tribes with not only different political beliefs but also cultural practices. Far from offering an argument on behalf of replacing cultural fellowship with ideological participation, this partisan cultural clustering underlines the importance of fostering a space for a broader cultural fellowship.
History suggests the need for buttressing appeals to principle with invocations of a more enriched civic heritage (which is entirely different from “blood and soil” nationalism). When Lincoln addressed the nation on the eve of the Civil War, he did not close with an invocation of principles alone but instead called upon “the mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land.” It was a common national identity that transcended ideas — of common participation, bloodshed, and triumph — that he insisted upon. That emphasis upon a common civic culture was not, of course, enough to end the secession crisis — bayonet, cannonball, and an ocean of blood were required for that. Still, throughout the Civil War, Lincoln both asserted the importance of certain grand ideas and called upon a common civic identity in North and South.
The core ideas embedded in the United States’ founding documents are worthy of celebration, and they have a significance far beyond our own shores. They constitute one of the most sparkling gems in the American civic heritage. If we wish to sustain those ideas, however, we may have to mount a more capacious enterprise of cultural preservation and renewal. If we remember that the United States is not just an idea but a country, we may end up defending the ideas it has advanced over the past two and a half centuries.