Is America Still a ‘Nation of Ideas’?
It is a bipartisan commonplace to talk about America as a nation of ideas. House Speaker Paul Ryan declared in 2016 that the United States is “the only nation founded on an idea, not an identity.” President Barack Obama saidpretty much the same thing when he won reelection in 2012. Alexander Hamilton himself opened the first of the Federalist Paperswith this thunderclap: It was up to Americans “to decide … whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.” What could guide “reflection and choice” but ideas?
But the image of the United States as a country of ideas suffered a severe setback in November, and it has been reeling ever since. Donald Trump’s unexpected presidential win violated so many norms—civility, avoiding explicit racism, the rudimentary appearance of consistency—that a subtler omission was easy to miss. Trump had no truck with the paean to America as a constitutional nation, a continuous inheritance of principle running from Lexington and Concord through Philadelphia and Gettysburg, Selma and the March on Washington, and down to today. The mogul from Trump Tower talked instead about warring tribes, the need for “Christians” to “stick together” (as he claimed Muslims do), the danger from “Mexicans” (including American-born judges of Mexican descent) and, of course, zero-sum “deals” that would surely cow the Chinese and the Iranians. And Trump was full of contempt for the fine talk of more conventional politicians, deeming the principles they preached just hypocritical horseshit.
Trump’s victory was a vivid reminder of something that has been easy for many people to forget in recent decades: As often as Americans have imagined that they inhabit a country of ideas, many have insisted instead that it is a nation of identity, a land of blood and soil, more about who you are than about what you affirm. Then in August, hundreds of white supremacists gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia, to rally to the blood-and-soil idea—some chanting that very phrase—and one of them murdered a counter-protester in an automobile attack that could easily have killed many more. Notoriously, President Trump responded by lamenting violence and bigotry on “many sides,” implying that the white-tribe view of America is no less legitimate than its opposite.
As nation-of-identity politics has risen, nation-of-ideas practice has been battered. In his seven months in office, Trump has shown indifference to and contempt for the notion of shared principles, flouting basic ethical norms of financial disclosure, trolling the American institutions that elected leaders usually treat with some deference, like federal courts and the press. He has shown consistent contempt for the very idea of political principle in favor of an erratic personal code built around loyalty and betrayal, esteem for money as a sign of virtue (or at least virility) and a penchant for any utterance with shock value. As many have observed, it is as if the national id had occupied the White House and announced to its constitutional superego, “You’re fired!”
Trump might seem a singularly disruptive individual, but there are signs that he is a symptom of a bigger underlying shift. The well-regarded World Values Survey recently asked Americans, on a scale of 1 to 10, how important it was for them to live in a democracy. Only 30 percent of Americans born since the 1980s chose the highest value of 10, compared with more than 70 percent of those born before World War II. Since 1995, the share of well-to-do Americans (those in the top 20 percent of income) who approve of having “a strong leader who doesn’t have to bother with Congress or elections” has doubled, to 40 percent. Strongman politics fits naturally with nationalist identity-mongering, because a leader who acts for “the people” (the “real” people, that is) doesn’t need moral justification; he can act on the simpler imperative to protect what’s ours. Public trust in the Supreme Court, often regarded as the special voice of principle in American government, has fallen overall and fractured along ideological lines. ...