What Binds a Nation Together?
A few short thoughts on the ongoing culture war and the deep divisions in the West today, especially with an eye to the potential breakup of the American Empire.
We hear a lot these days about the ongoing “culture war” in the West, especially as found in the United States. We also catch murmurings about the dangers of “nationalism” or arguments for its value. One thing that has become clear to me is that there is no longer a unified understanding of what it means to be an “American.” I am a “Canadian” who spent a chunk of his adult life living “south of the border” as we say here, and believe that much the same holds true for Canada, although it is not as obvious or sharp, yet. The current trucker convoy protest in January-February of 2022 is exposing fault lines that many had not seen before. Much of what passes as the culture war is also just as much a class war.
We have lived with this idea for some time that all Americans are essentially one people. They are all “American.” Since the 1960’s that has increasingly been changing, if it was ever true. Readers might question this. I think it is easier to see if we begin from the other side and ask the question, “What makes a people a unified nation?”
As I have thought about this, it seems to me that five basic categories can come together in various mixes and proportions to forge a unified “nation.” The categories are loosely “ethnicity and language,” “rituals, events, and celebrations,” “place and geography,” “history,” and “ideas - ideology or religion.”
They are all pretty straightforward. Many nations grew out of shared ethnic and/or tribal relationships. My family are recent immigrants from the Netherlands, and even though I was born in Canada, I retain a strong spiritual attachment to my parent’s homeland. I am part of an ethnic subculture. Most of my friends and acquaintances are a part of the same ethnic heritage. The French are the French because they share a genetic tie. Italians the same. You see this in African tribal nations. Ethnicity binds us together. It can also sharply divide us.
When you look to the new world of places like Canada and the United States, a shared ethnicity is not what makes one a Canadian or an American. This might have been the case at one time when most of the immigrants were still English or Scotsmen, but not today. This is, though, the heart of the argument for Quebec’s self-identification as a different people, a different nation within Canada. It is why they have language laws. The French language is a large part of what makes them “French.” It preserves that sense of identity as a people.
Immigration weakens this bond. Without significant intermarriage that blurs the lines, a country with significant communities that are self-identified as ethnically, racially and linguistically distinct loses its sense of itself as a single people, a single “tribe” so to speak. People movements are not a new thing in history, but with significant intermarriage different people groups can merge and create something new, a “tertium quid.” When you look at Canada, the United States and much of Europe today, the very fact that there are so many distinct communities living along side each other within the same geography, there is a significant chance that the sense of being a unified people will be eroded.
Public rituals, events and celebrations are part of the glue that hold a community together. They allow us to bond and to write and re-enact a shared history. Remembrance Day. Canada Day. Independence Day. Christmas. Even pastimes and sports are an opportunity to draw ourselves together and unite around shared events. With the advent of mass media, though, many of the events that seem unifying, such as everyone watching the same TV shows or playing the same computer games are done alone. The give us the feel of being a part of something, without actually it being the case. During Covid, many have become reliant on video meetings of some sort or another. They feel like a real gathering, but they are not. They are a simulacrum. You are by yourself, pretending that you are together with other people. Work might fit into this category of a public ritual, but even that is a weak bond. It also tends to group us by occupation or trade, highlighting differences of class or income. We have fewer and fewer rituals that bear the burden of uniting us. I doubt that “Who’s Got Talent” or “Survivor” or even the “Super Bowl” are capable of carrying the weight of unifying a whole nation of people. Nor does Twitter or Facebook.
I do think that place and geography have a much bigger impact than people think in the formation of their identity as a people. This is one advantage that Canada has over the United States. Canada has a much more unified geography, in that the vast majority have to deal with four seasons and real winters. Winter is a thing and it shapes the people who live in Canada. American outdoorsmen tend to hike. Canadians paddle canoes. Skating on a frozen pond is a Canadian right of passage. There is nothing like the Bijou or the Everglades in Canada. The different regions of Canada are as much shaped by their geography as by anything else. British Columbia with its milder climate, has more in common with the west coast of the United States than it does with the Canadian prairies. The Atlantic provinces are a place very different from Ontario. There is wilderness in places in the US, but nothing like the wilderness in Canada. Canada is a country that lives in a small strip bordered by nothing but millions of acres of bush, prairie, rock and lakes.
America has its regions as well and the geography of those regions help shape its culture. There is the West Coast. There is places like Wyoming and Montana, big sky country. The Prairie mid-west. The Mississippi region. The Great Lakes region. The Appalachians. The Bijou and the Everglades. The East Coast corridor. All have their own particular flavor and character. If the US were to fracture, it would likely do so on lines having to do more with regional characteristics. In the early days of the Union, it was common for people to think of themselves as, say, a Virginian more so than they were an American. That is a tie to a place: Virginia. America is more of an idea than it is a place.
This brings up perhaps the most significant geographic split, that of the “anywheres” vs. the “somewheres.” When the economy of a region collapses, people often ask, “Why don’t they move?” Well, that place is home. The place where they live shapes their identity. To move would mean losing more of yourself that than enduring the economic privation that comes from staying. Large urban centers connected by speedy highways and quick airplane flights whose architecture is all monotonously similar, where suburbs sprawl and every store or business is a national chain with national branding, one’s sense of place gets easily eroded. When one looks for career opportunities, it is the city and their suburbs to which one turns. Once in the city, easy plane flights and easy superhighway drives allow you to hop from metropolis to metropolis doing business and making money without any consideration to one’s place. You can make money anywhere as long as your skills are “portable.”
This creates a divide between those who flit from city to city following the latest opportunity and those whose lives are deeply tied to a specific place. They make their way in the world of the globe and global man. The rest are tied to their place with its limited horizon and its limited opportunities. But the trade off is that they have attachment, a sense of identity that their place gives them, an identity that the mobile, urban, global man knows nothing about. His world is the hotel and the suitcase and the laptop.
This leads us to “history.” It is strange. As a second generation immigrant, when I meet with clients who are also second generation immigrants, even when we share different faiths or ethnicity, there is something about our immigrant experience that binds us together. The stories are similar. Nations develop out of stories. Shared events. Shared history. Shared atrocities. Shared injuries. Shared conquests. Shared defeats. Similar myths. Canada has a number of stories that makes it very different from the United States. I live not far from one of the terminal points of the Underground Railroad. There are, in the middle of what would appear to be a rural region of European ethnic heritage, churches and communities composed completely of the descendants of former African slaves. It is their home. We have the story of Dunkirk. We have the story of the prairie migration and the Metis. We have a troubled history with our native community that carries a deep wound up to the present. When the 13 colonies rebelled, Canada remained loyalist. In some ways, our story is that we are not Americans. In many ways, Canada has managed much better than its southern neighbor to tell a single story about itself.
The United States has its stories and its national mythology. There is the Revolution and the Founding. There is the stain of slavery, reconstruction and segregation. There is the cowboy west. The Civil War. The World Wars and the story of the automobile. The era of Civil Rights looms large. One gets the sense that since the era of civil rights, America has stopped telling one story if there ever was just one story from the beginning. There are now at least two American stories that compete for attention and dominance in the collective mind. Many of the fault lines we see playing out in the news today seem to arise from different people observing the same event and then narrating it differently depending upon which story they are a part. I would argue that it is very hard for a nation to be a nation if it has two or more stories. America seems increasingly like two, or more nations sharing similar geopolitical borders.
In Europe you hear about events that seem strange, esoteric and obscure to someone in the New World, yet they carry forward mythical power to bind people together around that event and forge a clear “us” and “them.” This is in part what seems to be driving politics in central Europe these days. There is a consciousness in places like Hungary and Poland that they share a story, a history, that makes them unique and distinct, something separate from a bland unified Europe. This history, combined with ethnic attachments, combined with a shared language and you have the makings of a fairly solid national identity as a “people.” Eric Zemmour, in his speech announcing his campaign for president, made it about the history of France as a unique and storied people, something about which they should feel proud.
Finally, this leaves us with perhaps the most volatile, that of ideas, ideology or religion. For a long period in the West, the binding force of the people was the Christian faith and the institution of the church. Generally, at the heart of any significantly large and stable people group is a shared religious belief system. When religious influence diminishes, generally what replaces it is ideology of one form or another. Marxism. Capitalism. Liberalism. Conservatism. Socialism. Communism. Libertarianism. Fascism. Nationalism. Corporatism. Globalism. Americanism. We might even include in a newly forming ideology, that of Safety-ism. Perhaps the most dominant ideology in the west today is a belief in Managerialism. It operates in politics, business and non-profits. The idea that through technical management almost any conceivable problem can be “managed” if the right resources are directed to it with the right policies and with the right processes. There is no problem so big or pernicious that it cannot be successfully “managed.”
Why is this important? Why is it worth reflecting on? It is relatively obvious to anyone who is paying attention that across the west there are growing fractures and a fraying of society that was not there even 25 or 30 years ago. There were a few astute observers who were noticing, but for most life seemed pretty much as it always was. We have been hearing talk of civil war and the break up of the west. We can see growing ethnic divisions in countries with significant unassimilated immigrant populations. There are tensions within the European Union between those countries which are more attached to markers of national identity than they are to regional, pan-European ideas. Of particular interest to many around the globe is the future of the United States of America. As we walk through these categories of things that would bind the people of the United States together, it is harder and harder to see a single unified people.
America is beset with racial and ethnic divides that have grown more sharp over the last 15 years. Some would argue that the wedges were driven deeper for political gain. Events and rituals that used to bind people together have become sources of controversy and division. The controversy over kneeling for the national anthem is but one example. In terms of geography, perhaps the biggest divide is that between urban and rural. Voting outcomes are very predictable depending upon whether or not you are talking about a rural district or an urban district. There are competing versions of the national history. The effort to tear down statues and rename monuments, buildings, and sport teams is also sharply divisive. Religion no longer binds the people together. In many ways, many of the fault lines lie between those who are Christian and those who are not. As the influence of Christianity has waned, political ideology has begun to fill that void. Words that used to mean the same thing to most Americans, like “freedom” and “liberty” mean different things to different people. Even the idea of a “natural right” or a “human right” will mean different things to different people. People will read what were formerly unifying documents like the Bill of Rights and interpret them in widely different ways. People talk of “negative rights” and “positive rights,” one talking about limiting the influence of the state, what it cannot do and the other talking about what it should be obligated to do for the citizenry.
In many ways, even from the very beginning, the United States was not fully unified country. A lot of these differences were papered over with focus on external threats and crisis. One can points to periods where a strong sense of unity abounded, for sure. But without the threat of a Hitler or a Communist Russia, what is there to bind the American people together? With all of the global business interests in China and the cheap goods that flow out of China onto US store shelves, there seems little interest in making China into a people unifying boogeyman. Battling the Covid-19 pandemic seemed like it might get some traction for a while, but that too has done more to deepen fractures than mend them. Talk about the “marketplace of ideas” as a unifying force is pretty thin gruel, in large part because not every idea is allowed to have equal hearing. Some ideas have the support of the institutions that can enforce their implementation over other ideas that don’t have that support, even against people’s will. Other ideas, even popular ones, are denied a significant opportunity to be heard.
My own country of Canada has seen increased fracturing these days. Because of the specter of very destructive forms of nationalism that rose up at the beginning of the 20th century, many equate a love of country and a desire to see a strong national unity as the functional equivalent of expressing a desire for fascism. In some circles a strong love of country is a sign of malevolent intent. You have to love your country in the right way, if at all.
This becomes important, because without something to bind a people and make them one, there is no way to overcome all of the things that have potential to divide us. If we are not ethnically one, if we share multiple conceptions of our history, if we have no unity of place or are rootless, if we cannot celebrate together as one, and if the ideas that animate us are significantly different, we are led to ask, “What keeps us together?” One wonders at this point if it is just sheer inertia that keeps American and many other countries around the globe these days together? Is there there an ability to band together as one to face an internal crisis?
The country of the United States of America functions more these days in line with what it truly is. From the very beginning it was a union of 13 distinct colonies, 13 distinct states, that is 13 distinct countries. From its inception it was more of an empire than a nation. What are witnessing has so many parallels to the late Roman period. It is eerie the deeper one looks at it. We may well be witnessing the beginning of the breakup of the American Empire. It is fair to ask, “What is it that keeps America together?”
The more debt you are in, the more someone wants you alive...and it's not Americans that want this debt kept alive.