Here’s a question: To which layer of society do you feel most attached: your neighborhood, town, county, state, nation or humanity as a whole?
I’ve put that question to a lot of people. About 5 percent say they feel most connected to humanity as a whole. A vast majority of the rest say their strongest attachment is to the local — their neighborhood or town.
I get that. Though we’ve moved around a lot, my family has a clear home base. If you start at East 15th Street in Lower Manhattan and walk two miles south, you will have walked by where my great-grandfather had his butcher shop, where my maternal grandfather practiced law, where my father lived during high school, where I went to elementary school and where my youngest son now attends college.
That’s five generations within two miles. I feel a magical attachment to that neighborhood. The blocks and street names enchant in my mind.
And yet I have to say my strongest attachment is to the nation, to the United States. You could take New York out of my identity and I’d be sort of the same. If you took America out of my identity I’d be unrecognizable to myself.
What does this national attachment feel like? It feels a bit like any other kind of love — a romantic love, or a love between friends. It is not one thing that you love but the confluence of a hundred things. Yes, it is the beauty of the Rockies, but it is not just the land. It is the Declaration of Independence, but not just the creed. It’s winning World War II and Silicon Valley, but it is not just the accomplishments. It is the craziness, the diversity, our particular brand of madness.
The 19th-century French philosopher Ernest Renan argued that “a nation is a soul, a spiritual principle”: “These are the essential conditions of being a people: having common glories in the past and a will to continue them in the present; having made great things together and wishing to make them again. One loves in proportion to the sacrifices that one has committed and the troubles that one has suffered.”
When I think of the great American nationalists, I think of Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt, A. Philip Randolph and Walt Whitman, of course, but also the wild mixed-up urge that seizes millions to sacrifice, in sometimes opposite ways, for the common good: Gloria Steinem as much as Phyllis Schlafly, those who stand for the anthem and those who kneel.
Love for nation is an expanding love because it is love for the whole people. It’s an ennobling love because it comes with the urge to hospitality — to share what you love and to want to make more love by extending it to others.
In the soul of a nationalist, Yoram Hazony writes in his book “The Virtue of Nationalism,” there is a gratifying tension between a person’s intense loyalty to her inherited traditions and an awareness that there are many other traditions, similarly beautiful, but that don’t happen to be her own.
In a family you can feel when love is stretched and broken. And you can feel the same thing in the nation. Today, when bombs are sent and vitriol follows, our common American nationalism, our mutual loyalty, is under strain.
It’s threatened by extreme individualism — people who put the needs of the individual above the needs of the community. It’s threatened by globalists — people whose hearts have been bleached of the particular love of place. The greatest threats come from those who claim to be nationalists but who are the opposite.
Donald Trump says he is a nationalist, but you can’t be a nationalist if you despise half the nation — any more than you can be a good father if you despise half your children. You can’t be a nationalist if you think that groups in the nation are in a zero-sum conflict with one another — class against class, race against race, tribe against tribe.
You can’t be a nationalist if you despise diversity. America is diversity; if you don’t love diversity, you are not an American nationalist.
“We have chased metaphysical and theological abstractions from politics. What now remains?” Renan asked. People remain. People with their same old need for belonging. People with their same old need to dedicate their lives to something, but with the great unifying object of love — the nation — taken away.
If you stop the love songs to America, take the celebration of America out of public life, you leave people spiritually bereft, robbed of a great devotion. The results are what you see — loss of connection, a tendency to catastrophize, feelings of anger, isolation and powerlessness. People begin to feel that the injustices in American society are the whole and there is no hope of redemption. They get the urge to burn everything down.
American nationalism has been one of the great joys, comforts and motivators of my life. I don’t know how anybody can live without it.
DAVUD BROOKS is a columnist and author of “The Road to Character.”