The problem is that his American nationalism is at once too small and too big, thus missing the mark. Here's why.
Lowry commends a newer new nationalism that flattens all the remarkable and genuine diversity that once and even today still marks the American nation. While he claims that a defining feature of a nation is a common and shared language—countries like Switzerland, Canada, Belgium, and Ireland notwithstanding—during the period Lowry acknowledges as a high-water mark of American nationalism, America was a multilingual and genuinely multicultural nation. My maternal grandfather’s primary language was French, as was the case for many French Canadian immigrants living in Maine, not to mention the many French and Creole speakers in New Orleans. Large swaths of the upper Midwest spoke Norwegian, Swedish, and German, and nearly every major city had sections where only Italian and Chinese were spoken. America was a multicultural nation during a period in which Lowry praises American nationalism, yet this fact is erased as he tells a tendentious history of a once-strong nationalism displaced by the rise of a new Babel. Through a concerted project of assimilation, the Progressives succeeded in a project of eliminating most of these distinct cultural enclaves, and Lowry proposes to finish the work through encouragement, among other things, of intermarriage of immigrants aimed at erasing cultural and religious distinctions, a sure path to a citizenry of homogenized, deracinated, cultureless cosmopolitans.
Lowry also commends “cultural nationalism” by encouraging certain holidays such as Thanksgiving and Independence Day as the basis of a shared national identity. But what of the annual springtime Shad Derby of Windsor, Connecticut; Scottish Walk Weekend in Alexandria, Virginia; Dyngus Day in South Bend, Indiana (just to name three memorable celebrations in places I have lived); and the thousands upon thousands of festivities and celebrations that make up the far richer fabric of shared memory and community spirit than three or four national holidays alone could ever supply? What of St. Patrick’s Day, Columbus Day (at least once upon a time), Cinco de Mayo, and the enlarged calendar of religious and ethnic holidays that have been a legacy of the variety of Americans who have populated the nation? A nationalism that asks us to have as our primary and even sole devotion the abstract reverence toward the flag, the American eagle, and a national history that leaves aside all the various particular histories of America’s many places asks us to love something too abstract, too distant, and too artificial. For good reasons, conservatives of a different era mistrusted this Progressive project.
But while Lowry’s nationalism is too big, risking erasure of our appropriate devotions to more local and distinct cultures, at the same time, his nationalism is also too small. Like the Progressives of old, he endorses a nationalism that takes on the trappings of civic religion and that, in effect, seeks to create a religion lodged in the nation that implicitly takes place of priority over any transcendent religion. Lowry quite clearly endorses this dimension of nationalism: in praising England as the nation par excellence worthy of our admiration and emulation, he takes the side of Henry VIII against St. Thomas More, whom, he writes, “represented a worldview that considered nationality as an accidental division and an incidental loyalty, a perspective that would steadily lose ground.” He dismisses More’s famous refusal—“to conform my conscience to the council of one realm against the General Council of Christendom”—as a stance on the wrong side of history. History, in fact, cautions us otherwise.
This siding with Henry—and, endorsement of the attendant philosophy of Thomas Hobbes, who commended the joining of Church and State with the political sovereign as head of both—throws into stark relief many of Lowry’s awkward attempts to dismiss atrocities and injustices of American history as so many unfortunate but ultimately excusable occasions. At various points throughout his book Lowry acknowledges the sins of America—foremost, slavery, but also treatment of Native Americans, Catholics, Mexicans, its imperialism and, today, white nationalism—and regards them in each and every instance as regrettable, but occasionally necessary (the decimation of the Native Americans for their backward economic order), and finally not an essential expression of American nationalism. Lowry concludes with the bizarre claim that Martin Luther King’s achievement represents proof of American nationalism’s inherent excellence—though, he admits, King “was a Christian universalist who issued a prophet’s stinging rebukes of the failings of his own country.” King himself understood, a nation that is not “under God” (added only in 1954 to the Progressive-era Pledge of Allegiance) is a nation too likely to rationalize its own interests. What does Lowry make, one wonders, of King’s reliance upon the transcendent natural law to which Thomas More appealed as a guidance and corrective to the nations?
And yet what does Deneen think should be the alternative?
The nation is the necessary protector of such people who seek to make a home rather than construct a launching pad, who rightly view the nation as the bulwark against a predatory globalism, superficial “woke” egalitarianism that shrouds rapacious corporate greed, and the self-serving disdain of urban cosmopolites toward those in flyover country. The nation is best defended on these terms—as the appropriate vessel of a broad, civic common good, and especially as a constraint upon those who would plunder the common treasury for their own benefit.
But the nation should also be defended as a “community of communities,” a place that is not itself most essentially a home, but a space allowing for the viable pursuit of a common good that makes a stable and good home more possible, regardless of one’s educational and financial attainments.
Federalism has been dying; whether it can be recovered in reaction to a central government that has amassed too much power or some other form of localism will instead replace it remains to be seen. In either case, identity politics will become stronger, nor weaker, and talk about a common good is useless when we are dealing with a population that is divided in its interests and loyalties.