Broder's Unwise America

Happy Fourth, he exults:

Young people may not know the Constitution as well as we would like, but they found their way to polling places in record numbers this year and joined enthusiastically in many campaigns. And they volunteer for all kinds of good works in their communities.

I have not worried about the fundamental commitment of the American people since 1974. In that year, they were confronted with the stunning evidence that their president had conducted a criminal conspiracy out of the Oval Office. In response, the American people reminded Richard Nixon, the man they had just recently reelected overwhelmingly, that in this country, no one, not even the president, is above the law. They required him to yield his office.

That is not the sign of a nation that has lost its sense of values or forgotten the principles on which this system rests.

In his national greatness enthusiasm, Broder obscures a fundamental point: political participation — especially voting in one-off national elections — is not a reliable index of civic health or even vibrant citizenship. Broder thinks that enthusiasm about America — expressed by enthusiastically doing something America-themed — is patriotism. This is a seriously imbalanced view. Dormant citizens who rise from the grave of civic republicanism to cast a fevered ballot once every two or four years do not a healthy electorate make. Volunteering for a campaign is better, but ‘joining enthusiastically’ can mean, a bit lower down on the totem pole, sloganeering, attending rallies, and plastering bumper stickers, all without any reflection deeper than “My candidate cares about me“ or “My candidate’s a true patriot.” And community volunteering is great, but has no necessary connection to any knowledge of, or appreciation for, the American national identity. (Indeed this may be a good thing.)

I don’t know why exactly Broder leaps back to 1974 to buttress his argument that enthusiasm is patriotism, but here’s the bottom line: when we’re dealing with a mere “sense of values,” we’ve already lost the concreteness of our conviction in those values. Our hearts are in the right place, vaguely speaking, and quite possibly nothing more. This is a thin crutch for national greatness. Confusing a gauzy and uninformed sense of our national principles with a real and abiding understanding of their authority is easy for Broder (or anyone else) to do when passion is considered a substitute for wisdom.

A ‘fundamental commitment’ to America is not enough for America to flourish — nor for its citizens to do so. Actually, I don’t even know what a ‘fundamental commitment to America’ is. The proof is in the pudding of what we say to each other and what we mean when we’re pressed to give content to that loosey-goosey stamp of enthusiasm. What I’m getting from Broder, as far as that goes, is little more than what I got from SNL’s spoofed Chris Matthews, interviewing Hillary on Hardball: “Yer Great!”