The Shallow Patriotism of David Brooks

When David Brooks joined the New York Times op-ed page in 2003, after having been one of the original staff writers for the neoconservative Weekly Standard, it appeared that he would serve as a token counterweight to the paper’s increasingly partisan, left-oriented columns and editorials. But while retaining his longtime communitarian concerns, Brooks gradually came to drink much of the Times’s Kool-Aid.

The latest evidence of Brooks’s shift is his March 5 column “How to Love America (Despite Itself).” He begins by explaining how he long ago abandoned the childish patriotism that regards America as “the greatest and most powerful country on earth,” since it “play[s] down shameful truths” in favor of an “overweening pride.” In fact, Brooks finds it “hard to be blithely confident” nowadays in the “core American creed we used to be so proud about—e pluribus unum,” given “the facts” about our national divisions. The “general disillusion” about that creed “has caused many people to give up on patriotism altogether.” On the right, self-styled patriots “are actually nationalists” subscribing to a “chauvinism” based “not on our common creed” but an exclusionary “common clan.” “In a much smaller degree,” Brooks adds, “the disillusion with e pluribus unum has caused some on the left to also conclude that America is permanently divided between oppressor groups and oppressed groups,” making “Joe Biden’s insistent call to unity seem naïve.”

Patriotism and the American Creed

To anyone impartially following the American political scene (to say nothing of academia) over the last several years, it is Brooks’s account of the current sources of national division that will appear naïve, or worse. While Donald Trump’s rhetoric was (and continues to be) obnoxious in many ways, the roots of his support lay in the sense among many Americans that their nation’s unity and its true creed were under attack.

A nation, to begin with, needs borders. This doesn’t mean the exclusion of all immigrants, let alone racial discrimination, but it does entail exercising legal control over which people, in what numbers, and under what circumstances are allowed in. Yet Democrats denounced Trump’s promise to “build a wall” across the border with Mexico so as to stanch the ever-growing flow of illegal immigration, as well as his policy requiring professed asylum-seekers to remain in Mexico until their cases were adjudicated. Indeed, Democrats gave the impression of being opposed to any restrictions on immigration. If a country lacks the capacity to regulate immigration, how can it be said to have a unity or identity at all?

From what Brooks calls “the left,” direct assaults on American patriotism began well before the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020. When Colin Kaepernick initiated the practice of refusing to salute the American flag, he was insulting the memory of the many thousands of Americans who lost their lives defending the nation’s (and over the past century and more, the world’s) liberties—including fighting to restrict the spread (and ultimately bring about the abolition) of domestic slavery. This past year’s Antifa and Black Lives Matter riots only heightened the perception of many on the “right”—not all of them Trump supporters—of a loss of loyalty to the nation’s Constitution, its laws, and the principles that underlie them.

Such divisions are only exacerbated by demands within and outside the academy for “antiracism” training, aimed at convincing all non-members of favored minority groups that they are bigots (conscious or not) who must be compelled to confess their sins and possibly even pay reparations to those who claim to have been victimized by them. The supposed oppressors include tens of millions whose predecessors, or they themselves, arrived in the U.S. long after the abolition of slavery and of Jim Crow, and whose own prosperity results from their own labor and investment and that of their ancestors, not at all from “oppressing” their fellows.

Given the rise of the ostensible antiracism movement, and with it the “cancel culture,” it’s no wonder many loyal Americans feel that their unity as a people is threatened. Yet such ordinary citizens have repeatedly and groundlessly been disparaged by Democratic presidential candidates who labeled them “deplorables” who are “clinging to their guns and religion” while allegedly being intolerant of anyone who didn’t “look like” them. Such libelous charges against the American people hardly seem conducive to civic unity.

Nor does Brooks’s column give an accurate rendition of what the “American creed” is. On the back of the dollar bill, one will indeed find inscribed (in minute letters) “e pluribus unum,” a reflection of the commitment of the Founders (who were hardly thinking in terms of “cultures”) to create a unified nation out of 13 previously largely autonomous states. In the center of the bill’s backside, however, one finds, in much larger letters, “In God We Trust.” This is not, one might observe, a slogan to which Democratic partisans, committed to violating the liberty of nuns or cake bakers to act in accordance with their faith, seem to have given much fealty in recent years. But as constitutional scholar Walter Berns observed in his classic 2001 treatise, Making Patriots, a generalized, nonsectarian Biblical instruction formed part of the American public school curriculum throughout the 19th century, not for the sake of inculcating a particular theology (which would have been divisive), but rather for the support of civic morality. In Democracy in America Alexis de Tocqueville similarly attributed Americans’ political prosperity in part to the widespread moral influence of depoliticized religion.

But neither unity nor faith in God can be said to constitute the core of the American creed. All nations aspire to internal cohesion, and many still express faith in a divinity. However, our specific creed was outlined rather in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence—the principle of the natural equality of rights, including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and the rule that legitimate governments, being instituted to secure those rights, must depend on the consent of the governed. That doctrine of equal rights and self-government was memorably rephrased by Abraham Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address without ever using the phrase e pluribus unum, even though he was in the midst of a war being fought to restore national unity. Our collective political faith is a substantive rather than merely procedural one, subscription to which is a precondition of a uniquely American patriotism.

Cancel culture bullying is surely not the sort of unity that the authors of the preamble to our Constitution had in mind when they set out to create “a more perfect union.”

The general acceptance of those founding principles, grounded though they may be in nature (as John Locke argues), is not self-enforcing, and their effectuation is not automatic. Thomas Jefferson, the Declaration’s chief author, emphasized (in a letter to James Madison regarding the curriculum of the University of Virginia Law School) the need to inculcate them in students. And whatever your country of origin or however long your ancestry in the U.S., it presupposes an appreciation of our country’s past, regardless of its flaws (as if any country ever had an unblemished past, or any as proud a history as the United States does). For this reason, Lincoln, in a desperate last attempt to hold the country together in his First Inaugural Address, appealed not to the abstract formula e pluribus unum, but to “the mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone” of our land. However recent one’s arrival in this country, being an American entailed not only sharing in our liberal political principles, but also uniting in bonds of affection based on pride in the sacrifices others had made to enable those principles’ effectuation.

Finally, our principles can be sustained in practice only through the existence of an independent nation-state, whose citizens enjoy the responsibility and the duty to preserve our national legacy. Anyone who doubts that necessity and wishes instead to subsume our sovereignty under some multinational or world government need only consider the atrocious behavior of the United Nations, and particularly of its so-called Human Rights Council, or the widely acknowledged “democracy deficit” of the European Union, whose partisans dream of the outright obliteration of independent, self-governing nations. Indeed, e pluribus unum might well be said to constitute its creed.

Unity and Cancel Culture

Brooks is wrong about what it means to be an American patriot and no less wrong about the sources of our current divisions. And his brand of ostensible “caring” for his country, which he maintains (citing as his authority Senator Corey Booker) “sometimes . . . brings moral shame,” is a form of ignoble moral preening. While Brooks rightly urges Americans (in the spirit of Tocqueville) to engage “not only in marches” but in “humdrum daily acts of civic participation” such as serving on school boards, he wrongly disparages “wartime heroism” as constituting less than “the high-water mark of American patriotism” compared to “writing a dissenting comment about this column.”

Until quite recently, it took very little courage for Americans to express a dissenting opinion in a public letter, a newspaper, a book, a film, or a speech. But that was before the rise of the cancel culture, evidence of which was present right before Brooks’s eyes following the dismissal of Times editorial-page editor James Bennet last June for having allowed the publication of a column by U.S. Senator Tom Cotton that called for the National Guard to be brought in to halt the violent riots troubling American cities. A month later, Times op-ed staff editor Bari Weiss, a self-described political centrist, resigned as a consequence of the “bullying environment” that Times staffers had created in the wake of the Bennet dismissal. Weiss, a Jew and defender of Israel, had been smeared by colleagues as a “Nazi” and “racist,” and denounced for writing too often about the plight of Jews. As she put it, “intellectual curiosity, let alone risk-taking, is now a liability at the Times. Self-censorship has become the norm.”

All this occurred alongside a wave of bullying and censorship across the country designed to stifle voices saying the wrong things. Threats recently compelled bookstores to stop selling Andy Ngo’s Unmasked (exposing the violence of the Antifa rioters). Amazon removed a well-regarded documentary on Justice Clarence Thomas, Created Equal, as well as Ryan Anderson’s critique of transgender ideology When Harry Became Sally, from its website. Social media colluded to block the New York Post story on the corrupt dealings uncovered on Hunter Biden’s laptop, just before the election. After hospitalization from severe beatings at the hands of Antifa in Portland, followed by death threats, Ngo, the son of refugees from Communist tyranny in Vietnam, was compelled to flee to the U.K. This is surely not the sort of unity that the authors of the preamble to our Constitution had in mind when they set out to create “a more perfect union.”

When it comes to pride in America’s heritage, perhaps the Times’s ultimate blow has been its “1619 Project,” already adopted in over 4,500 American schools, designed to teach schoolchildren that our country’s true foundation lies not in the principles of the Declaration, the Constitution, or the landing of the Pilgrims, but the arrival of 19 slaves in the colony of Virginia. Leading historians have already exposed the outright dishonesty of the Times’s version of our country’s story. But as our children are indoctrinated with it, along with the divisive rhetoric of Antifa, Black Lives Matter, and antiracism instructors, what basis for a worthy national consensus can remain?

The sentiment expressed by e pluribus unum is unarguable. But to be meaningful, that unum requires more substance than Brooks, or today’s multiculturalists, provide.