PATTISON: We Are Not Our Government. We Are Americans

Eliot Pattison Contributor
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Everywhere we turn these days we hear about the decline and pending destruction of the traditional American identity.

Statues topple, schools and museums surrender to leftist committees, churches close and noble names of the past disappear from public nameplates. The American dream is dead, according to the strident minority who kowtow to social media. But that dream is ours, not theirs, and it is far from dead. We are not defeated. We’re just suffering an identity crisis, and it is not our first.

The United States didn’t emerge out of shots fired on Lexington Green in April 1775, nor from the pen strokes of fifty-six signers in 1776 Philadelphia. Our nation was born out of a decades-long process in which colonists gradually cast off their British mantle and embraced a new identity based on shared values, not ethnicity. This process, without precedent in history, was the most exceptional aspect in the founding of our exceptional country. Most of those colonial emigrants to America had endured persecution, injustice and what today would be called cancellation. They were branded as traitors, heretics, criminals and even bigots. If their persecutors had access to modern speechwriters our forebears would have been deplorables, clingers and chumps. 

To the elites who governed Britain, America was mostly seen as a conveniently distant dumping ground, a place of exile, ostracization and punishment. To those who arrived on these shores it was indeed a grueling and punishing land. They arrived cloaked in their homeland’s identity but as they struggled with the unforgiving conditions of their New World, that identity became less and less relevant. To the British elites the colonists were ignorant provincials. But Americans quietly grew not only self-reliant but more educated, and more literate, than their British counterparts. The sages of Greece and Rome were being read at American hearths when many of those across the Atlantic couldn’t read at all. As reflected in my novels, I also believe that the land itself played a role in this transformation, nurturing personal autonomy, self-reflection and independent thinking. It wasn’t rejection of the king per se that precipitated the American Revolution, it was this inexorable embrace of a new American identity built on individual responsibility and liberty.

A generation later one of the most astute observers of American culture and politics, Alexis de Tocqueville, observed that these extraordinary “habits of the heart” were the driving force in creating and maintaining the American democracy. These habits had become so engrained that Tocqueville observed that democracy was not merely a political construct but an instinctive “way of life” embedded in the American people, if not always their government.

Our most painful identity crisis was a 19th-century test of freedom and conscience that drove a geographic wedge between Americans. Six hundred thousand lives were lost, including that of a beloved president who fought valiantly for those habits of the heart to ensure that the American character revived, battered but enduring, to reunite the country.

Tocqueville warned that perhaps the gravest danger facing the American republic was complacency. Every identity crisis we have faced has been preceded by periods during which Americans grew so comfortable in their affluence, so self-reliant in their domestic life, that they would stop participating in their democracy, taking it for granted. Elites with disdain for our core values always rise up because of that complacency. 

Like the British elites of three hundred years ago, today’s leaders want to distance themselves from their detractors, preferring to dismiss them as ignorant provincials living in the dumping ground between coasts. Many seem blind to the American identity. Others abhor it and labor to cancel it. Still others think it unpatriotic of the provincials not to support their alternative ideologies, which after all are more modern and supported by experts. They don’t understand that, in the words of that archetypical American Mark Twain, “Patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it.” As is becoming more obvious in poll after poll — and in a wildly popular song condemning elites “north of Richmond” — Americans are saying our current government doesn’t deserve it.

The American character is so strong precisely because it is not dictated by government leaders, nor by their surrogate censors in social media. These elites have failed to internalize two vital lessons intrinsic in the American identity. First, in managing our country the only lasting power is derived from the consent of the governed, which they have not granted to the radical left. Second, in public discourse ignorance is never as powerful as knowledge. Much like their 18th-century counterparts, the new elites don’t feel the need to engage in substantive dialogue or rely on actual knowledge. They prefer to tout their titles and lofty credentials. Instead of trying to build consensus, our new elites pretend to demonstrate to the world how the American identity has changed by flying rainbow flags and holding drag queen story hours at embassies around the world.

They also deign to lecture us about our constitutional obligations to heed them, not understanding that the Constitution was never a commitment by the people to the government, but rather a covenant among and between the people, cemented by the bond of mutual freedom. They compound their mistakes by thinking they can impose their transformative plans from the top down. Try as they may, they can’t sign away the American identity with an executive order. Their arrogance blinds them to the time-tested habits of American hearts, which now stir in school boards, county governments, state capitals and a new generation of liberty-loving non-governmental organizations.

The American identity will not be cancelled or regulated out of existence. It may be slow to anger, but it is finding its voice again. History tells us that our deeply rooted identity will endure and the latest generation of elites will not. To paraphrase a wise commentator of another age, you may chase the American character out with a pitchfork, but it will always come roaring back through the rear door. 

Eliot Pattison’s nineteen novels include the acclaimed 18th century Bone Rattler series, the plots of which are driven by the identity crises of exiled criminals, religious refugees, Scottish Jacobites, Native Americans and slaves in the years leading up to the Revolution. The seventh installment of the series, Freedom’s Ghost, will be released in October 2023.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the Daily Caller.