Patriotism and Community

Patriotism and Community

In the days and weeks after September 11, many Americans talked of a nation pulling together, of a people unified in horror at the terrorists’ slaughter of so many innocent lives and unified in support of our national effort to root out terrorists and the sources of terrorism worldwide.

Supposedly, we have never worked more together, thought more about each other, believed more in the righteousness of our American creed, or had warmer, fuzzier feelings about our neighbors—at least not for quite some time. Reflecting these new feelings, President George W. Bush said in his State of the Union address, “None of us would ever wish the evil that was done on September the 11th. Yet after America was attacked, it was as if our entire country looked into a mirror and saw our better selves. We were reminded that we are citizens, with obligations to each other, to our country, and to history. We began to think less of the goods we can accumulate, and more about the good we can do.”

And since September 11, Americans do report markedly changed attitudes. In a February American Prospect article, Harvard’s Robert Putnam, prominent chronicler of growing American alienation and declining social capital, reports that Americans are now “Bowling Together”—or at least that we say we’d like to do so. A December 2001 Pew Research Center poll found that 78 percent of Americans now say religion’s influence in society is growing, up from 37 percent who said so a few months prior to the attacks. Only 16 percent of respondents, however, report attending religious services more now than before the 11th. In addition, 37 percent said they would make efforts to spend more time with their families during the holidays, and 54 percent of parents said they are trying to spend more time with their children.

Putnam’s findings confirm these trends. In his article he reported that “trust in government, trust in the police, and interest in politics are all up. Compared with a year ago, Americans are somewhat more likely to have attended a political meeting or to have worked on a community project.” Americans also trust each other more, from strangers to neighbors, and this proved true across ethnic and racial lines.

The moment seems ripe for a revival of contemporary liberalism, whose underlying faith is in the power and purpose of government to bring about positive change, to fight on behalf of average Americans, to even the playing field somewhat, and to reduce the ill effects of poverty. This idea about government endured for some time in the last century, through and after the New Deal, and for good reason. For “had not government won the war, ended the Depression, built the highways, brought electricity to the farmlands, vanquished the economic terror of old-age?” Michael Kelly asked in January’s Atlantic.

Although American faith in government now has more to do with waging a war and securing the homeland, some ...