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You'd better believe it: America is an idea
Guided all too often by the European conception of a nation-state as so often learned in high school, it's easy for Americans to slip into a use of the word "nation" that equates to "country". We shouldn't do that.
■ The Merriam-Webster definition of a nationality says, "a people having a common origin, tradition, and language". Not every nation is fortunate enough to have a state. In fact, the list of stateless nations is long and includes hundreds of millions of people.
■ Within Europe alone, one finds dozens of stateless nations: Some have gone basically extinct, absorbed into other cultures -- like the Slovincians. Some, like the Kashubs, have some official recognition without strict self-determination. Some, like the Scottish, are actively pressing for independent states of their own. The strained and often bloody history of separatism in Spain ought to be quite enough to convince the thoughtful onlooker that "national" attachments may have little to do with the country named on one's passport.
■ "Nationhood" and "statehood" are two different things. There can be many nations bound together within a common government. And people can be members of more than one nation, depending on heritage, upbringing, and self-identification. This is precisely why tribal registration can be such an important issue among the First Nations of North America. The Navajo code-talkers gave honorable and patriotic service to the United States in WWII, but they still possess a nation.
■ The United States of America is a country (a political state). And it is much bigger than a nation. In his first address to Congress, President Biden remarked that he told China's President Xi "America is an idea -- the most unique idea in history: We are created, all of us, equal. It's who we are, and we cannot walk away from that principle and, in fact, say we're dealing with the American idea."
■ Our founding document is the Declaration of Independence. It is from that work that everything else we know today as the United States of America emerges. And the Declaration begins by saying, in essence, "We need to explain ourselves." And its first act of explanation is a bold assertion that "We hold these truths to be self-evident..." Truths are ideas, and the Declaration says that the security of those truths is the very essence of why "Governments are instituted among Men".
■ Had the Declaration of Independence been premised upon a statement of religious faith, a territorial claim, an origin story, or a creation myth, then it might have been a statement of nationhood. But it did not. The very first among our organic laws is a statement of principles. America is ideas-based.
■ It denigrates America to say we are anything less than a great, important, and challenging idea. Great in the way that this is by far the most desired destination of the world's immigrants. Important as it seeks to remain, in Lincoln's words, "the last best hope of Earth". Challenging enough that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. could summon the Declaration of Independence as the "promissory note" of freedom. America is an idea, and we are lucky to make a country of it.