Army Special Forces Soldiers, as my U.S. News colleague Linda Robinson writes in her riveting book, Masters of Chaos, are very much aware of "the tradition of their military history." On the eve of a difficult mission, "more than one soldier went to sleep hoping that the next days would prove him a worthy member of that lineage." That's one reason the military maintains old units, so that soldiers will be motivated to match the deeds of those who came before and prove worthy to those who come after.
Similarly, one of the comforting aspects of attending religious services is the knowledge that you are doing what others have done before you and others will do after: Even nonbelievers often feel a twinge of awe when they attend Christian or Jewish weddings or funerals and witness liturgies with centuries-old roots. And then there's the flag. Most Americans feel a shiver when they hear "The Star-Spangled Banner" played and reflect on the triumphs and tragedies that those serving under that flag have won and suffered over more than 200 years. You're part of something larger than yourself.
But not all of us cherish ties to past traditions. "America's business, professional, intellectual, and academic elites," writes Samuel Huntington in his 2004 book Who Are We? have "attitudes and behavior [that] contrast with the overwhelming patriotism and nationalistic identification with their country of the American public. . . . They abandon commitment to their nation and their fellow citizens and argue the moral superiority of identifying with humanity at large." He believes that this gap between transnational elites and the patriotic public is growing. Huntington knows whereof he speaks: He's been at Harvard for more than half a century.
New elites. This gap is something new in our history. Franklin Roosevelt spoke fluent French and German and worked to create the United Nations, but no one doubted that his allegiance was to America above all. Most Harvard professors in the 1940s, 1950s, and early 1960s felt a responsibility to help the United States prevail against its totalitarian enemies. But in the later stages of the Vietnam War--a war begun by elite liberals--elites on campuses began taking an adversary posture toward their own country. Later, with globalization, a transnational mind-set grew among corporate and professional elites. Legal elites, too: Some Supreme Court justices have taken to citing foreign law as one basis for interpreting the U.S. Constitution.
This gap between transnational elites and the patriotic public has reverberations in partisan politics. Americans in military service and those with strong religious beliefs now vote heavily Republican. Americans with strong patriotic feelings are more closely split between the parties, but the growing minority with transnational attitudes vote heavily Democratic. Which doesn't necessarily help the Democratic Party. Democrats Bill Galston and Elaine Kamarck, both Clinton administration veterans, point out in a recent paper that two thirds of liberals, the dominant force in the party at least in 2004, reject pre-emptive use of military force and want to cut the defense budget, while only one third of the electorate agrees. "While social issues and defense dominate today's political terrain," they conclude, "it is in these areas that liberals espouse views diverging not only from those of other Democrats but from Americans as a whole. To the extent that liberals now constitute both the largest bloc within the Democratic coalition and the public face of the party, Democratic candidates for national office will be running uphill."
"A nation's morale and strength derive from a sense of the past," argues historian Wilfred McClay. Ties to those who came before--whether in the military, in religion, in general patriotism--provide a sense of purpose rooted in history and tested over time. Secular transnational elites are on their own, without a useful tradition, in constructing a morality to help them perform their duties. Most Americans sense they need such ties to the past, to judge from the millions buying books about Washington, Adams, Hamilton, Jefferson, and other Founding Fathers. We Americans are lucky to live in a country with a history full of noble ideas, great leaders, and awe-inspiring accomplishments. Sadly, many of our elites want no part of it.
This story appears in the October 24, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.