Nationalism channeled that groupish instinct into the nation-state. Some of those nations then used the immense power of mass group-ness to commit great horrors. It’s understandable, and perhaps inevitable, that so many people rejected any hint of nationalism in the aftermath of World War II. But the current political moment illustrates the limits of that approach: The groupish instinct has not gone away, and neither has it leveled up into a mass identification with all humanity. Instead, it has leveled down, into a global outbreak of populist particularism. That particularism is threatening to tear the United States apart as rival tribes lose the ability to do anything, however trivial, together.
If we are to fight our way back from this soft civil war, we will need a muscular patriotism that focuses us on our commonalities instead of our differences. Of course, such a patriotism must not be either imperialist nor racialized. Which means we desperately need the flag, and the anthem, and all the other common symbols that are light on politics or military fetishism and heavy on symbolism. We need much more of them, rather than much less — constant reminders that we are groupish, and that our group consists of 328 million fellow Americans with whom we share a country and a creed, a song and a flag, and the deep sense of mutual obligation that all these things imply.