A few years ago, Bruce Springsteen came out with a song called “We Take Care of Our Own.” The chorus’s theme seemed upbeat and proud: We take care of the people closest to us. But like in a lot of Springsteen songs (including “Born in the U.S.A.”), the lyrics in the verses sit in tension with the lyrics in the chorus.
In the verses, it’s clear that taking care of our own also means not taking care of people who are not our own, like the victims of Katrina. Suddenly the phrase “We Take Care of Our Own” has an exclusivist, menacing and even racist tinge.
That phrase and the two different meanings it can have sit at the center of election 2016.
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Donald Trump’s supporters stand for the first meaning. America’s first loyalty is to its own workers, its own culture, its own citizens.
This worldview is not just selfishness. For most of human history most people have prized coherent communities above all. They’ve built moral systems on loyalty and support for their own kin and fellow citizens. These bonds are not based on some abstract social contract. They are intimate bonds, born out of shared kinship, history, geography and common understandings of right and wrong.
People committed to coherent communities will fight to defend the norms that hold communities together. They accept immigrants who assimilate to existing culture, but they’ll be suspicious of those who they feel bring in incompatible customs and tear at the social fabric.
For eons, this was more or less the traditional moral system for most of the human race. But as the NYU social psychologist Jonathan Haidt points out in an outstanding essay in The American Interest, over the past several decades a different mindset has emerged.
People with this mindset value the emancipated individual above the cohesive community. They value, or at least try to value, self-expression, social freedom and diversity. Their morality is not based on loyalty to people close to them; it’s based on a universal equality for all humans everywhere.
People with this mindset disdain the political or religious walls that divide people. In his essay, Haidt cites John Lennon’s song “Imagine” as an expression of this worldview:
Imagine there’s no countries; it isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for, and no religion too
Imagine all the people living life in peace
You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.
People with this mindset bridle at the exclusivist implications of the line “We Take Care of Our Own.” It’s fine to value Americans, but we should also take in the immigrant and be multilateral in our foreign relations.
Haidt argues that the division between these two camps is a division between the nationalists and the globalists. It’s also between the moral particularists and the moral universalists, between those who believe that blood and historic ties take precedence and those who, like the philosopher Peter Singer, argue that you have the same moral obligation to a boy starving to death in South Sudan as to a boy drowning in the lake in front of you.
For decades the globalist/universalist mindset – pro-immigration, pro-globalization – has been on the march. Now, with Trump, the particularists are striking back. Immigration is the subject that fuels their ire.
As Haidt writes, “By the summer of 2015 (when the Syrian refugee crisis hit) the nationalist side was already at the boiling point, shouting ‘enough is enough, close the tap,’ when the globalists proclaimed, ‘let us open the floodgates, it’s the compassionate thing to do, and if you oppose us you are a racist.’ Might that not provoke even fairly reasonable people to rage?”
The fact is that both mindsets have their virtues. The particularists emphasize the intimate love and loyalty that is the stuff of real community. The universalists are moved by injustices anywhere, and morally repulsed by inaction and indifference in the face of that suffering.
The tragedy of this election is that America already solved this problem. Unlike France and China, we were founded as a universalist nation. You can be fiercely patriotic and relatively open because America was founded to take in people from around the globe and unite them around something new.
Unfortunately, the forces of multiculturalism destroyed that commitment to cultural union. That has led to Trump, who has upended universalistic American nationalism and replaced it with European blood and soil nationalism in a stars and stripes disguise.
The way out of this debate is not to go nationalist or globalist. It’s to return to American nationalism – espoused by people like Walt Whitman – which combines an inclusive definition of who is Our Own with a fervent commitment to assimilate and Take Care of them.