Nationalism in America

A thing that you hear a lot from Europeans visiting, or who have visited, the United States is commentary on how many American flags there are on display, and how nationalistic the general milieu is.* This always strikes me as odd, and largely dissonant with my own experience.** But let’s assume the academics are right; it is, after all (and I don’t say this flippantly), only my anecdotes against their data. Here’s my theory explaining why:

For much of the 19th century the United States was, compared to the European powers, small, weak, and (relatively) uninvolved with the rest of the world. But not too long after the country truly roars to life (industrialization, territorial expansion, large-scale immigration), it finds itself drawn into World War I. Then twenty years later, World War II and the Cold War in quick succession. So one, I suspect, could argue that in a macro sense, the country properly came of age under circumstances which lent themselves to voluble, visible, and vociferous displays of national pride. Now this sort of thing is just kind of there, lying around as a, to most Americans, fairly unremarkable legacy.*** A decent example of this might be the (uniquely American? International readers, rescue us from our ignorance) tradition of playing the national anthem before¬†all sporting events, not just national team matches. It began as a World War I-era attempt to liven up a dreary crowd, and now it’s so commonplace as to be done for things as inconsequential as high school hockey.****

*Or more accurately, in my case: a thing that you read a lot in sociological studies of nationalism written be Europeans. But presumably they would say these things if they visited, too
**I suspect this is largely thanks to the fact that, in the parts of the country where I’ve lived, the idea that America is a terrible place is more prominent than you might imagine
***Michael Billig argues something adjacent here, though at least in the parts I’ve read there isn’t a specific claim regarding the role played or not played by war in generating the phenomenon
****I always thought it was fantastic when they played the national anthem before any of my high school sporting events, but that was almost entirely because it made them more like “the real thing”, not because I imagined taking on Concord-Carlisle in soccer had any national importance