I agree that this need for constant affirmation of our own choices is one of the biggest forces in American life. The more freedom we have to choose, the more we need validation that our choices were good ones. Nobody can say "I am really happy with the life I have chosen" without a dozen people who made different choices leaping up to defend their own lives. Not that anyone has attacked them directly -- merely praising another kind of life sets some people off. A few years ago our local paper ran a column on the "quiet cars" recently added to the MARC trains to Washington, which inspired people who like to talk on the train to write impassioned letters bristling with wounded pride about the great friends they have made.
To this rally-goer, though, the most striking thing about “Restoring Honor” was the way the pageant effortlessly tapped into the same rich vein of identity politics that has given us figures as diverse as Palin and Howard Dean, George W. Bush and Barack Obama — but did so, somehow, without advancing any explicitly political agenda.
Now more than ever, Americans love leaders who seem to validate their way of life. This spirit of self-affirmation was at work in evangelicals’ enduring support for Bush, in the enthusiasm for the Dean campaign among the young, secular and tech-savvy, and now in the devotion that Palin inspires among socially conservative women. The Obama campaign raised it to an art form, convincing voters that by merely supporting his candidacy, they were proving themselves cosmopolitan and young-at-heart, multicultural and hip.In a sense, Beck’s “Restoring Honor” was like an Obama rally through the looking glass. It was a long festival of affirmation for middle-class white Christians — square, earnest, patriotic and religious.
If you combine this sensitivity about our own choices with the desire to fit into something, you get the passionate attachment to small subcultures that is another hallmark of our age -- dog people, motorcycle people, people who enter their five-year-old daughters in beauty pageants.
And all of this, while it is sometimes annoying, is perfectly harmless and probably inevitable. The danger comes from combining sensitivity about choices with nationalism. Nationalists long for a sense that the whole country is working together toward common goals. They want their community to be equal to the nation. It is not enough for them that all their neighbors or all the people in their football watching club think like they do; they want to belong to a whole nation that thinks like they do. People who don't think like they do must not be "real Americans." This outlook has only a loose connection to any particular political program, as you can tell from the way its adherents have lately been both defending Medicare and attacking Obama's health plan as socialism. But it can be mobilized for many causes, and right now it is being mobilized to fight higher taxes on the rich, health care for the poor, decent treatment of immigrants, and cuts in defense spending. It is the cause of liberalism in our time to resist this narrow definition of America, and to resist the equation of patriotism with a particular right-wing agenda.