These days the phase, “America First” is unlikely to produce a purely neutral reaction in anyone polled about it. For some, it is a powerful affirmation of what ought to be our government’s first priorities. For others, it is an isolationist statement, a dangerous signal to our allies, and particularly so as globalization intensifies.
I see merit in the latter view, but given our political climate, productive conversation requires nuance. This isn’t to say populism is always without negative consequences; history is littered with examples of them. However, our cities and towns face nontrivial barriers. The migration of our best and brightest to cities hasn’t come without cost to the communities from which they’re drawn, and the divide between urban and rural areas is increasingly a proxy, among other things, for our political differences.
But in a country as vast and diverse as ours, it’s difficult to see what could unite us if not a healthy pride in America, rooted first in that of our own local communities. In other words, a return to *civic* nationalism—with a focus on place as a bedrock of civil society.
Why is place important? The American story—that of our history, traditions and culture—can be conveyed through various places. From Jamestown and Plymouth to Levittown to Ground Zero, pieces of our story are scattered from coast to coast, in the form of locations whose significance transcends mere geography. While some of these places of character are of national importance, most exist within local communities. They are museums, the local Dairy Queen (or in my town, Sonic), and our downtowns, the backdrop for so many daily vignettes of lives unfolding at various stages.
Place as a concept should be distinguished from any literal definition of places. It refers not to physical addresses, but to the historical and communal ties which imbue such locations with a measure of gravity that is not easily reversed. While it’s probably futile to create an exhaustive list of the defining characteristics which transform a place from a mere location to one of consequence, in the context of healthy communities, a few commonalities exist across even regional and socioeconomic lines.
Places of character provide areas for public congregation, and can be utilized for a wide range of purposes. They are secure, but without requiring external security. In other words, their perpetuation is buttressed by some underlying level of trust within the community. They provide the space required for the proliferation of civic institutions—those intermediary institutions between man and state which Tocqueville noted long ago constitute an integral part of the American project, and form the basis for acquiring social capital and societal cohesion. Most importantly, our local, privileged places reflect our communities themselves; they are imprinted with the history and culture of their creators.
Ultimately, this view of place is rooted in the concept of belonging. Human beings are fundamentally social creatures. We crave connection, status, and meaningful associations with the people around us. Places of note foster community, functioning as real-world social networks.
Such places are exceptionally difficult to build from the top-down because without local buy-in, these efforts are doomed. Planners and politicians may have their own ideas about what key features are required for a city to be worth living in, but the needs and desires of the communities they serve cannot be overlooked.
Further, if civic nationalism is to have staying power, voting cannot be our chief form of civic engagement. In fact, if you think about it, voting is probably the least effective way for an individual to impact society. Local efforts to reinvigorate our own places of character—to do the work required to preserve and restore them, and to make them accessible to our communities as they grow, age, and undergo various other changes—must take precedence over national campaigns, or catchy slogans.