If you’ve ever played sports or competed in any way on some kind of team, then you know what it’s like to form a bond with people over a shared purpose or goal. It’s a strange dynamic: a communal identity may form, a pride for the group and its members, a desire to see it succeed. Complete strangers can quickly form deep connections when they’re forced to cooperate to achieve a mutual end — especially when that end is outward oriented, such that a team’s identity depends on a context beyond itself, like a marketplace or a league…or a global stage.
We have many words to describe groups of people organized in certain ways to live together, but for the geographical and politically sovereign group of people known as the United States of America, the word “team” works best, I think — at least as we currently operate. Please forgive me an indulgence in some etymologies as I point out why other words to describe America aren’t as appropriate.
We English speakers often use the word “country” to describe sovereign states, but this word, ultimately from Latin contrata terra (land lying opposite), is better suited as a geographical term, not a sociological one. The “country” of America is just the space between the “sea to shining sea”. Given its roots, I don’t think the term “nation” is very appropriate for America either, as it implies a group of people linked by birth. “Nation” comes from Latin natus, meaning born. Since settling, immigration, and naturalizing new citizens is in the very DNA of America, emphasizing “birth” is a very old-world, non-American way to think (presidential birth certificate scandals notwithstanding). The neutrality of “State” would make it a good term to use, coming from Latin status (a standing or condition), but since America already self-identifies as a union of federated (sub) states, that’s too confusing.
Putting aside America as a political entity for a moment, what about a sociological descriptor for its people? Since I just mentioned the word “sociological”, is America a “society”? Well, the term’s almost too broad to be useful. If by society we mean just the aggregate of people living under the government of the United States, then sure. But if the etymology of the term — coming from the Latin socius (companion) — informs what we mean by it, then no, I don’t think friendly companionship with one’s fellow citizens necessarily defines the tone of the American public. Sometimes “a society” is conflated with “a culture”, but that’s actually an even more exclusive category, as a culture is formed by a common “cult”, from the Latin cultus (worship). America has never had a state religion; it wasn’t formed by a common faith tradition. It was formed primarily by seventeenth and eighteenth century Europeans and thus had nominally Protestant Christian roots, but if America has ever truly had a common cult, it would have to be the cult of individualism. “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are America’s highest enshrined values — not, as is the case elsewhere in the world, “family, honor, legacy, loyalty”. The cult of individualism, by its nature, ironically precludes the formation of a culture.
With no cult and thus no culture, no favored birth status and thus no classical nationhood, and an emphasis on individualism instead of companionship and thus barely a true society, America has very little internal, self-referential value. To be sure, there are pockets of cultures and societies within America that have their own value and values, but America as a whole is, from where I’m standing, value-less. (I personally think that’s exactly what America ought to be: a political entity that exists only to preserve those real cultures and societies within its borders — but that’s for another time). But after a couple military victories in the global arena this past century, “America”, not her towns, cities, or states, began to be where people started locating their identity. What exactly were they locating their identity in, though? Increasingly, the animating force behind this new “America” was a rapidly expanding federal government and a swelling military complex.
This new America became outward looking, posturing among the other global states, leveraging its wealth and might, strategizing, and playing it’s hand wherever it could with the tagline: “Making the world safe for democracy”. With a new context (the global arena) and a new purpose (spread “democracy” everywhere!), America became a team — Team America. Our wars no longer needed to be merely unfortunate, pragmatic necessities to preserve life or freedom: they could now be infused with the eagerness of home-team hopefulness, a competitiveness where not only relief but also pride would come with winning.
In fact, in the absence of some kind of conflict, some kind of assertion of American dominance out there in the world, the awkward realization that we “American” citizens have very little in common with each other apart from being on a competitive team can get unbearable. We speak different moral languages to each other, hold different values, have different lifestyles. We can’t even agree about the parameters of life any more, much less of liberty or the pursuit of happiness. The few anemic values we had, we lost. All we have left now is to feel some sense of belonging and victory by defending our title of “greatest nation on earth”, wearing the team colors, even if we’re disgusted at half of our teammates for wearing the same colors we’re wearing.
Team America. What happens when we eventually lose? Or worse — what happens if we lose our will to compete?