There is a popular superstition that defines America as a “Proposition Nation,” created and proclaimed by the obiter dicta about “all men” in the second sentence of the 1776 Declaration that the 13 colonies “are and of right ought to be free and independent States.” Is America a Proposition Nation? No, for the very simple reason that there is no such thing in human life. Like the unicorn, it can be imagined, and some people may even claim to have seen it, but it cannot really exist.
But if we agree that America is not something thought up, we are still left with the problem of defining what exactly we mean when we say “America.” Granted, America is a place, or rather a sort of a place or many sorts of places, inhabited by people of flesh and blood. But is it a country, a nation, a people in the substantive meaning of those terms? This seems to me the vital question of the moment. What if Americans are not a nation and the best unifying identity they can hope for is as a Proposition? What if a whole series of presidents have declared that they have seen flocks of lovely, graceful unicorns grazing on the White House lawn, and millions of people have believed them?
The history of the United States makes clear, it seems to me, that America, while not a Proposition Nation, has long been governed as a Proposition Regime.