Most of the time, politics in America features passionate debates on public policy from people across the political spectrum who just want to improve their lives and those of others. Slogans from "Yes We Can" to "Make America Great Again" speak to generally patriotic and positive motives, even while providing very little in specifics about the policy agenda attached to them.
The slogan voiced this week by neo-Nazis in Charlottesville this weekend, "Blood and Soil," is an entirely different kettle of fish. It describes a racist, determinist point of view entirely antithetical to the American experience, and in complete opposition to the core of American exceptionalism.
This phrase originates in Germany in reference to the German people, but it predated the Nazis. It started off as a philosophy of the German peasant as the authentic core of German nationalism, and arose after Otto von Bismarck's 1871 creation of the modern German nation, when the cultural definition of what it meant to be German in an industrializing society became acute. "Blood and soil" advocates insisted that the peasantry held the most pure stock of German ethnicity. Therefore, public policy should protect the bloodlines of Germanic stock by keeping it linked to the land, rather than polluted in the cities. "Blood and soil" directly influenced Hitlerian policies such as the conquest of eastern Europe and Russia for Lebensraum, as well as the grotesque pseudo-Darwinian eugenics programs aimed at producing the "master race," and the horrors Nazis inflicted on the Jews and other peoples.
The phrase has no meaning at all in the U.S., except as a statement of racism of the kind neo-Nazis have pushed ever since they started as actual American Nazis. The German-American Bund started up as Adolf Hitler's propaganda outfit in the U.S., intending to lull America into complacency and neutrality while Germany seized all of Europe. Formed in 1933 and peaking at 20,000 members in the U.S., the Bund paraded on the streets of America, often wearing a version of the Sturmabteilung in Germany, better known here as storm troopers or brownshirts. After Pearl Harbor and Germany's declaration of war against the U.S., and also after the prosecution of its leaders for grand larceny and perjury, the Bund disappeared. Neo-Nazis have remained ever since, far less organized and unsponsored, but pushing the same racist drivel about "blood and soil."
However, "blood and soil" has nothing to do with the American experience. There is no such thing as an American ethnicity, nor an American blood line, especially not as the neo-Nazis predecessors would have defined it. The United States grew from a primarily British series of coastal colonies to a continental nation by waves of immigration by some of the same peoples the original Nazis attempted to enslave and wipe out — Slavs, Poles, and others. The "white" ethnicities of today's benighted supremacists would in some cases have qualified them for sterilization or worse under the regime they admire. The idea of a pure "Aryan" bloodline in Germany was an obvious fallacy in the late 19th century but still sold by demagogues in the Nazi era to grab power. In the U.S., the concept is utterly idiotic, a barely considered phrase parroted purely for effect.
What, then, makes us Americans? Legally, we can point to birth in this country or naturalization after immigration, but that reflects a status of citizenship for an individual. What makes us American as a whole is true American exceptionalism: our identity as a nation based on the rule of law rather than blood, soil, language, or any physical or external factor.
Perhaps after 240 years, the staggering experiment of American independence is difficult to grasp. We were not the first democracy, nor were we the first republic, or even the first colony to rebel against its mother country. What set us apart was the complete break with the political model of our mother country and the adoption of voluntary compacts as the basis for our governance. America did not break with a constitutional monarchy to simply establish another; instead, we entered into a social compact in which people created the laws by which they would be governed, and that the law would apply equally to all.
Without a doubt, the founders implemented that system imperfectly and some states did cling to a race-based pseudo-feudal system. The U.S. fought a civil war over those failures, and further established equality under the law over the next century. When all people have equality under the law, then their own individual and innate gifts can find the freest expression. Feudal classes evaporate, and a merit-based economy and society can thrive — as it has in the United States, with its dominant economy and culture.
Any philosophy or political movement based on ethnicity or physical attributes runs entirely contrary to the American spirit. "Blood and soil" and its cousins not only ignore science, they ignore history and reality. The best path to unity and liberty remains what makes us exceptional — the pursuit of equality under the law.