Case Study of Banal Nationalism in the United States

4th Apr 2023

On a warm, breezy morning, the wheat in the field rustles. Rays of sunlight create a solid warm glow. The porch to the old barn house creaks against the weight of an old chair. Raised high and proud against the house's roof is Old Glory, her stars shining against the sunlight.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines the word banal as, "lacking originality, freshness, or novelty". When used with nationalism, it creates a new meaning, however. The Society Pages, in reference to Michael Billig's book that coined the term, writes, "In his book by the same name, Michael Billig coined the term 'banal nationalism' to draw attention to the ways in which nationalism was not only a quality of gun-toting, flag-waving 'extremists,' but was quietly and rather invisibly reproduced by all of us in our daily lives."

I was first introduced to this term a few days ago during NAVA 54, or the 54th annual meeting of the North American Vexillological Association. Vexillology, the study of flags, fits well with the concept of banal nationalism. In the example text I gave (which could fit perfectly in any novel taking place in rural America), banal nationalism is shown through the use of the United States flag (or by one of its popular nicknames, "Old Glory").

The U.S. flag is for a great reason the most commonly used instance of banal nationalism in the United States. Practically any other symbol would not make sense against the unique nature of the U.S. flag. For instance, if you saw the great seal of the U.S. (which is shown prominently on the reverse of the $1 bill) on a t-shirt, that would not make nearly as much sense as to include the easily recognizable U.S. flag.

The songs The Star-Spangled BannerThe Star and Stripes ForeverHail to the ChiefAmerica the Beautiful, and Yankee Doodle are used in similar contexts but still pale in comparison to the common nature of the flag (also given the fact that songs are audio exclusively and flags, therefore, have a much greater reach — it would be nonsensical for a store to sell apparel for July 4th with Yankee Doodle playing instead of displaying festive American flags).

No other symbol, let alone flag, has created such controversy, such inspiration, yet is in most cases remains completely unnoticed. I noted this in one of my first times leaving the United States, during my visit to France. It made me realize how often flags are used and how often we simply ignore their presence. A French could come to the U.S. and say the same thing about the United States flag. As an American, I have never come to question the flag's presence in churches, fields, capitols, in front of buildings, covering people's buttocks, etc.

You can be a nationalist without being a hick. In fact, many of us are. If you own a United States flag, own a t-shirt with the flag on it, or have ever said the Pledge of Allegiance, you've engaged in some form of banal nationalism, the other, less sexy (and less racist) form of nationalism.