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American Nationalism: Past, Present, and Future

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American Nationalism: Past, Present, and Future

A new book shows that Americans have long sought unifying answers to the forces pulling them apart—but argues that finding such an answer now is unlikely. July 23, 2021
Politics and law
The Social Order

After Nationalism: Being American in an Age of Division, by Samuel Goldman (University of Pennsylvania Press, 208 pp., $24.95)

Midway through James Joyce’s Ulysses, a harried Leopold Bloom attempts a modest definition of nationhood: “A nation,” he says, “is the same people living in the same place.” So what happens when a country becomes many peoples living across an entire continent? This is the question that animates Samuel Goldman’s excellent new book, After Nationalism.

All that Americans seem to agree on these days is that we can’t agree on anything. Long before the culture war reached its current phase, even ordinary observers could sense America’s deep regional and partisan differences. And yet we have to live together somehow. What, then, is to be done?

Goldman’s is not the first attempt to wrestle with the problem of American disunion in recent years, which have seen, among other titles, the publication of Francis Fukuyama’s Identity, Yoram Hazony’s The Virtue of Nationalism, and Rich Lowry’s The Case for Nationalism.

What distinguishes After Nationalism from these other books is that Goldman is more coolly disposed to nationalist solutions. He is dismissive of what he sees as Lowry’s attempt to promote an only-the-good-parts version of nationalism, as well as the more alarmist case found in Samuel Huntington’s Who Are We? Goldman’s criticisms of these nationalist solutions for our present political problems are refreshingly free from moralizing, however—he just doesn’t think they will work, being either too vague or too specific about the content of a nationalism designed to bring together 330 million people of remarkably dissimilar origins.

Goldman devotes much of his argument to persuading the reader that American dissimilarity is no catastrophe. A proper survey of American history, he writes, should remind us that a unified national identity has never been our normal condition. Instead, different national ideals have come and gone, each providing a kind of discourse allowing us to speak in a unitary way about our otherwise disparate political reality. Our present dilemma is that we lack a plausible image of American identity that might sustain us across our political and ethnic divisions.

Yet even this, Goldman argues, is not necessarily a problem. The American “people” referenced in our founding documents has always been essentially undefined. Aside from the fact that the “we” in the Declaration and the Constitution largely failed to acknowledge the mix of Europeans, Africans, and American Indians already present on the continent, it also elided the internal variety of the European settler population, as David Hackett Fischer, among others, has demonstrated. By the early nineteenth century, significant geographical cleavages among New England, the South, and the Appalachian backcountry had emerged. By the mid-nineteenth century, the distinctive “British folkways” of early America had been augmented by substantial German and Irish immigration—and by century’s end, this arrangement was upset in turn by the arrival of new waves of southern and eastern Europeans.

Goldman considers several historical visions of American nationalism. Until the late nineteenth century, the covenantal New England model of American identity had persisted, according to which Americans were the descendants—literally or not—of the original settlements of religious communities. That model was stretched increasingly thin over the course of the century by immigration, westward expansion, and the institution of slavery. A new version took its place in the wake of the Civil War: the great American melting pot. Accordingly, Americans were to understand their distinctive national character as being the result of an unprecedented amalgamation of nations and races within a single country. Like the idea of the American covenant, the new definition was useful not for its strict sociological accuracy but for its symbolic purposes in making sense of an increasingly variegated national polity. The melting pot unified at least the white population of the United States during a period of increasing immigration. (The dark side of this otherwise optimistic ideal is not hard to see now: emancipation and enfranchisement of black Americans, however poorly realized, destabilized the idea of a single people.)

But, as the saying goes, war always tells the truth. Just as the Civil War finally broke the covenantal model, World War II revealed the limitations of the melting pot: in particular, its utter failure to assimilate freed slaves and their descendants. Faced with racial inequities on the home front and global security obligations abroad, America needed something new.

Replacing the melting pot was a concept still more abstract: the American creed. “At home, it pointed toward the realization of racial equality through gradual but consistent reform,” Goldman writes. “Abroad, it involved the defense of democracy against totalitarian enemies: first fascists, then communists.” The creedal understanding, lamented by Huntington, worked as a response to the absence of an established “pre-political” nation in the American narrative. Not coincidentally, it arose as a self-conscious reaction to the more racialized and bellicose nationalisms arrayed against the United States by the Axis powers. A genuine postwar optimism about improving the country’s racial and ethnic divisions drove it forward. So did less high-minded concerns for America’s image abroad in the context of the Soviet challenge, which was as much ideological as geopolitical.

The creedal variant of American nationalism probably remains the most popular among today’s standard-bearers, but it, too, broke on the wheel of social change and conflict. Atavistic nationalism is not always pretty, but it has the defining strength of holding up under difficult conditions; like your family, your people are your people, no matter what. The American creed, by contrast, rested on the idea of “America the Good,” a concept which became increasingly difficult to sustain by the 1970s, as American cities burned and the Vietnam War raged.

To somewhat oversimplify Goldman’s lucid, jargon-free account, the history of American nationalism has been one of partially successful narratives that gave way to one another before finally devolving into an entrenched and still-ongoing period of cultural warfare, in which three treatments of America’s history vie for supremacy in our political consciousness: one gently nostalgic, one not-so-gently reactionary, and one radically critical.

The sheer number of national narratives at play has prompted calls from right and left for the imposition of some kind of unity on the American story—a unity that Goldman shows is unlikely. As he observes, a purely instrumental nationalism is a contradiction in terms, a spell that’s broken as soon as it’s uttered. Upholding nationalism primarily for its utility robs it of that very utility by undermining any commitment to it among thinking people. And none of these past models of American unity, Goldman maintains, can be revived to serve us today.

In their place, Goldman proposes a pluralistic national settlement in which we seek greater fulfillment within our smaller and more local communities and associations, loosely bound together by a shared commitment to democratic constitutionalism.

Goldman’s historical account is persuasive, but I’m less persuaded that this kind of low-key Velvet Divorce is possible. Though wise counsel in its own right, his proposal nevertheless requires certain changes in our politics that are partly independent of and partly instrumental to nationalism. Consider “the people” in Goldman’s discussion of America’s founding documents. The great machinery of the federal government serves that people: providing for its defense, its welfare benefits, its access to privileged economic opportunities, and so on. Today, calls are growing to bring that machinery to bear (often under the guise of civil rights) upon even the most local issues.

Further, the ascendancy of the “strong” version of American creedal nationalism, which Goldman considers neither possible nor desirable any longer, coincided with the growth and entrenchment of a vast global-security architecture that persists to this day. Goldman doesn’t say it, but I suspect that a “post-nationalist” turn would require a retreat from or moderation of our military and defense posture around the world.

All of which suggests that the solution Goldman proposes in After Nationalism faces similar challenges as the one Alasdair MacIntyre put forth in After Virtue (a work of philosophy whose title Goldman’s own explicitly recalls). The communal associations to which we might return remain situated within the larger America, with its centralizing pressures and high-stakes opportunities for its most politically ambitious citizens. In other words, Goldman’s project is rather less modest than it initially appears—requiring not just cultural détente but political downshifting on a national scale.

Nonetheless, Goldman’s proposed way forward for the future of American “nationalism” is both more credible and more appealing than what is otherwise on offer, be it the Right’s “American greatness” rhetoric or the Left’s endless circular firing squad of identity politics. Realizing more modest expectations for American unity will require a generational shift in what we demand from political life. This itself must be the work of a new civic education, and we can consider Goldman’s book to be a significant contribution to that endeavor.

Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

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