On Nationalisms Through Time

On Nationalisms Through Time July 7, 2021

Not long ago, I finished reading Samuel Goldman’s insightful (and already widely-discussed) new book After Nationalism; Being American in an Age of Division. Goldman’s book is a thoughtful extended essay on the idea of nationalism (as distinct from “patriotism” or simple love for one’s homeland); for Goldman, nationalism entails that if the motto e pluribus unum—one out of many—is indeed meaningful, the unum must be some intelligible unifying principle or other. And with that in mind, Goldman proceeds to trace three rival conceptions of American national identity: covenant (Founding era to Civil War), crucible (Civil War to World War II), and creed (World War II to 1960s).

Each of these three conceptions testifies to a certain element of Americans’ self-understanding. The covenant paradigm refers to early Americans’ belief in themselves as residents of a “city on a hill” chosen by God to be a light to all nations; on this view, if America is to prosper, it must hold up its end of the bargain and remain true to its Creator and traditions. The idea of the covenant model’s reciprocal obligations is reflected by a famous, if apocryphal, quote attributed to Alexis de Tocqueville: “America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.” The crucible paradigm, which emerged amidst a huge influx of new settlers from Europe, refers to the perceived power of America to forge a unifying community out of the constituent elements comprising both its native and immigrant populations, with all dross ultimately purged away. And finally, the creed paradigm—which became dominant under pressure from the twin threats of Nazism and Communism—stressed the unifying abstract principles deemed foundational to American history, such as the values of liberty and equality, civic religiosity and so on.

At present, on Goldman’s telling, America lacks any universally-agreed-upon unum: in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement—which called into question American commitments to equality—and the nation’s fruitless efforts to promote its principles in the jungles of Vietnam, the creed paradigm has become largely discredited. The vacuum left by the absence of an unum, according to Goldman, has given rise to brutal battles in schools over the history taught to young Americans, culminating in today’s conflicts over “critical race theory.”

And yet Goldman is critical of recent attempts to repristinate some form of American nationalism, noting the failure of these three prior paradigms. Might it be impossible, he wonders, for any single idea of national identity to bind together a divided populace of millions? Accordingly, in lieu of a single unum, Goldman urges his readers to affirm the persistence of “messy, frustrating plurality” and proceed forward on that basis.

Yet I am not so sure this is the last word on the subject. The failure of three previous “nationalisms” does not, properly speaking, entail that no further nationalisms are possible. Indeed, I think Goldman’s thesis can be extended and developed once we include a fourth unum: capital (1989–2016). By this, I mean that over the last few decades, America’s material prosperity has been its defining “national” characteristic.

Since the Reagan era, conservative politicians have been keen to preserve a particular laissez-faire conception of the “free market” in the face of mounting evidence that the market’s benefits have not been equally distributed; a rising tide may float all boats, but is the majority of the country doomed to paddle in the shallows forever? Yet to adopt a different policy vision, for much of the political right, would be fundamentally un-American. (Many Democrats, no doubt, share the same neoliberal premises, even if they reach marginally different distributive conclusions.)

And the flip side of the coin is that the nation’s harshest nonliberal critics from the left—and right—have always been keen to denounce American consumerism, identifying the country with its prosperity. To wit, modern progressive critiques of historical oppression and American hegemony take for granted that America exercises a disproportionate political power ultimately rooted in its wealth (a wealth they believe to be uniformly ill-gotten). At bottom, though, for these critics America’s essence is still defined in terms of capitalism—the same theoretical horizon as their opponents.

And it is this “capital-based nationalism” that has come under withering fire—from both right and left—in recent years. No longer is GDP alone taken to be a sufficient indicator of national welfare; intangible issues of morality and national character have crept back into the conversation. While these candidates for a “fifth nationalism” remain inchoate at present, that is not to say they do not exist. In the end, it seems to me that diverging conceptions of the unum of a particular society will keep being posited and re-posited, as long as that society persists in some identifiable form or other.

For myself, I probably incline by disposition toward something like a “nationalism of gratitude.” Gratitude—which extends both horizontally, to other human beings, and vertically, to our Creator—is always for some particular finite thing or other, and finite things bear with them the marks of history and locality. I am grateful for the existence of Abraham Lincoln and Palo Duro Canyon and “America the Beautiful” and the National Zoo, and indirectly for the contested ideological brew that produced it.

Pace Bruno Latour, this gratitude is neither a purely social nor a purely asocial phenomenon. One need not defend every element of the “American story” to be grateful for the natural beauty that has ineluctably shaped and structured societal experience; similarly, one may acknowledge the destructive effects of storms and droughts and wildfires while remaining grateful for the kindness of those who emerge to help in the aftermath. Perhaps this is not quite “distinctly American” enough to satisfy Goldman’s criterion for a conception of national identity, but I think it is: no one who resides in America can truly remain unaffected by the distinct, historically contingent physical-cultural setting that inevitably pervades our thoughts and actions.

The real question is whether we will allow ourselves to give thanks for it, in all its imperfection.

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