Samuel Goldman talks about his latest book, After Nationalism: Being American in an Age of Division, with Mark Melton, who recently reviewed it in National Review.
Even though some on the right have argued that the United States needs to return to a strong common national identity to survive, Goldman argues that America has normally not had this type of cohesion for most of its history. Instead, the Second World War and Cold War created a brief period when creedal nationalism became the dominant vision. But this vision began to fracture after a couple of decades, and America has been reverting back to its historical mean.
During the conversation, Goldman explains the history of America’s national identities by focusing on three that are present today—covenantal, crucible, and creedal—and why all three failed. He and Melton also cover how times of war allowed the government to coerce Americans into adopting a single cohesive identity. For instance, despite being an American born in Missouri, Reinhold Niebuhr’s formal education was fully in German until he began his Master’s degree at Yale Divinity School. But after the First World War, this type of culture could not endure. (Niebuhr’s undergraduate college in Illinois did not print a catalog in English until 1917.)
Goldman responds to critics of the book who say America must revive an Anglo-American or Anglo-Protestant vision (a type of covenantal nationalism) to have a future. Others who want to revive a common national identity also say identity politics is one of the greatest threats to America, which Goldman addresses. Many have also argued that the United States needs to teach history better to prevent disunity, including six former education secretaries who signed a Wall Street Journal op-ed in March 2021. Goldman explains why this type of program will fail just as other similar attempts have failed. According to him, understanding history can only tell Americans who they were, not who they are.
Instead of promoting a common national identity, Goldman supports increased localism and federalism, which he describes further.
Welcome back to the Foreign Policy ProvCast. My name is Mark Melton. I’m the managing editor of Providence. And today I am talking with Samuel Goldman about his new book ‘After Nationalism.’ And so regular listeners will probably know Sam from articles he’s written, talks he’s given. He did a podcast a couple of years ago with us as well. He is a professor at George Washington University.
And first off, Sam, thank you so much for joining us today.
Thank you for having me.
And so first off, we are talking about ‘After Nationalism,’ a book, you wrote. Kind of an interesting topic about the role of nationalism, especially on the right, where we have more and more people talking about trying to revitalize this common strong national cohesive identity. And in the book, you do a good job of talking about the history of all of this, and I did a review in National Review and so we will post that in the show notes. And so, my first question is, why did you write this book? And why now?
Well, I wrote the book, because, as you say, there has been a revival of interest in nationalism, particularly on the intellectual right, over the last five to 10 years. I think that it had been brewing for some time before that but was really brought into the open by the success of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. And it’s been a surprising development in certain ways. Because although I think that nationalist themes and passions have been an important feature of American conservatism, certainly in its post-World War Two incarnation, the language of nationalism has been less familiar. American conservatives have usually tended to prefer to speak of patriotism than nationalism.
So, this great discussion was provoked about four years ago. And as I followed the arguments, I found them increasingly unsatisfying. Not necessarily because I disagreed with particular claims or criticisms that were made about public policy -on issues including immigration or trade or international alliances- but because I thought they relied to an unusual degree on historical and theoretical abstractions: words like solidarity, cohesion, and unity.
So, I set out in the book to think more concretely and historically about some ways that those terms have been understood in the past, with the goal of shedding light on the prospects for nationalism in the future. And I conclude, as you discuss in your excellent review, that those prospects are somewhat dim.
I don’t mean by that that politicians or parties or movements are going to stop waving the flag, either symbolically or literally. Nor do I mean that they will always be unsuccessful. I’m also not suggesting that nationalists or figures associated with the revival of nationalism are to be dismissed on any of their particular policy arguments. Again, I think reasonable people can disagree. And for the most part, the arguments that have been developed in association with a revived nationalism are serious and worth debating whether I accept them in all their details or not.
But I think the prospect for recovering one nation under God, bound together by a thick shared understanding of what it means to be an American, is very unlikely. And the book is an attempt to understand why that is, and also to gesture in the direction of some alternatives that seem to me more likely to succeed.
For the sake of terminology here: So, in the United States, the word ‘nation’ can have different meanings. And for me I’ve looked -especially since I’m more of a foreign policy person instead of a historical person or for a Christian realist, like a theological I mean, I read theology stuff… but my focus has been more on the foreign policy issues. And so, within that frame, ‘nation’ has always meant a group of people with a very strong, common identity. And it doesn’t necessarily mean a country, it doesn’t mean a state, whereas in the United States, the word ‘nation’ and ‘state’ kind of get merged together. And so sometimes people use the word nationalism, to talk about almost the same thing as patriotism. Whereas for me, those are two distinct terms. And so like, how are you using this terminology?
So, I think the term nationalism is used in at least four senses, that in some cases overlap, but are also logically distinct. The first is as a way of describing rhetorical or symbolic tributes to political unity and to shared symbols. So, as I said a moment ago to waving the flag, in effect. This can take the form of what the sociologist Michael Billig, called ‘banal nationalism’ -language, images, metaphors, that we don’t really notice but that appeal to the idea of a common political and cultural identity.
A second sense, and this is the one that I think you have in mind, as a scholar of international relations… in the phrase international relations, really refers to externally sovereign states that are not bound to each other in ways that constrain their independence. And the ambiguity there is that that’s not really necessarily a claim about nations in any cultural or political sense. It’s really a claim about states which may or may not have a national character. And I think it’s striking that many of the seminal figures in developing realist thought about world affairs were critics of nationalism as a source of political legitimacy, and in many cases lived in a world in which nation states barely existed. So for figures like Hobbes or Metternich, the nation is not really a substantial category. What they’re talking about are independent states.
Third, nationalism can refer to the relationship between the highest level of government and more local or subordinate institutions. And that’s the way the term nationalism was typically used in the second half of the 19th century in the United States. The actual phrase ‘nationalism’ was very uncommon if it appeared at all, before the 1850s and was picked up in connection with the Civil War, for the obvious reason that it was a way of asserting the power of what we call the federal government over the states, which were on this argument, subordinate to national sovereignty. It had much less relation to world or international affairs, than to the internal constitution of the United States.
Then finally, there is an understanding of nationalism as a cultural ideal that seeks to bind together a group of people not simply under common political institutions, but through language, through religion, through custom, and often through some understanding of shared ancestry. And it’s really this fourth understanding of nationalism that I’m talking about in the book, because that’s the one that I think is least suited to American experience.
And one thing that I appreciated reading this book is again, coming from more of a foreign policy perspective and also having lived in Scotland and studied the Balkans… I’ve looked at nationalism from those countries’ perspectives, and the realist in me, as you were saying, is very skeptical of the nationalism. Because to me, nationalism is more about separatism. And to me, you know if Scotland becomes independent, that’s not good for American foreign policy, because that’s not good for British nuclear deterrence, and so forth. And so, looking at this from an American perspective is interesting, as you were mentioning. Like the word nationalism came about in the 1850s and onward, because of the debates in America. And I’m reading a review now about the international history of the Civil War, where the South was trying to argue ‘we are a distinct nation and therefore we deserve independence.’ And for some Europeans, this actually was a very attractive idea. It’s like, well, if the Bohemians get to have independence, why shouldn’t these, you know Cavalier, Norman, non Anglo-Saxon, Southerners? I might do a review of that later. But it’s a very interesting book.
So, I appreciated being able to go back and look at these questions that I had considered from a more European perspective, from an American perspective and close to home. Reading this, as someone from the deep south was also interesting talking about the distinct regionalisms and the distinct cultures. My hometown, oddly, did not celebrate the Fourth of July until the 1970s. And that’s really because the town surrendered on the Fourth of July. And so, it did not want to kind of celebrate this day. And so, I can see in the same way that national identity in Scotland and other places has changed over time. In the United States, it has changed as well. And I expect that it will change in the decades to come. But we are in a very difficult moment at this time.
Yeah. And one of the goals of the book was to trace some of those changes. I think there is an easy and common assumption that until the day before yesterday, or maybe before the 1960s, there was a stable and coherent and broadly shared understanding of American national identity and American national purpose. And what I tried to show in the book is that that simply isn’t true. There have always been rival visions of American national identity, which inevitably have been associated with particular religious, regional, cultural, and economic interests. And I think that if we want to think seriously, not just about this history, but about our own situation, we have to think about the ways in which nationalism is a vehicle for partial interests. And what I mean when I say that… it’s not that it’s necessarily cynical, but that political factions are attracted to nationalism or not, based on their calculation of whether it will benefit them. And one of the changes I don’t talk about much in the book, but that I think reflects this, is the crisis of the 1850s. We tend to think and are often taught that the South seceded because it rejected national sovereignty in favor of a right of state secession. But that’s not quite true. In the early 1850s many southern states were advocates of national sovereignty because they believed that they could compel the national government to assert and protect the right of slave property. And it was actually northern states that were arguing for a less nationalist ‘states rights’ position, particularly in regard to the Fugitive Slave Act, saying ‘we do not have to enforce not just this federal law, but it’s actually a constitutional provision that states should deliver up property that’s moved from one state to another.’ And it was only when that effort failed, that Southern figures strategically adopted the rhetoric of state sovereignty while Northerners were attracted to nationalism. So, these are always instrumental arguments. These are always partial arguments. And that’s one more reason to get beneath the rhetoric of solidarity and cohesion and unity, and ask what specifically is involved morally, culturally, religiously, or otherwise?
And so, to kind of get into the book about the different, the three major nationalisms that you describe: covenantal, crucible, or kind of melting pot, and then creedal nationalism, which creedal nationalism is the one when I think about the American nation, that’s the one I think about. I think it was interesting because I read, you know, having read your book and written a review, and then reading other people’s reviews of your book, I think there was one that described creedal nationalism as nauseous or this nauseous idea. And it’s like, well, that’s the one I know. And then like, also like with covenantal, and we’ll get into it, but also like the covenantal is the one that I find most… I don’t want to use the word foreign, but distant from me. And I, you know the fact that you were describing like in the South, that wasn’t very common. And being from the South like the idea of like honoring and revering the Pilgrims and the Puritans is not… first Thanksgiving was something they did over there, it’s not something we did as Americans. And it’s our excuse to eat food, be with family, and watch football. So, let’s kind of get into some of these different nationalisms. So covenantal nationalism, what is it?
So covenantal nationalism is an understanding of what makes America unique, that emerged from New England and was heavily influenced by the Puritan experience, although it was not a product of the Puritans themselves, as I discussed in the book.
The first few waves of Puritan settlers really thought of themselves as English and at least nominally believed that they might return or be reunified with their English brethren at some point in the future. It was only in the 18th century, that they began at least publicly, to recognize New England as a distinct community that had certain connections to the mother country but was substantially independent in its destiny. So, this is a vision that that arises from reformed political theology that takes the biblical Israel as a model of a national community that is bound as it were, horizontally, by shared bonds of faith, of religious commitment among its members, but also vertically as the community accepts a special obligation to God. And through the 18th century, this vision is expanded and, in some ways, modified from a reference only to New England, which is how it was understood in its initial phases, to a broader interpretation of what would become the United States. And you even see in the rhetoric of the 1770s arguments that the American states or former colonies -now states- comparable to the tribes of Israel wandering in the desert, to be unified under a divinely appointed leader. Washington in this idiom is often compared to Joshua. And that’s another interesting conversation. Not to Moses but to Joshua.
The problem with this vision, which I think lives on to some extent in popular culture although in a very attenuated way… the success of Thanksgiving is also a consequence of the erosion of this vision. It doesn’t really mean anything anymore. And as a result, we can enjoy it as an occasion for food, family, and football without thinking very hard about the historical or religious presuppositions of the Thanksgiving holiday. But it was still too closely associated with New England and if not with the Puritan legacy specifically, then with hierarchical churches that had strong connections to parallel institutions in Britain. So, the covenant could work for some Anglicans, it could work for Presbyterians. It did not work for the more individualist and voluntarist religious movements that, beginning in the 1790s, really began to define American religious life. And it did not work for the south and west, which following the Louisiana Purchase were almost necessarily dominant in formal political institutions.
As a result, the New England covenant was transformed from a political program into a cultural program, which would be upheld and transmitted largely through educational institutions, including higher education. And it’s not coincidental that even today it’s at Harvard and Yale that we find the greatest scholars of these periods and ideas, through secondary education and the ‘common schools’ movement of the 1830s and 40s, which sought to regularize education for children throughout the country, in effect on a New England model.
And finally, through what were called domestic missionary societies that were aimed to convert, not foreigners or pagans, but Americans whose Christianity was felt to be misguided and even dangerous. And I think it’s in that sense that the covenant remains with us and that it survived really, as the touchstone of high culture, at least into the early 20th century and in some ways later than that. Professors love it because these New England types going back to the Puritans, wrote hugely and wonderfully and these are really easy people to write a book about. But I think that the real experience of most Americans in much of the country, including the deep South, but also the West, were never defined by these ideas in the way that the elite discourse tends to assume.
Yeah, like, for me I don’t think I really experienced a lot of it until I moved to the DC area. And I think you said like the sphere of influence stretched from like Virginia, up and I think you said to the Midwest a little bit… and I was, I guess a couple of months ago, we run ‘Christianity and Crisis’ articles from about 75 years ago, and there was one with John Foster Dulles, where he gives a speech at Princeton, and he’s talking in 1946, which to me is probably one of the peak moments of nationalism or this great American idea. And he was bemoaning America, and he was like, ‘things were so much better like 50 years ago,’ and I’m like, ‘really? like, right around the time of the Civil War, things were great?’ [Correction: Dulles was referencing “50 years ago or 100 years ago.”] But to me, like, well he was probably coming from this covenantal nationalism perspective. And if I’m not mistaken… so this Anglo Protestant vision, is this what Hazony and others are promoting or what is?
I think they’re appealing to a version of that: one strand of it which they call ‘Anglo-American conservatism.’ One of the obstacles to understanding this milieu and you mentioned finding it somewhat alien, is that it doesn’t correspond well to today’s political categories. And in some respects, covenantal nationalism, had what appears to us, a conservative character: its emphasis on religion, its emphasis on a historical inheritance, and its cultural connection, and sometimes even cultural deference to England. All of that looks conservative to us. But it also tended to be quite progressive in its attitude towards social and political reform. And causes including women’s suffrage, temperance, and later, prohibition and more extensive economic regulation for the common good, all emerged from this tradition. And those things look a little bit less conservative. So, I think that what some of these theorists today are trying to do is use these materials to justify and articulate a 21st century political tradition, which is, you know, a perfectly reasonable thing to do but I don’t think holds up historically. And really the argument that this was a definitive political tradition -particularly as I say, in formal politics less than cultural politics- only works if you stop the story in about 1820, or even 1800. Because in 1800, Adams loses and Jefferson wins. And whether you approve of that result or not, Jefferson represented and promoted a very different understanding of what America was and what America was for, that appealed to many of the people who were left out of the New England covenant.
I believe you said -I don’t have the quote in front of me- but that covenantal nationalism is a religion whose gods have fled the temple. In other words, like the foundation on which this could exist aren’t there anymore. Do you want to speak to that for a second?
Yeah. So, one of the writers who’s been associated with these efforts to revive what they call Anglo-American conservatism with strong connections to the Puritan experience and to reform political theology is Brad Littlejohn, who wrote an excellent response to the book that was published in Law & Liberty. And he concludes by saying that he thinks that the resources of 18th century British Protestantism are not only necessary to understanding the past of America, but are the key to its future, or at least will be the key if we are to have a bright future. And I just find that absolutely implausible. I am not a prophet. I don’t know what the future holds. But I am pretty confident that 18th century British Protestantism is a dead letter as a widespread social, political, and cultural movement. And I don’t say this to insult any of the people, some of them friends, who are engaged personally with those traditions but that’s just not the America that actually exists. And it’s not the America that has existed, I think, for something like 200 years.
And to talk about the other different nationalisms, of crucible nationalism. What was that and why did it fail?
So, this is a vision that we tend to associate with the Eastern port cities that received waves of Eastern and Southern European immigration following the Civil War, the new immigration as it was known. And that’s actually a little bit anachronistic, because the image of the crucible or melting pot arises much earlier in the late 18th and early 19th century. And it’s associated not with cities or with the new immigration of the late 19th century but with this Jeffersonian vision of frontier expansion, which did appeal to immigrants. Jefferson and his supporters relied heavily on the political support of immigrants -which is one of the reasons that immigration even in the early republic was a bitterly contested partisan issue- but mostly immigrants from northern and western Europe. And the idea was that these people would come to America, they would not remain in the port cities, but would move West and there in the experience of the frontier, they would literally transform themselves from Irish peasants or German smallholders into a new people that would include the original English or British influences but would not be defined by them. So, whereas the covenant places the definitive moment of American identity in the past, the crucible shifts it to the future and says, in effect, ‘we are not yet one people in the way that the English or the French are one people, but we will be, given sufficient time and given the proper conditions for melting down these different ores into a single alloy.’
The reason why it failed, though, was because you had these groups who didn’t actually become one people and they actually started competing each other.
Right. So, this is a paradox that I think is relevant to present discussions of the history of race and exclusion. So, race was not very important to the New England covenant. And that’s because it was quite narrowly defined by religion and culture. So, whether people were white, was not so relevant because the question was whether they were reformed Protestants who were culturally English. And of course, there were many people who were white by the standards of the time who didn’t meet those criteria. And there were also people who were not white, who did meet those criteria, although in very small numbers.
Race becomes more salient for the crucible than for the covenant because it’s a way of answering the question whether you can put all of these different materials into the pot and melt them down without the product being less valuable than the original contents. And this is a question that obsessed theorists of the melting pot, including Theodore Roosevelt, who believed that it was good to bring in at least a certain amount of immigration from certain places in the world, that this would strengthen not just American politics and culture, but as he believed -like many of his contemporaries- physically build up the American people and the American character. But the wrong kind of people, he feared, would corrupt that mixture and that was understood in a very literal and biological sense, as corruption of the blood. So, the melting pot starts to break down, first as the point of origin for immigrants shifts from Western and Northern Europe to Eastern and Southern Europe, to places for which most old stock Americans simply had no precedents or models for understanding… you know, villages in Poland or Southern Italy, weren’t even places on the map for them in the way that Ireland or regions of Germany were. But also because of the outcome of the Civil War, which ended slavery and enfranchised nominally, the majority of African Americans, but then raised the question of whether they could be fully incorporated. And I mean that literally, I mean incorporated, made part of the body of the American people.
And the answer of most white Americans was ‘no.’ And as a result of these two challenges, the melting pot became less appealing, particularly among old stock elites, who began to worry that the melting pot was not molding others to their model. So, they got melted down, but what came out looked sort of like an old stock American, if not necessarily a New England Yankee, you know what we would colloquially call a ‘WASP.’ As the product began to look somewhat different, they became much more pessimistic about the prospects for melting and as a result, it shifted politically, from the relatively liberal attitudes toward immigration and racial integration of the 1860s and 1870s, to much harsher, restrictionist and segregationist positions by the 1890s and early 20th century.
And then the next one is the ‘creedal nationalism,’ which I’ve alluded to is the one that I think of most commonly. In fact, there was one article where, when I’m distinguishing between nationalism and patriotism, I note that if you mean by nationalism, essentially what you describe as creedal nationalism, I’m fine with that. But to me you know, coming from the South, like the Southerners became Americans after the Civil War. I think it’s been described as like the second American founding. So, to me that’s kind of where I’m coming from. And so that’s the one I kind of latch on to. So, what is this one? And you say it only lasted, or the peak of it only lasted a couple of decades. So, what is it and why did it fail?
So the creed or creedal nationalism, is a way of designating the idea that Americans are not bound together by religion and English culture and even ethnicity in the way that the covenant presupposed. Americans are not in a process of melting together that will yield a uniform product, even at some point in the future. Ethnic, cultural, religious, and other differences are going to persist. But the claim is, Americans are connected by shared commitment to certain values of individual freedom and limited government and particular political institutions that are intended to uphold those values.
Now this is not an idea that was invented in the 20th century. And we see in documents, like the Declaration of Independence and some of the state declarations of independence, as well as in some formal rhetoric of the early republic invocations of this idea. But it’s really during the Civil War that it’s articulated as a coherent theory of American nationalism. And Lincoln is not the only figure who does this. Frederick Douglass also made use of these themes. But Lincoln is the great is the great symbolic figure. And that’s why his speeches and other texts remain touchstones for creedal nationalism.
So why do I make this claim that it flourished in the 20th century? Well, there’s the inconvenient fact that Lincoln and Douglass and others may have said these things, but no one was listening. After a high point of enthusiasm for this creedal vision, during and immediately after the war, the bulk of American politics and American culture veers in much more restrictive directions, in some of the ways that I’ve just been describing. And ironically, it’s Woodrow Wilson who revives Lincoln as a national figure and symbol of shared identity. This is something I think we don’t appreciate enough. Although as a son of the South, you probably retain this memory.
In the 50 years that followed the Civil War, Lincoln was not regarded as a shared hero. He was a divisive partisan figure, invoking his name or displaying his picture could not just provoke fights, but could provoke bloodshed for decades following the Civil War. You didn’t talk about Lincoln if you wanted Americans to get along.
Wilson because he is a Democrat and because he is by origin a Southerner, has the moral and political authority to rehabilitate and revitalize Lincoln. And it’s Wilson who tries, not with perfect consistency, but I think with a great deal of success, to redefine and reconstitute American national identity around this Civil War reinterpretation of 1776. That effort was not entirely or immediately successful. Wilson and his progressive allies discredited themselves during World War One, which was widely regarded in the 1920s as a mistake. And American politics in the 1920s was characterized by what President Harding called a return to normalcy, a partial reversion to a more stable condition after the period of ideological enthusiasm associated with the First World War. But in the 1930s, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his allies who no longer call themselves progressives because that was not an appealing brand, they now call themselves liberals, revive these ideas as a way first, of binding together the New Deal coalition which was ethnically, culturally, and religiously pluralistic and needed some sense of identity that could include all of these different groups and factions. But they made even greater and more effective use of it as a way of mobilizing the country for a second global ideological conflict against fascism. And I think it’s really in the late 1930s, as war in Europe at least, against Nazi Germany looks increasingly inevitable that the Roosevelt administration and allies in the media and popular culture, really begin to appeal to this idea of the creed as the answer to the question of what makes America special and different. And they were so successful, partly because the mobilization for the Second World War was immediately followed by mobilization for the Cold War, which had a different enemy but was able to rely on some of the same themes of freedom and pluralism and constitutional government… that this remains the default understanding of American nationalism for most of us today.
You mentioned in the book, and I know from conversations with you pre-pandemic about… you’ve mentioned how this nationalism required a good bit of coercion to actually maintain.
And now I can think of a couple of examples, like one -I don’t think you mentioned in the book- but the idea of like movies were being censored. So, you want to speak for a second about how was this being maintained?
Yeah, well, I don’t think it’s coincidental that the creedal vision is associated at each of its periodic revivals of influence with military mobilization. In 1776 this is wartime rhetoric. It’s wartime rhetoric during the Civil War, when Lincoln faces the task, not only of convincing native-born Americans to uphold the Union, but also holding together a military force that was significantly reliant on immigrant and first-generation American manpower and also participation by African Americans. So there there’s an army in the field composed of very different kinds of people, if you want to keep them fighting.
You need to use a rhetoric that is going to include and inspire as many of them as possible, and the same is true in World War One, World War Two and the Cold War. But periods of wartime mobilization are also periods of coercion, ranging from the arrest of dissenting newspaper editors under Lincoln, to the suppression -the very successful suppression- of the German American culture of the Midwest during the First World War, which is a really fascinating and almost forgotten world.
You mentioned running old articles from Christianity & Crisis and Reinhold Niebuhr was a product of this world, who was born in the United States but did not receive a day of formal education in English until he arrived at Yale to study for his master’s degree. So, he got through all of school and college entirely in German, and that was not an uncommon experience. But it’s one that was altogether effaced during the First World War and then into the Second World War when popular culture was very closely supervised by government to promote unity and cooperation. And probably most importantly, something like 15 million young people, mostly young men, were placed under direct government control and military discipline and they were forced to sit and watch training films, many of which are available online -you can easily find them- that instructed them, you might even say indoctrinated them in a very particular understanding of who they were and what they were doing. The most famous is the ‘Why We Fight’ series that was directed by Frank Capra, so it’s not just an accident or a spontaneous development that the generation of Americans born later than about 1925, understands this as a national and shared conception of what it means to be American. That’s what they were told to think. And not just told but in many cases required, or if not required to think, at least required to listen to these arguments.
And so, we start[ed] to see the collapse of this starting in the 1960s and 70s, and in my review of your book, my conclusion is that it appears that the events of the Vietnam War, the rise of identity politics or these different group identities and so forth… It doesn’t seem to me that this is what caused the decline, but what caused the decline is really a regression to the mean.
Do you agree with that, or do you have a qualification on that?
No, I agree with that. I think that the period from about 1941 to 1965 is a truly exceptional moment in American history. It is not as consensual and untroubled as we sometimes like to think. Looking back there were really quite bitter and often disruptive controversies on a range of issues. But if there’s any moment in American history where it really does look as if Americans are becoming more similar in their habits and beliefs -political controversies are being sort of toned down from existential disputes to more limited policy questions, and Americans do share at least in principle, some common values- that’s the moment that you’d look to.
But I think it’s also a brittle and somewhat artificial moment that’s the result of this long mobilization for the Second World War and for the Cold War, and that’s sustained by very particular economic conditions that make general upward mobility at least a plausible promise, even if it wasn’t realized in absolutely every case.
But I don’t think that was sustainable, partly because the extraordinary and broadly shared prosperity of the United States couldn’t go on forever and didn’t. And when things are good, it’s easier to be generous.
But also, because there were ideological tensions within the creedal vision that could not be held on pause forever, and probably the most important of these had to do with the civil rights of African Americans. So, we often think of the civil rights movement as beginning in the 1950s and reaching a peak in the early 60s, but really, it’s a product of the Second World War, and it appealed heavily to the contradiction between the professed values of the American war effort: why we fight for liberty and justice and the reality of American race relations, both formal and informal exclusion of African Americans.
And that tension was never really resolved. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, I think, was seen at the time as the sort of culmination of many of these debates. But we see now that it was only the beginning. And as I argue in the book I think the race issue is what drives controversy about American National identity much more than I do Immigration.
Again, people can have different and quite reasonable views on the appropriate level and character of immigration, but I just don’t think that the integration of immigrants is historically a big problem in this country. The issue has always been how to resolve the contradiction between the principles of the creed and the reality of civic life for the African American descendants of slaves.
And to move to kind of our current moment: So, there are some who say that identity politics is the greatest threat to the survival of the United States. Do you agree with that or disagree? Or like how does that issue play into this nationalism rhetoric now?
Well, I think to some degree identity politics is inevitable. And I look back in the book to the past when the identities in question were different, but in some ways even stronger and more culturally relevant. Again, I think of someone like Niebuhr who spent his life in a parallel German speaking world, which is almost unimaginable today, even in immigrant communities. So, I am less concerned about so called identity politics than some people are, and I think moreover, identity politics under that term or another are an unsurprising response to the thin and unsatisfying quality of much American culture. I mean the things that are most broadly shared among Americans are not necessarily the most appealing things about America. And the search for some more substantial cultural identity and affiliation is a response to that, and again, that’s really nothing new.
What I do think is a problem is when people don’t have vehicles to enact those identities in their own daily lives and look to national politics to provide them with affirmation and support. And that, I think, an extended Republic like ours is just not set up to do.
So, in the end of the book I gesture, probably too briefly as many of my critics have pointed out, towards some possibilities for managing this pluralism. But what brings them all together is that I’m interested in ways to let people who have different visions of who they are and what it means to be American, live according to their conscience and preferences and traditions, rather than encouraging them to seek a decisive national political victory represented by a president who is somehow going to enforce their preferences on everyone else. And there are versions of this on the left and there are versions of this on the right. I don’t think either is going to be very successful.
So, I’m less worried about identity politics per say, than I am about the demand for a sort of centralized stable authority that I just don’t think is going to happen.
To kind of wrap up here, ’cause I mean, we’ve been talking for a while…
I’m sorry, you know, as a professor it’s an occupational hazard to be very long winded.
Well, I think like, we had Rich Lowry on the ProvCast about a year or so ago, and I think that was about an hour-long podcast. So, we’ll kind of match that.
So anyways, one of the things that… you know when I see people talking about nationalism and revitalizing this national identity, it’s really rooted into how do we understand history? And better yet, how do we make other people understand history the way that we understand our history? And I think like almost all of these nationalist projects are kind of rooted in this. The one exception I could think of is the ‘Make Federal Buildings Beautiful Again,’ which actually I supported.
I do too. Although, that was mischaracterized by critics who claimed that it wanted to impose a single neoclassical style. The order actually didn’t do that and did make room for different historical and regional approaches.
And like, it gets into this debate, but that’s the only one that’s really nonhistorical. And actually, I know some people who were supporters of it and were terrified of the fact that Donald Trump did this because they support classical architecture and they didn’t want Donald Trump to be the symbol of classical architecture, just because, honestly, Trump never had a plurality of support.
So, like in the history, though… for instance, the Wall Street Journal in March of this year, they ran an op-ed signed by different former education secretaries. The headline was ‘America Needs History and Civics Education to Promote Unity.’ And they actually ran ads, ’cause I saw this many times on my Facebook feed on ‘Ad,’ so they were promoting this. You say like history can tell us who we were, but it can’t tell us who we are. So why can’t history fix our national problems?
I think that the appeal to history is often a way of evading these dilemmas, which, when we express our views, often lead us to find that we disagree with others. So, we search for a consensus in the past that it is hoped, will be less controversial. The problem is that then the past just becomes a proxy for our present debates, and I don’t know if this is uniquely American, but it does seem to be peculiarly American that we can’t talk about what sort of country we are or want to be without appealing to the ostensible intentions of the founding fathers, which, by the way, is an interesting phrase.
I mentioned this in the book: we think of the founding fathers as this unifying thread that leads us back into the past, but the actual phrase ‘founding fathers’ was not popularized until the 1920s and 1930s and was very closely associated with the creedal vision, because the founding fathers we usually mean are those who enunciated broad political principles. They’re not the New England Puritans who were a rival set of founding fathers and were still regarded as such, in parts of the country, into the 20th century.
So, when we look for continuity and consensus in the past, we tend to find less than we think.
But you know I just think that these arguments about origins are not very, very helpful. So, I agree, for example, with many conservative intellectuals and historians who say that the origins of the United States really do lie in Anglo Protestantism, not in the glorious multicultural melting pot that some progressive historians have tried to emphasize, and also not in creedal, ideological commitments. But I just don’t think that tells you very much about where we are today. So, I think these arguments about history often become a diversion from the real question.
As for education -a lot of this gets filtered through debates about education- I think the search for consensus leads to compromises that are not satisfying to anyone. They generate exactly the kind of generalities that I found so unsatisfying when I was getting this book started. I think what we rather want, is educational and other communities that teach and practice what they really believe, not what they have agreed to say they believe after a yearlong series of community meetings. And again, to me, that suggests that we need more disaggregation of educational institutions to allow these different communities to live and teach on their own terms, rather than seeking a national consensus that I think is either illusory or has to be so general and banal, that it doesn’t really mean anything.
And with all due respect to the authors of this report, there’s a similar report that is issued and signed by the same kind of people about every 10 years. None of them ever go anywhere, and yet we feel compelled to keep trying. I’m saying, well, what if we try something different?
I mean to me, history is so malleable, like you get to pick and choose, especially when you have a year or a semester to cover something you can pick and choose what you want to cover, and you can then… you’ll have different people creating a different narrative and so, and they can be true, like it can be about true events.
You’re talking about like other countries: before I moved to Scotland, I read a couple different history books about Scotland. There was this one moment where both of the books quoted Robert Burns. One was very pro-nationalist perspective; one was a very pro-unionist perspective. They both took the exact same phrase, interpreted it in radically different ways about like, ‘oh union with England is great’ or ‘it’s awful’ and it was just like… to me that that epitomized just how malleable people’s histories can be to basically say whatever you want.
And that’s one of the reasons why I was like, well, this nationalism stuff seems a bit, I don’t want to say squishy, but it’s malleable.
Yeah, I also wonder how effective any of this really is. There are technological conditions that make it very, very difficult to enforce any common narrative. We’ve seen that with regard to COVID and the vaccines, with regard to the election and the same is true, I think, with regard to education. There are these intense debates about what goes into the textbooks and that’s important, I’m not dismissing it.
But those debates often ignore the fact that we all have Google. And it’s not clear to me that ensuring the presence of a particular narrative makes all that much difference, when students can easily type some words into Google and find an entirely different story. And that’s frustrating, but that’s the world in which we live.
And so, the last couple of questions here: So, this was kind of my conclusion of reading your book, that academics, writers, and the media class seem to think that they can drive what the national narrative will be. Reading your book, seems like they have very little influence over what happens. For instance, you write that the idea of this creedal nationalism existed before the Second World War, but it didn’t take off until the Second World War, and so there was actually other factors that drive the plot. So, going forward, do you think that’s kind of the situation that just modern states are in?
Yeah, I think that’s right, and I think that’s particularly true of political intellectuals.
Another unstated assumption that I notice in many of these debates is that opinion journalism has vast causal power, and if you just say the right words in an op-ed, the world will change. And I don’t think that’s true.
And one of the reasons that war is so important in this story, is that it provides an opportunity for governments, and especially for the national government of the United States, to intervene much more aggressively and directly, in social and cultural life than it would otherwise be able to do.
So, it’s true that intellectuals generated some of these ideas and they were, as it were, on the shelf when there was an opportunity for government to use them. But simply writing books or articles is not going to make the difference.
I do think, though, that culture more broadly speaking, can be influential. And here I would point to the success of something like ‘Hamilton,’ which is not a favorite of mine for all sorts of pedantic intellectual reasons. You know, this is not an account of Hamilton or the founding period that would ever pass peer review, but it’s powerful for precisely those reasons.
So, my challenge to cultural nationalists is if they’re serious, they need to start generating works of genuine popular culture that reflect and convince people of their understanding of what it means to be American, rather than writing op-eds and learned books and that’s not impossible.
You know, you mention Burns. Something similar might be true of the nationalist activists of the 19th century in many European countries whose efforts focused on poetry and music. And the advocates of creedal nationalism in the 20th century, who relied on film and radio and ultimately television.
If you want to influence the culture, you have to use cultural means and there’s a disconnect between these cases and manifestos and treatises about nationalism and the media that are accessible to normal people and that really do influence the way that they see the world.
And so you’ve alluded earlier about the, you know the community of communities that you mentioned here, that you don’t really go into a lot of details in the books. But like what do you envision in your idealized world? What would America look like in 20 years’ time?
I think it would be substantially more federalist, allowing states to exercise their constitutional police power on a whole range of issues that have been nationalized and that drive a lot of national controversy. You know, to mention only one that’s currently in the news, the Supreme Court is once again revisiting abortion. I hope that the power to regulate abortion will be substantially returned to the States and they will be able to use it in ways that reflect the preferences of their citizens rather than making this a perennial national controversy. And there are other issues on which that’s true.
I would like to see a more disaggregated educational system. The United States for understandable historical reasons is one of the only countries in the world where the determining factor in where you go to school is where you happen to live, within very narrow boundaries. I don’t think that works particularly well for a variety of reasons and the shift to online and more flexible education that was forced on us by the pandemic, may also offer some possibilities for different ways of organizing education.
I would like to see regulations that limit the ability of religious communities and affiliated institutions, to manage their own affairs… I would like to see those regulations to be loosened if not altogether lifted. You know people seek meaning and purpose where they can get it. And if they can’t get it in local affairs or in voluntary associations, they will seek it elsewhere, including in national politics.
And my fear is that our national politics, and especially our presidential elections, become repeated existential battles -as we like to say- for the ‘soul of America.’ And if that’s what they are then the future is dangerous. Because again, our extended limited Republic is just not set up to sustain that degree of pressure.
But hopefully we can… to end on a positive note. Hopefully we can, to me, spend less time watching cable news. I find that to me, cable news, both fuels and feeds on this constant battle.
Cable news is, in my opinion, much worse than social media. Social media gets all the heats, much of it deserved. But social media also has benefits that have to be weighed against the costs. Cable news has no benefits whatsoever, so I would be very happy if CNN and MSNBC and Fox News and all the rest, shut their doors forever.
As a millennial who cut the cord for a long time, I just reattached the cord so I can watch sports, but not watching cable news I think was good for my psyche for many years and deleting Twitter off my phone was also another good move.
Anyways, but like getting back into like the communities… walking in our neighborhoods. I think in the pandemic that was one of the things that -being around our neighbors more often- I think that, to me, helps minimize the idea of how bad things are. To me it seems worse on cable news and Twitter than it does in person. I don’t know if that’s your…
No, I think that’s exactly right, and if you are interested in finding consensus or common ground or whatever other terms you prefer, it really can only be done in person and face to face.
It’s when we have to encounter each other as embodied, not just as avatars, we find ourselves—if not compelled—then it’s much harder to mistreat and dismiss people.
And this may be a good place to close: If you are searching for national cohesion or solidarity then what we need are not common ideas, we need common experiences. So, the question is how those experiences can be established and institutionalized. And that’s not going to be done by yelling at people on Twitter.
Speaking about being face to face, thanks for coming into the office today… first podcast we’ve recorded face to face in a while and thank you for talking with us and writing this book. And for those listeners who are interested, be sure to read it ’cause there’s more to get into within the pages.
Thank you, Mark.