After Nationalism

I made revisions to this essay on July 9, to correct my misleading summary of Hazony's position on the origins of nations.

During World War I, writes Samuel Goldman (After Nationalism), German communities in the U.S. “were subjected to both official and unofficial harassment and violence.”

Towns such as Berlin, Iowa adopted more patriotic names – in this case, ironically, Lincoln. In Collinsville, Illinois, a German born citizen named Robert Prager was lynched by an angry crowd. Under intense pressure, the distinctive German American culture of the Midwest virtually ceased to exist by war’s end. Although national restrictions failed, some localities and states even outlawed teaching and publishing in German (78).

In the margin next to this paragraph, I wrote, “That is how nations are made, Yoram!”

The “Yoram” in my note is Yoram Hazony, author of The Virtue of Nationalism, the Bible of the “National Conservativism” movement. Hazony’s argument rests on a stark and simplistic contrast of empire and nation. Empires are established by conquest. Nations come into being when tribes and clans voluntarily band together, united by bonds of mutual loyalty and brotherhood, or when tribes are violently subjugated by a conqueror. Yoram acknowledges that "the state is often established through a combination" of voluntary association and violence. Because of the nation-empire dichotomy that frames his discussion, however, he gives little attention to coercive nation-building, even though this is the story of every modern nation.

Goldman’s book is a brief history of concepts of the American nation, organized around three models of national identity: covenant, crucible, and creed. The Puritans of New England viewed their colony as a covenanted people, with a unique vocation from God that put them under God’s blessing, but also under His continuous scrutiny and judgment.

By the early 19th century, the covenant idea of America came to be regarded as too narrowly theological and Americans began using the imagery of the “melting pot” or “crucible.” Here in this new Eden, people from every nation are mixed and forged into a new kind of human, the American. But there have always been “unmeltables” – eastern and southern Europeans in the late 19th century, Asians during the twentieth century, and, from the beginning, slaves and freed slaves. Many immigrants maintained their own languages and ways of life, until they were forced to melt into generic America.

By the beginning of the 20th century, Americans were defining themselves by political principles, an American creed of equality and freedom. Lincoln already portrayed America as a nation “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” and during the twentieth century creedal nationalism was promoted through education, in military training, in political rhetoric. Woodrow Wilson made it a guiding principle of American foreign policy. Creedal nationalism was partly apologetic: That America was united by a “civil religion” of Americanism distinguished it from Nazis and Fascists, with their violent blood-and-soil nationalism.

Each of these models of American nationhood captures something of American identity, but each was and is contested. Few today adopt the covenant model. Continuing suspicion of immigrants shows that the crucible has never lived up to its PR. These days, a vocal minority view the American creed as a political weapon wielded by the white majority. A contested model of national identity is a failed model of national identity, because the whole point is to provide a basis for unifying a vast ethnically and culturally diverse people.

Goldman believes “the most promising” option is a modest creed that focuses on “a way of governing rather than inherited characteristics, such as ethnic origin or family religious affiliation” (125). America stands for “Constitutionalism, the rule of law, and civic equality.” He even cites Rawls: We can forge a shared ethos around “the political procedures of democratic government” (126). This is awfully bloodless, putting me in mind of Alastair MacIntyre’s oft-cited quip that sacrificing for a modern nation-state is like “dying for the telephone company.” As Jesus didn’t say, “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for procedural fairness.”

It’s possible, though, to put flesh on that skeleton. Goldman is on firmer ground in stressing that the US is a “community of communities,” a phrase he borrows from Patrick Deneen, who borrowed it from J.N. Figgis (127). A nation isn’t an agglomeration of individuals, but consists of “a variety of overlapping and sometimes contending groups that reflect and cultivate different conceptions of identity, responsibility, and purpose.” To say that, though, is to give up on grand visions of nationhood; to say that is to say that what unites us is a common commitment to let other groups be, and a commitment to, yes, a set of procedures that prevents one group from wiping out others.

That kind of regionalism or localism has deep roots in American history. For a long time, state loyalties outweighed national ones, regional identities remain strong, and it’s been a trope of American war-making that soldiers fight not for nation or to spread democracy, but to protect their families and home towns. America as a “community of communities” may offer a way forward, though it’s a path that points, as Goldman’s title suggests, to an America “after nationalism.”

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