A Nation without a Chest

Declaration of Independence, by John Trumbull (Wikimedia Commons)
In This America: The Case for the Nation, Harvard historian Jill Lepore argues for a new kind of liberal nationalism.

In The Abolition of Man, the author and lay theologian C.S. Lewis explains the importance of the “chest” in man. He describes the chest as the “middle element,” an intermediary “between cerebral man and visceral man.” It is the “magnanimity” and pluck without which “by his intellect he is mere spirit and by his appetite mere animal.” And as it goes with man, so it goes with the nations of man.

Present debates over America’s history and self-conception often swing between a strong sense of nationalism rooted in a particular culture, place, and identity on the one hand and a rejection of that particularized nationalism in favor of universal ideals on the other. These two poles represent the visceral and the cerebral ideas of the nation, respectively. Throughout its history, America has ebbed and flowed between exclusive and inclusive senses of itself, but the story has always been a national story.

Harvard historian Jill Lepore argues that we have slowly abandoned the national story at our own peril. In her new book, This America: The Case for the Nation, Lepore advocates a reformed liberal nationalism as an alternative to the rejection of the national story by the Left in general and left-wing historians in particular.

At barely over 100 pages, This America is a compact book. It provides a brief history of the nation-state, American nationalism, and liberalism. Throughout, Lepore tracks the development of nationalism and liberalism from the founding of America to the Civil War to the nativist immigration debates of the early 20th century to the civil-rights movement.

To Lepore, nation-states are a necessary vehicle for securing individual rights and political liberalism. She argues that nationalism was originally a liberal concept, steeped in the idea of sovereign nations for particular peoples with the protections of citizenship, but along the way developed in increasing opposition to liberalism. She believes that nationalism has always had both liberal and illiberal strains, and that the history of the nation is the history of the messy battle between the two.

Lepore makes the case that, wary of the sins of America and the excesses of nationalism, academics checked out of this battle beginning in the 1970s, abandoning their traditional duty to tell the national story. While she agrees with its critiques of nationalism, she argues that the academy threw the baby out with the bath water. The result? Illiberal factions and politicians filled the vacuum of scholarship and interest in American history, often coopting history for their own political ends: “When serious historians abandon the study of the nation, when scholars stop trying to write a common history for a people, nationalism doesn’t die. Instead, it eats liberalism.”

When we abandon the national story in favor of the cerebral, the visceral sense of nationalism rebounds, and often in illiberal and dangerous ways. Hence, the rise of far-right ethno-nationalism.

This America comes at a time when both the Left and the Right are grappling with nationalism. Liberals have diagnosed the resurgence of nationalism negatively as populist at best and white supremacist at worst. Conservative nationalists, most notably at July’s inaugural National Conservatism Conference, have sought to sketch out a positive nationalism based on shared identity, culture, and history, arguing that President Trump’s ascendance to the top office in the land reflected a sense of resentment that Americans feel at being told that the national story is racist and backward.

Lepore is a Liberal and is prone to a more universal than particular sense of the nation. She even rejects the term nationalism in her book, in favor of a creedal patriotism. Nonetheless, she has rightly recognized the importance of the national story. Her argument dovetails with the argument put forth by historian Jon Meacham in The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels. Both historians recognize that liberal universalism cannot sustain itself, because the cerebral sense of the nation ultimately descends into an identity politics that is just as tribal as the visceral sense.

Meacham and Lepore are not alone in their concern for the idea of the nation that avoids tribalism and universalism. One of the stand-out speakers at the National Conservatism Conference was Yuval Levin, the editor of National Affairs and the author of The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism. A binary “choice between an America of pure liberal abstraction or one wholly divorced from all universal ideals is no way to understand America, or to conserve anything about it,” Levin argued. “It even threatens to devolve into a nationalism rooted in race, which no legitimate American nationalism should ever allow itself to become.”

This is exactly right. People can have both cerebral and visceral attachments to the nation, and most do. So the problem we currently face is only partly the problem of the historian. Yes, our country needs a uniting history, one that fully reconciles the past, grapples with the present, and lights our way into the future. But we also face a larger challenge: the character of Americans themselves. Can we as a people hold our history, our nation, and love of country in their proper place?

The genius of the Founders was to wed a particular nation to universal ideals. It isn’t the universality of the ideals that will sustain this American project, nor is it blood-and-soil attachment to people and place. It’s the civic health of a people who maintain a gratitude for their country, its history, and its ideals while not deriving their ultimate sense of meaning from politics.

We must be a people with a chest, so that our nation has a chest as well.

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