Sympathy for Nationalists, but Little Hope

(Al Drago/Reuters)
Americans have historically lacked strong national cohesion, Samuel Goldman argues in After Nationalism, so let’s aim for comity among diverse communities living together.

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

During World War II, three captured Germans escaped a prison camp in Tennessee and fled into the Appalachian Mountains. They found a cabin with water, but the elderly lady who lived there warned them to leave. They ignored her, so she shot and killed all three. As David Hackett Fischer recounts in Albion’s Seed, an angry sheriff asked her why she killed them. She bawled and said she wouldn’t have done so if she had known they were Nazis. She insisted, “I thought they was Yankees!”

Much as Albion’s Seed describes diversity and divisions in America that began long before the Civil War and continued long after, Samuel Goldman in his book After Nationalism makes the historical case that Americans normally have not had a single national identity. By the time of the Revolution, for example, divisions among various groups were just as deep as today’s, or deeper. Since independence, citizens have bickered over who “we” are — the essential question of nationalism, which focuses on a people with a strong common identity — yet every attempt to maintain a cohesive identity has failed. Today in this concise book, Goldman responds to commentators who believe that citizens must return to some overarching identity and purpose. He argues that this task is difficult when the conditions that allowed previous unity no longer exist. Moreover, nationalists do not reasonably explain programs that could reignite a meaningful shared identity. In contrast, he favors the opposite course — accepting increased localism with smaller communities for a diverse citizenry.

While demonstrating how a cohesive identity is difficult to establish, Goldman describes three nationalisms that tried but failed to unify Americans: covenantal, crucible, and creedal. First, covenantal nationalism drew upon Calvinist theology and insisted that the American nation descended from the Puritans and the Mayflower, not Jamestown or elsewhere. Most influential in New England and nearby areas, it compared America to biblical Israel and said that the new righteous republic had a providential purpose. Despite their relatively small numbers, proponents of this Anglo-Protestant nationalism wrote profusely and long influenced academia and the WASP establishment. But it asked non-Yankees to abandon too much of their history and culture to be considered truly “American,” and few beyond New England’s sphere of influence believed this national story. For instance, Southerners rejected its national holiday, Thanksgiving, until the mid 20th century, when it no longer conveyed a Yankee message. By 1815, immigration from non-Anglos and non-Protestants, combined with American expansion westward, ensured that covenantal nationalism could never become the country’s dominant vision. Some on the right today argue that Americans should return to this Anglo-Protestant outlook, but Goldman offers minimum hope for their ambitions.

As Americans settled the Western frontier, crucible nationalism suggested that the endeavor would turn diverse people into a cohesive group. Unlike covenantal nationalism, which looked to an idealized past, crucible nationalism looked hopefully toward America’s future. While it was open to a Christian interpretation, the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson offered non-Christian variations. But Goldman explains how this nationalism, too, failed. The Civil War exposed Americans’ deep divisions, and the abandonment of Reconstruction allowed Southern whites to reestablish racist governance. Meanwhile, 12 million immigrants, many of whom retained their culture, joined the roughly 35 million already in the U.S. As diverse ethnic groups concentrated in cities and competed against one another, Americans realized that a melting pot would not turn the multitudes into a single nation.

Goldman then describes creedal nationalism, which Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln embodied, though postbellum America rejected it. In this interpretation, a diverse citizenry united around an American creed that embraced the ideals of the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and other documents. Though academics discussed the notion previously, Americans did not embrace it until they waged a world war against fascism and a Cold War against communism. Rallying around liberal democracy, Americans fought totalitarianism abroad and pursued racial equality at home, and they viewed various injustices as deviations from the American ideal that reform would eliminate. But maintaining this nationalism required coercion and sustained effort, as Goldman documents, and cracks appeared by the time of the Vietnam War and the resurgence of group identities. Observers may conclude that events of the 1960s and later caused the deterioration of American unity. But the decline appears to have occurred mostly because national cohesion, abnormally high in the 1940s and 1950s, has been reverting to its historical mean.

Despite his sympathy toward nationalists, Goldman offers them little hope. The brief peak of creedal nationalism required significant maintenance during two global ideological conflicts, and Goldman doubts that Americans have the will or ability to establish similar unity again. Given the realities of U.S. history and culture, he concludes that Americans are living “after nationalism.” In this environment, citizens argue over their shared identity and have contradictory ideas about the nation. They fight ferociously in an intractable culture war over their history, which, according to Goldman, cannot define a homogenized American identity. Many believe that unity would reemerge if only they, or others, better understood America. But the book says that this hope is unrealistic, and that the most likely outcome is the opposite of a coherent nationalism — diverse communities living together.

While modern societies may think they can choose national cohesion, in practice most probably cannot in absence of coercion or without undesirable consequences. Events beyond their control often drive the plot. After all, creedal nationalism surged not because academics argued persuasively but because foreign actors forced America into ideological conflicts. So Goldman’s recommendation of increased localism is worth considering. He admits that this vision is a gamble that could fail, but the other options have worse prospects.

Those who dislike Goldman’s conclusion should nonetheless understand his skepticism and explain programs that might revive nationalism when all other attempts have failed. For instance, he says that the military draft helped to solidify creedal nationalism. Would nationalists consider a draft for the sake of national unity? Or would Americans vote out anyone who tried?

Creedal nationalism is a reasonable vision, and Goldman explains its historical context. But his skepticism about it reaffirms my preference for using patriotism instead of nationalism to describe my loyalty to America, as nation raises tricky questions about group identity. Unless referencing identity or purpose, I don’t see convincing reasons to use the word nationalism when patriotism suffices. Goldman likewise calls himself a “patriot,” a term common in America long before nationalism, which wasn’t widespread until after the Civil War. With a distinction between patriotism and nationalism today, patriots could seek their country’s peace and prosperity and care for fellow citizens without worrying much about identity. In contrast, a nationalist push to create a homogenized unity or understanding of America, whether from the left or from the right, could result in persecution, intolerance, or increased disunity. Or nationalist logic could justify dissolving the United States if Americans realize that, as Goldman argues, they cannot share a strong, meaningful identity.

In demonstrating how American national identities have morphed over generations, After Nationalism does offer the hope at least that the country can endure. Divisions have always existed — whether culture wars in recent decades, differences among the colonies, or animosity between the North and the South or between the Eastern seaboard and the rural interior. Despite such difficulties, the United States and its democracy have survived, even when we have disagreed on who “we” were.

Mark Melton is the managing editor of Providence: A Journal of Christianity & American Foreign Policy. He earned his master’s in international relations at the University of St. Andrews and bachelor’s in foreign languages and international trade at Mississippi College.


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