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After the Know-Nothings?

Samuel Goldman’s new book After Nationalism is a timely and important contribution to an age-old debate: what does it mean to be an American? The book draws on a wide swath of American history to bring out the tensions and debates that have shaped our national identity. Although Americans have never ceased asking this question—it may be our peculiar form of American exceptionalism—the recent revival of nationalism has made it seem especially urgent.

Goldman usefully parses three answers to this question that could be called his “3 C’s”: covenant, crucible, and creed. Each stakes out a specific claim for American national identity and each resonates in the long history of American political discourse.

The first “C,” the idea of America as a covenantal community, is the first and oldest conception of American peoplehood. It goes back to the Puritans on Plymouth Rock who saw themselves as “a community of saints”—to borrow the title of Michael Walzer’s landmark book—charged with the task of creating a new holy city in the wilderness of New England. The Puritans were the first to see America as a New Jerusalem founded by a chosen people who would become a kind of lamp unto the nations.

The idea of America as a covenantal people with a world-historical mission has long survived the end of Puritanism as a religious dispensation. Goldman shows how the language of Puritanism was secularized by the American framers, who saw the new nation as a culturally and ethnically homogenous people based on a moralistic vision of what would later become the hegemony of the WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant). This idea of America as a country with a universal mission was given new lease on life during the Cold War and then again, perhaps most famously, in Ronald Reagan’s revival of John Winthrop’s vision of America as “a city on a hill.”

WASP hegemony had its home initially in New England but would cast a long shadow over American history as it became absorbed in text-books, histories, and would form the basis of later policies of American expansionism and Manifest Destiny. Leading educational figures from Rufus Choate to Horace Mann to Harvard President A. Lawrence Lowell—all home-grown American Brahmins—would see themselves as setting the cultural tone for the rest of the nation. So powerful was this image of a New England aristocracy that it led Franklin Roosevelt, himself descended from Dutch pioneers of the seventeenth-century, to address the Daughters of the American Revolution as “fellow immigrants” to at least remind them that all Americans, except the indigenous peoples, originally came from somewhere else.

The second “C” is the crucible vision of America as a “melting pot,” so-named after the play of the same name by Israel Zangwill. (There is a story that Zangwill who signed his name “I. Zangwill” was asked by a lady what was his “Christian name” to which he replied, “I assure you, Madam, I have none”). Zangwill’s melting pot is often regarded as an expression of the American motto E pluribus unum or “out of many, one,” but Goldman shows how this is a misunderstanding of the phrase. The crucible image always allowed a greater space for cultural and ethnic diversity than the idea of a melting pot would suggest.

The embrace of cultural diversity—what would later become known as “multiculturalism”—was a direct response to the massive influx of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe at the end of the nineteenth-century. Old line WASPS like Henry Adams and Henry James saw these new immigrants as representing a threat to their idea of American life. Little could someone like James have imagined that his books would be kept alive by the children of those immigrants like Leon Edel, Norman Podhoretz, and Cynthia Ozick. The idea of “cultural pluralism”—not cultural homogeneity—was the creation of progressive era sociologists Horace Kallen and Randolph Bourne. They regarded America as a symphony, a “polyphonic composition,” in which each culture, like each section of an orchestra, adds its own distinctive voice to the score.

The third and most enduring image of American nationhood is summed up by the third “C,” namely creed. The idea of an American creed—a set of values and beliefs that define American peoplehood—has roots in Tocqueville but is most frequently associated with the Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal’s 1944 classic An American Dilemma. According to later creedalists like Samuel Huntington, Seymour Martin Lipset, and Martin Diamond, there are a set of core American values—equality, liberty, pluralism, rule of law, checks and balances, limited government—that define what it means to be an American. The particular advantage of this new creedal version of America is that it disentangled citizenship from earlier conception of race and ethnicity. All were invited to the table so long as they were willing to express allegiance to these fundamental ideals.

Goldman does an especially nice job in showing how this creedal image of America shaped the defense of democracy in its struggle against first Nazi and later Communist totalitarianism. Films like Why We Fight, Sahara, and Bataan showed ethnically-mixed combat units all engaged in the fight for democracy. There were, of course, limits to this inclusiveness as the era’s pervasive racism against the Japanese demonstrates. The film The House I Live In and its title song performed by Frank Sinatra was an anthem to American freedoms and our peculiar form of toleration.

What gets lost or overlooked in Goldman’s account is the voice of angry American nationalism.

The question is: why has even this very broad, non-denominational creed proved so fragile? Here I will let Goldman speak in his own voice:

Observers of American politics have long noticed that simultaneous commitments to liberty and equality, the pursuit of justice and respect for the Constitution, the universality of moral principles, and particularity of the nation did not entirely hang together. Under social and political stress, one aspect could be pitted against another. The result was internal conflict Huntington called moments of “creedal passion.”

It is not only for the charge of internal incoherence but for failing to live up to our own self-professed ideals that has made this creed seem so vulnerable in the light of both the civil rights and anti-war protests of the 1960s and the recently resurgent claims on behalf of American nationalism.

Goldman’s final chapter provocatively titled “After Nationalism” states his own solution to our national dilemma. His solution is a combination of the crucible and the covenant story. From the crucibilists he wants to maintain the importance of pluralism and the recognition of different cultural identities. Yet from the creedalists, he wants to seek out certain values broad enough to accommodate our different cultural identities. He claims as a precedent Frederick Douglass’s vision of America as a “composite nationality.”

Will this pleasing vision of America after nationalism hold water? Can it accommodate both multiculturalists of the left and nationalists of the right? It is impossible to say because the proposals for embracing our conflicts need greater specificity to give them meaning. How would they be translated into law and policy? The book ends with an intriguing question. “What might American plurality look like in the twenty-first century?” Goldman needs to provide some concrete examples of persons or policies that could fulfill his normative commitments. Although I don’t expect him to have a detailed answer to his question, we might have expected at least an outline of what an answer might look like.

Goldman would like to see Americans embrace the tensions that he rightly believes have always defined us. As I argue in my book Reclaiming Patriotism in an Age of Extremes, from our beginnings we have been divided between Federalists and Anti-Federalists, Whigs and Jacksonians, Wilsonian internationalists and America Firsters, and today’s multiculturalists and nationalists. Yet never in our history has an out-going president summoned a mob to try to overturn the results of the election of his successor—and found people willing to follow him!

What gets lost or overlooked in Goldman’s account is the voice of angry American nationalism. Appeals to race and ethnicity as a source of national unity have been a blemish on American character from our beginnings. This goes back to the American Party—better known to history as the Know Nothings—the first explicitly nativist party, to Joseph McCarthy and the House of Un-American Activities, to Donald Trump’s MAGA movement with its efforts to disenfranchise millions of African-American voters. Those running through the Capitol building on January 6, 2021 waving the flag of the Confederate counter-revolution could have constituted a fourth “C” in Goldman’s account.

Like many writers on the topic of American national identity, Goldman has an excellent grasp of history and the tensions within our national self-understanding, but has less to say on how we might move beyond “the age of division” in which we live. The book was completed, I imagine, well before the invasion of the Capitol took place and it consequently underestimates the sheer degree of anger and hatred that animates the nationalist right. Consequently, it underestimates just how fragile our democratic institutions have become.

Goldman’s book comes as a timely reminder that much works remains to be done.