The Necessity of Cultural Nationalism

In 1851, Matthew Arnold famously stood upon Dover Beach, meditating on the “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” of the “sea of faith,” that had left him stranded sadly on the sand, watching the tide go out—never to return, it seemed. Arnold was in this respect a man ahead of his time, but the epitome of so many others to come: a man who could not deny the glories of the age of faith that lay behind, but could not bring himself to believe in their future. He might want to believe, but he could not, and felt sure that others would come to share his doubts.

In 2021, Samuel Goldman stands, it seems, upon his own Dover Beach (though Delaware, perhaps, rather than Kent), listening to the melancholy, long, withdrawing roar of nationalism—although a fighting withdrawal, it would appear, from the current “nationalist revival” that Goldman observes in recent American political debate. Like Arnold, Goldman is no hostile critic; the age of nationalism, he seems prepared to concede, boasts a long list of accomplishments, and the world may be a troubled place without it. He himself, however, can see nationalism as at best a useful myth, and one that he sees little hope of reviving. If pluralism is here to stay, he argues we had best make our peace with it and learn again the art of disagreeing constructively, within the framework of what Goldman calls a “constitutional patriotism,” an appropriately chastened form of the creedal nationalism that dominated American thinking in much of the twentieth century.

Goldman’s After Nationalism represents an essential and incisive salvo in the current debate over the role of nationalism in America’s social and political future. Indeed, Goldman writes as a friendly critic of the new nationalists like Yoram Hazony, even if he remains deeply skeptical of the viability of their project. His critical observations on the challenges confronting any effort to sustain and revive American nationalism demand to be taken seriously by those of us who still hold out hope for its future. Not only does Goldman highlight the tremendous diversity that has always lurked just under the surface of American society, whatever unifying account we might want to use to paint over it—but more seriously (and this represents a distinctive challenge for American nationalism in particular), he shows that we have not even agreed on what that unifying account is. “We do not only disagree about how much pluribus is compatible with republican government; we also disagree about what kind of unum we should become.” There have been, he argues, at least three distinct traditions of American nationalism through the centuries, reflecting different conceptions of the proper scope of diversity and the key strands of unity: the Covenant, the Crucible, and the Creed.

Three American Nationalisms

The bulk of the book comprises an honest and illuminating account of the rise and fall of each of these American nationalisms, three efforts to forge a durable unity of identity and purpose in the vast and varied American republic. Although certainly overlapping one another and not always mutually exclusive, each flourished during a distinct phase of American history. The Covenant conception, rooted deeply in the hard but hardy soil of New England Protestantism, combined ethnic, racial, religious, cultural, and political elements, convinced that the nation could not long endure without a strong consensus rooted in America’s British past, Protestant religion, and Puritan morality. This vision of American nationalism, as Goldman describes it, flourished from 1630 to perhaps 1830, strained by the rise of Jacksonian frontier culture and finally buckling under the weight of German and Irish immigration in the 1840s and 1850s.

The Crucible conception which succeeded it, the famous “melting pot” ideal of the immigrant society, was more a revision than a replacement, however. The central base of British ethnicity was broadened first to include northern Europeans in general, and eventually nearly all Europeans, but the dominant culture remained white. American civil religion remained primarily Protestant, but gradually stretched to become generically Christian, and immigrants were expected to adapt to the mores and morality that had been shaped by the earlier Covenant culture. Flourishing between perhaps 1830 and 1940, the Crucible ideal finally gave way to the Creed as America repudiated Nazi racialism, and sought for a more expansive sense of identity that could sustain its enlarged role on the world stage. “Christian” broadened into “Judeo-Christian,” and pluralism was positively celebrated, so long as it remained within the protective penumbra of America’s glorious Constitution. Creedal nationalism, however, began to break down as soon as 1970, as the unresolved tensions of the Civil Rights era and the failure of the Vietnam War sapped the foundations of American national pride.

Although Goldman is honest about the failures, limitations, and selection biases of these successive American nationalisms, he is not out to debunk them per se. Indeed, it bears emphasizing—perhaps more than Goldman himself does—that by and large, these models worked. Within its own time, each succeeded in forging sufficient bonds of national solidarity, outlining plausible pillars of shared belief and purposes, to enable America not merely to hold together, but to expand, flourish, and indeed spread blessings to the world at large. None was perfect (certainly not as perfect as the story it told about itself), and none ensured that every citizen could equally contribute to the national identity or equally share in its benefits—which is impossible in the nature of the case. But judged by the rough-and-ready standards of cultural and political success, American nationalism has had an impressive track record—particularly in its first two forms, which together spanned three centuries.

National History and The Ambiguity of Myth-Making

With Goldman the historian having established the limitations of previous attempts at national solidarity, one might expect Goldman the political theorist to turn and commend to us, as several others have done in recent years, the importance of renewing American nationalism in the 21st century. But it is here that Goldman loses his nerve, confessing that as a scholar, he feels deeply ambivalent about recommending the retrieval or reconstruction of shared myths. Nationalism, after all, does depend on what we might call “myth”-making: the imaginative construal of a shared identity from the unpromising raw material of human diversity, the compelling story-telling that anchors us through its tale of past triumphs, and inspires us with the examples of past heroes.

In Chapter Four, Goldman considers at some length the role of historians in constructing and deconstructing concepts of American nationalism and the narratives that sustain them. He concedes that national history is important and powerful, and that nations cannot perhaps long endure without “public myths,” but he remains highly uncomfortable with the selectivity this “myth”-making involves.

In a key passage, he summarizes Ernst Renan’s pioneering work on nationhood:

“A heroic past with great men and glory, Renan writes, “is the social capital upon which the national idea rests.” But no nation has a past that is entirely glorious. The record always includes injustice, suffering, and defeat. In order to preserve our accumulated capital, we tend to ignore or minimize these episodes. Renan concludes that not only remembering but also “the act of forgetting” is “an essential factor in the creation of a nation.”

Such selectivity Goldman sees as “dubious.” But why need it be? Every historian knows that selectivity is unavoidable—not merely to reduce material to manageable size, but to cast it into some intelligible form. Goldman himself concludes this chapter by noting the failed attempt of historian Jill Lepore to write a textbook of American history that does justice to the full range of dominant and marginalized characters that have shaped our nation’s story; the result, he observes, is not only unwieldy and confusing, but disorientingly non-committal. Historians, like all storytellers, must make value judgments about which stories most deserve telling, which trends demand most emphasis.

History shows few examples of a “constitutional consensus” sustaining itself in the absence of a larger cultural and/or religious consensus.

This is all the more true when the stories concern ourselves and those close to us. Consider the role of a eulogy. To be sure, we all detest those eulogies that are implausible hagiography, and we best honor the memory of a friend or family member by recalling them as truly human and therefore fallible. Still, if I believe my grandfather was fundamentally a good man, I will tell his story to my children by highlighting his virtues and his good deeds, rather than his failures or blind spots; I will see his life as a narrative arc disclosing a fundamental identity and core values, rather than an incoherent stumbling between contradictory goals. Pace Goldman, I fail to see how such selectivity is less truthful than a blandly impassive enumeration of sins, successes, and contrasting character traits. 

The kind of story-telling necessary to sustain any family, community, or nation, though idealistic and over-simplistic, should not be dismissed as mere “useful fabrication,” even if it does need critical historians to keep it honest. Certainly, an American national history that glossed over the evils of slavery, ignored the betrayal of American principles in the Mexican War, and casually justified the genocide of Native Americans would be a pernicious myth. But it would be equally pernicious, and no less truthful, to tell America’s story as a long list of atrocities and oppressions in which all imperfect heroes had been banished from the national pantheon.

The Nationalism We Need Today

Of these two errors, it is not hard to see which is the more lively threat today. Goldman sometimes writes as if today’s nationalists were nostalgic bards, trying to reconstruct national traditions out of thin air, rather than principled conservatives trying to defend the crumbling structure of the American nation against radicals bent on demolishing it altogether. He dismisses one recent statement of “benign nationalism” by Ramesh Ponnuru and Rich Lowry as so vague and abstract that hardly anyone would disagree. Yet it should be clear that in 2021 America, there are those who disagree with the idea of “loyalty to one’s country: a sense of belonging, allegiance, and gratitude to it,” and though they may be relatively few, they wield a powerful cultural microphone. In 2020, they used that microphone to provoke the destruction or removal of hundreds of monuments throughout the United States, including statues of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Francis Scott Key. In the face of such rabid anti-nationalism, surely it is high time for patriotic scholars to assemble for a determined defense of the relative coherence of the nation, the relative goodness of its traditions, and the relative virtue of its heroes.

I do not think that Goldman would entirely disagree, even if he has misgivings about the role of the scholar in such a task. But even if we agree that America deserves defending, we part ways on the best way to do so. Goldman, eschewing the thicker cultural nationalism of the Covenant and Crucible theories, puts his money on a somewhat chastened and thinned-down version of the Creed theory—a “constitutional patriotism” or “civic nationalism” that “revolves around a way of governing rather than inherited characteristics, such as ethnic origin or family religious affiliation.” This vision, he says, follows Frederick Douglass in seeking American identity “in the faithful application of the principle of perfect civil equality to the people of all races and of all creeds.”

This invites the classic rebuttal of creedal nationalism: if America is defined by a principle alone, what could possibly anchor American national identity in a world where other nations adopted the same principle? Arguably, indeed, this is much of the reason why the creedal conception broke down after 1970 and especially after 1990. Is America really more faithful in applying “the principle of perfect civil equality” than, say, the Netherlands?

More significantly, however, I am dubious that history provides us with evidence of nations that have long sustained themselves on shared constitutional principles alone. Certainly, of the three conceptions that Goldman describes, the creedal model was much the most short-lived in its hold on the American soul. History shows few examples of a “constitutional consensus” sustaining itself in the absence of a larger cultural and/or religious consensus—especially when the constitution itself was the product of a particular set of cultural and religious customs and convictions, as ours is of British Protestantism.

Goldman acknowledges in closing that this is certainly a “high-stakes bet,” but he thinks his “constitutional patriotism” offers better odds than any effort at retrieving a long-gone cultural nationalism. In the short term, he is surely right. The cultural imagination nurtured by covenant theology might not be making a comeback anytime soon, and its advocates will surely need to learn the virtues of effective disagreement in a pluralistic society, as Goldman rightly contends. Over the long-term, however, I could never put my money on the idea that a watered-down constitutional creed can sustain a polity through the generations, and I would rather bet on the long-shot dark horse of cultural and religious nationalism: it may look ragged and defeated on the first few turns, but let’s see what happens on the homestretch.