The Quest for National Identity

I must begin by expressing my gratitude to the contributors to this forum. Both the anxiety and the reward of scholarly writing lie in the knowledge that one’s work will be assessed by readers who know as much as the author does about the topics he discusses—and usually more about those he does not. I hope scholars will not be the only ones to read this book, and I believe it has something to offer those encountering ideas, sources, or periods it describes for the first time. But I am relieved as well as pleased by the favorable responses contained here.

Richard Gamble, in particular, is too kind. As he notes, I am not trained as an historian and work primarily with published documents or well-known artifacts rather than archival materials. Gamble has brilliantly used both kinds of sources in studies of related issues. So his endorsement of my historiographical intuitions (and that is really all they are) means a great deal to me.

A leader in my own field of political theory, Steven Smith also likes the historical arguments but unsurprisingly wants more detailed proposals for dealing with the situation I describe. The book, he concludes, is “thoroughly diagnostic . . . What is needed is a pathway toward developing a humane sense of patriotism.”

It strikes me that the expectation of a roadmap out of the present impasse might serve as an answer to questions I raise about the continuity and stability of American national identity. If there’s one enduring American characteristic, surely it’s confidence that there are no permanent dilemmas; that all problems have solutions. But even that generalization, uncontroversial though it seems, demands qualification. The most profound American response to injustice and suffering—the African American spiritual and musical traditions that became the blues—is skeptical of the possibility that the contradictions of American life can be resolved before the end of days.

Still, the difficulty of the task is not a justification for refusing to try. Despite all the familiar objections, I really believe that enhanced Congressional power, judicial deference to political branches, federalism, local government, and voluntary association—all of which disaggregate authority and diffuse responsibility—are the only alternatives to increasingly bitter struggles for control of the White House. If the executive branch remains the only effective political institution (and the judiciary is seen purely as its instrument), it will be regarded as a prize too valuable to give up peacefully. In my view, that sense of existential peril is a better explanation for the disgraceful events of last winter than residual nativism or nostalgia for the Confederacy.  

The counter-productive quest for centralized control is not limited to the right, moreover. Brian Smith is right to see the present wave of progressive activism as a descendant of the covenantal nationalism of the 18th century. The Biblical God is gone—even in the attenuated form proclaimed by the Social Gospel. But the attempt to use market power and institutions of higher education to impose a more uniform national culture on a recalcitrant population is surprisingly similar. One irony of our predicament is that today’s nationalists more closely resemble the Jacksonian Democrats and populists who resisted the influence of New England colleges and New York banks than they do the technocratic Whigs and plutocratic Republicans whom they claim to admire. Meanwhile, “anti-racist” despisers of the American past echo the WASP moralizers of a previous age.

Intellectuals are attracted to the premise that shared ideas are the basis of shared experiences because it makes us the unacknowledged legislators of the world. I think the causal relationship more often goes the other way.

It may seem like an evasion to give an answer about institutions to a question about identity. My point, though, is that there’s not much benefit in designing a template for renewed patriotism in advance. If I am right that a successful American identity can only emerge from participation in self-government (including the private arrangement of one’s own affairs as well as formal politics) and negotiation among rival factions and interests, then it is impossible to predict in advance exactly what the result will be. 

Although he acknowledges the protean qualities of American nationalism, Brad Littlejohn thinks that my attitude toward this process is too passive. If it worked out reasonably well in the past, he argues, it was because Americans made vigorous and explicit arguments for their preferred visions of national life and character, not because they withdrew and hoped for the best. That is particularly true when it comes to education. It would be a moral and intellectual mistake to ignore the errors of the past, but “it would be equally pernicious . . . 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.” Writers and teachers, Littlejohn contends, should regard themselves as eulogists recalling the life of an honored relative rather than prosecutors seeking an indictment.

In certain contexts, I agree. As I note in the book, the instruction of children is not a graduate seminar—still less a courtroom. As I’ve written elsewhere, the endless denunciations of the American pantheon for mostly anachronistic transgressions is not only ungrateful but deprives us of necessary models of political excellence. As for the informal education of popular culture, I specifically encourage those with the talent to inspire and delight to make use of their creative license. “Poets”— speaking in the broad sense—have been among the most effective nationalists precisely because they are not bound even by the restrictions of selective memory.

Yet a eulogy or a poem is not the same thing as a biography, and it is a rare talent that can succeed in all three genres. My argument is not so much a critique of historical story-telling or myth per se as it the case for a division of labor between scholarship, education (particularly at the lower levels), and the expressive arts. A film or novel that paid excessive attention to historical details would be insufferably dull; a eulogy that spoke only of unedifying truths would be unforgivably rude; and a work of scholarship that treated its audience merely as prisoners of a Platonic cave would be grossly condescending.

In the final analysis, though, I do not think the secrets of national cohesion lie in the literary arts, however skillfully deployed. Intellectuals are attracted to the premise that shared ideas are the basis of shared experiences because it makes us the unacknowledged legislators of the world. I think the causal relationship more often goes the other way: shared experiences generate shared ideas. The unusual cohesion that the United States enjoyed around the middle of the 20th century was not the result of better textbooks or more statues. It was the product of a financial crash that leveled entrenched class differences, wartime mobilization that cast millions of young men into combat and subjected countless others to the formative influences of military discipline, technological developments that favored centralized media, and eventually an economic boom enabled by the physical destruction of industrial rivals.

Even though it was not perfect, there is much to admire about this period. As George Hawley notes, though, the structural conditions that made it possible were contingent, temporary, and are not coming back. Rather than treating it as the baseline of normality, then, we should regard the America of about 1960 as the exception to a much more contentious, unstable rule. That may become easier as the baby boomers pass from the scene.

In the meantime, we can take some comfort in the knowledge that our fears are nothing new. On the contrary, one of the striking parts of the research for this book was my discovery that the rhetoric of decline, collapse, and disunion that has recently become so familiar was expressed, almost word for word, at so many times in the past. It’s possible that after several centuries and many false climaxes, our story is finally approaching its end. But I’m American enough to think that there’s always another act.