Being American in an Age of Division
by samuel goldman
university of pennsylvania, 208 pages, $25
Those involved in the debates over American nationalism will find Samuel Goldman’s skeptical intervention, After Nationalism: Being American in an Age of Division, a refreshing read. Free of histrionics, Goldman’s sober and succinct exercise in historically informed political theory makes potent criticisms of contemporary American nationalists. It is less successful, however, as a critique of nationalism. Inadvertently, Goldman in fact makes the case for nationalism’s continued relevance.
The book’s target is nationalism’s starry-eyed contemporary advocates. Naming two—National Review journalists Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru—Goldman hits his mark. Responding to the results of the 2016 election, Lowry and Ponnuru were among many who stressed “the need for national cohesion” and made the case for a new American nationalism. Yet to avoid criticism and distance themselves from the policies and personalities of 2016, they kept their proposals at high levels of abstraction. Goldman observes that these proposals evoke “vaguely positive emotional associations. It is difficult to object to them because it is not clear what they mean.”
Goldman contends that our calls for nationalism need greater historical specificity; accordingly, he examines three nationalist “paradigms” that have developed in the United States. The Covenant paradigm, born out of Puritan New England in the eighteenth century, understood America as an English people endowed with a divine mission. The Crucible paradigm, which triumphed in the early twentieth century, saw America as a melting pot of different religions and nations, reforged and remade into one nation. Finally, the Creed paradigm saw Americans as united by a set of beliefs about freedom and equality; it drew America together during the 1940s and 1950s when Nazism and communism were challenging those beliefs.
Each of these paradigms, Goldman argues, was based on ideals that ran aground on America’s fragmented reality. These quests for nationalist unification failed to account for the persistently fractious plurality of the American polity, so they eventually collapsed. Moreover, unlike many of today’s new nationalists, these three nationalist projects did not avoid the “genuine moral and political dilemmas” that attend the quest for national strength. Because new nationalists do not confront these dilemmas, Goldman concludes that they cannot achieve the level of consensus and stability for which they long. Further, in gesturing toward old paradigms, new nationalists reveal a romantic, even nostalgic bent that betrays their unseriousness about present realities.
The Covenant paradigm, Goldman argues, exaggerated the predominance of English Protestants in America and required other ethnic groups and religious traditions to assume a marginal role. By the mid-nineteenth century, when Germans and Catholics were reaching America en masse, the myth of America as an English Protestant country could no longer hold. The originators of the Covenant paradigm stressed a perfectionist set of theologico-political commitments and demanded America’s elites conform to those commitments. New nationalists who allude to the Covenant paradigm hesitate to follow through here. They prefer neutrality to perfectionism. In any case, the Covenant paradigm relied on genuine religious feeling, so recovering it in the present would require another Great Awakening. Yet as Goldman tersely notes, at present “there seems little prospect of a Calvinist revival.”
The Crucible paradigm depended on a period of restrictive immigration and intensive assimilation, with all the moral ambiguities attendant on these processes. Goldman observes, however, that integration in this period did not enable African Americans to become full citizens, and religious tensions among Protestants, Catholics, and Jews remained acute. The necessary condition for repeating the integration of that period would be restrictive immigration. Many new nationalists are allergic to this strategy, attached as they are to the mystique of Ellis Island. Yet even if America could reenact those measures, Goldman argues that immigration is downstream of other problems. Anxieties about immigration reflect opposition to the cultural and political fragmentation that began before the onset of mass immigration in 1965. Immigration is not the cause of this fragmentation, Goldman suggests, and ending it cannot be the solution.
Finally, the success of the Creed paradigm relied on the specific circumstances of the Second World War and Cold War. Without existential foreign conflicts to focus the attention of Americans, the strong version of creedalism cannot hold, since it is too easy to find domestic examples of how Americans fail to live up to that creed. This is how Goldman explains the collapse of the Creed paradigm in the 1960s: Its myths could not match the domestic reality on racial tensions. For many new nationalists, that is what defines postwar America. Rather than seeing the 1960s as an ambiguous decade when cultural revolution and leftist violence ravaged the patriotic pieties of the 1940s and 1950s, they stress the narrative of how America had failed to live up to her creed, casting the 1960s in a very favorable light.
The upshot of Goldman’s historical specificity is a cunning critique of the new nationalists. Rather than follow the left-liberal approach, which implies that the new nationalists are just closet racists, Goldman shows that they are too liberal to follow their project through. Focused as they are on making nationalism safe for late liberalism, they will never succeed in resurrecting the paradigms they vaguely invoke.
Nevertheless, it is important to acknowledge (as Goldman sporadically does) that the nationalist movements were effective in their times. Each forged bonds of solidarity that enabled Americans to respond to historic challenges, strengthening national identity. The Covenant model gave Americans the language, law, and religion that allowed them to claim that they were upholding English traditions of rule of law while Parliament and King were flouting them. Without the Covenant, independence would have been impossible. Likewise, Goldman admits that the Crucible paradigm was effective: “Reducing the flow of newcomers and discouraging expression of foreign cultures encouraged a degree of cohesion that had been absent when immigration was at its peak.” If the crucible “ever truly worked,” it did so during this period. And though Goldman is right to point out the persistence of religious confrontations, the inexorable rise in religious intermarriages throughout the twentieth century points toward their eventual softening. Nor did the Creed merely help win world wars; in many ways its real prestige and lasting relevance stem from Abraham Lincoln’s earlier articulation of it, which still persuades the hearts and minds of many Americans. Indeed, it is striking that the book has so little to say about Lincoln himself, as distinct from the uses of Lincoln; Goldman hesitates to disenchant this particular myth of national unity, perhaps because it is still so powerful.
Rejecting the contemporary relevance of Covenant, Crucible, and Creed, with their “monolithic understanding of national unity,” Goldman proposes an understanding of national identity that “revolves around a way of governing” rather than around “ethnic origin” or “family religious affiliation.” The kind of regime for which he advocates would build up institutions “that express and embody disagreement.” Since this model has eroded, Goldman wants to recover a “constitutional patriotism” that strengthens such institutions. It is an ambitious project, and as he admits, it is really a version of the Creed paradigm—albeit a softer version, which would preserve plurality.
This prompts the question: Is Goldman really proposing a solution after nationalism? The real puzzle of the book pertains to the ambiguity contained in its title. In the final chapter, Goldman relates his argument to Alasdair MacIntyre’s claim that contemporary society is fragmented. For MacIntyre, the meaning of ethical concepts—namely, virtue—has become a matter of individualized, subjective opinions that no longer rest on shared understandings. Goldman’s contention is that we face a similar condition with respect to the concept of the nation.
Do we then live in an era in which fragmentation has made any form of nationalism impossible? MacIntyre’s argument in After Virtue did not entail the conclusion that virtue was now impossible. MacIntyre argued that insofar as individualized conceptions of virtue abound, we now live “after virtue.” In this, he agreed with Nietzsche. But MacIntyre rejects the radical Nietzschean conclusion that because we are in a situation in which the language of virtue no longer orders our lives, it must no longer order our lives. Indeed, MacIntyre’s book shows why the language of virtue must order our lives here and now.
At first, Goldman’s diagnosis proceeds in a Nietzschean vein. As a historian, Goldman criticizes three tablets of value, three visions of American nationalism. Once the myths are shattered, we are to infer that no future exercise in the construction of national identity is possible. Like Nietzsche on morality, Goldman at times suggests that nationalism is constructed by a variety of human individuals as a subjectivist exercise of imagination. Once that subjectivism has been exposed and no longer orders our lives, it must no longer order our lives. In this sense, Goldman’s view of nationalism aligns with Nietzsche’s view of morality.
Yet when Goldman shifts from history to political theory, he swings away from Nietzsche. Like MacIntyre, Goldman accepts that we must think and act through certain shared concepts. By endorsing a civic nationalist solution, Goldman implies that we do not really live in an age after nationalism. Instead, we live at a time when we must select the vision of nationalism most suited to empirical facts about the country (most importantly for Goldman, the fact of pluralism). This is a weighty concession, for the inference is that nationalism must order our lives.
If we concede that the concept of the nation still organizes public life, can we consider other models of organizing politics based on the national principle? Can we go beyond Goldman’s dichotomy of soft civic nationalism and monolithic, homogenizing nationalism? What other forms of nationalism merit consideration?
Consider one possibility. Imagine a political movement that originates in distrust of the monolithic understanding of national unity, because of the damage this project has done to local communities and regional diversity. This political movement spurns nostalgic visions of the past and romantic accounts of unified national identity. Instead of defining national identity by “ethnic origin” or “family religious affiliation” it proposes a national identity that “revolves around a way of governing.” It is committed to recovering a particular constitutional form suited to the country’s longstanding pluralism.
That political movement is one of the most influential—and controversial—nationalist movements of the twentieth century: Action française. Opposing the French Revolution’s monolithic nationalism, Action française developed economic and political strategies to resuscitate localism and regionalism. Its best writers made their literary and political careers by rejecting nostalgic romanticism, giving the movement a modern face. The heart of the movement, however, was its commitment to a particular constitutional order best suited to the basic empirical facts of France’s fractious pluralism.
The gap between Goldman and Charles Maurras is not as great as it might first appear. Goldman recounts the dangers of “coercive nationalism” driven by centralized, official suppression; Maurras criticizes “an anonymous and completely impersonal Caesar, all-powerful but irresponsible and unconscious,” which “has been molesting the French since the cradle.” For Goldman, “the decision of the future is between acceptance, however grudging, of messy, frustrating plurality and pursuit of a unity that continues to elude us.” For Maurras, “French patriotism, nourished and refreshed at its lively local sources, is perhaps a little more complicated to conceive and regulate than the unifying, simplistic, administrative, and abstract patriotism of the revolutionary and Napoleonic tradition. But how much stronger it is!” For Goldman, the American people are “generated and sustained by our interactions under specific institutions in a particular place.” Goldman’s ethic of civic nationalism is a call for “constitutional patriotism” to strengthen the institutions of federalism. For Maurras, “the profusion” of historic local liberties and practices that characterize the French people “needs the solidity and integrity” of a particular constitution: the institutions of federalist royalism. The call to support “the integral France” is a call to support a regime-type: “the federal France.” It is for this reason that in a recent book making the case for the relevance of Maurras and Action française, the philosopher Axel Tisserand describes Maurras’s nationalism as a version of “constitutional patriotism.” What accounts for these unexpected agreements? Goldman, like Maurras, accepts that the nation remains at the summit of the political hierarchy, and that institutions must be ordered to that nation’s people.
Because nationalism’s history is modern Europe’s history, Goldman’s call for a more historically informed discussion of nationalism invites us to consider the parallels between America and Europe. The path taken by American political history (for example, the growth of the centralized administrative state and the ascent of revolutionary politics) belies any blind faith in America’s exceptional immunity to European-style politics. As nationalism shapes Europe’s history, so it shapes America’s. If nationalism now defines the politics on both continents, then American and European history are converging, not diverging. If we are to confront these challenges, we must learn from European political movements, especially those that sought to deploy the national principle to confront these challenges. We must be their students, exploring which institutions to preserve, destroy, and build afresh.
Nathan Pinkoski is a research fellow and director of academic programs at the Zephyr Institute.