Samuel Goldman’s new book After Nationalism is a timely and important contribution to an age-old debate: What does it mean to be American? The book draws on much of American history to highlight the tensions and debates that have shaped our national identity. While Americans have never stopped asking this question – it may be our particular form of American exceptionalism – the recent revival of nationalism has made it particularly urgent.
Goldman usefully analyzes three answers to what one might call his “3 Cs” to this question: the covenant, the melting pot, and the creed. Each has a specific claim to American national identity, and each resonates in the long history of American political discourse.
The first “C,” the idea of America as a federal community, is the first and oldest conception by the American people. It goes back to the Puritans of Plymouth Rock, who saw themselves as a “community of saints” – to borrow the title of Michael Walzer’s seminal book – with the task of creating a new holy city in the New England wilderness. The Puritans were the first to see America as a new Jerusalem founded by a chosen people who would become a kind of lamp to the nations.
The idea of America as a covenant people with a world historical mission long outlasted the end of Puritanism as a religious dispensation. Goldman shows how the language of Puritanism was secularized by the American creators who saw the new nation as a culturally and ethnically homogeneous people, based on a moralistic vision of the later hegemony of the WASP (White Angelsaxon Protestant). This notion of America as a country with a universal mission was revived during the Cold War and then again, perhaps best known, in Ronald Reagan’s revival of John Winthrop’s vision of America as a “City on a Hill.”
The WASP hegemony originally had its home in New England, but would cast a long shadow on American history as it was absorbed in textbooks and stories and formed the basis for the later policies of American expansionism and the Manifest Fate. Education leaders from Rufus Choate to Horace Mann to Harvard President A. Lawrence Lowell – all native American Brahmins – would see themselves as the cultural tone for the rest of the nation. This image of a New England aristocracy was so powerful that Franklin Roosevelt, who himself pioneered the 17th Dutch indigenous peoples, originally came from elsewhere.
The second “C” is the melting pot vision of America as “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 for his “Christian name” to which he replied, “I assure you, madam, I have none”). Zangwill’s melting pot is often seen as an expression of the American motto E pluribus unum, or “of many, one”, but Goldman shows that this is a misunderstanding. The melting pot image always left more room for cultural and ethnic diversity than the idea of a melting pot would suggest.
The acceptance of cultural diversity – later known as “multiculturalism” – was a direct response to the massive influx of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe at the end of the 19th century. Old-line WASPS like Henry Adams and Henry James saw in these new immigrants a threat to their conception of American life. Nobody like James could 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 created by the sociologists of the progressive era Horace Kallen and Randolph Bourne. They viewed 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 the American nation is summed up by the third “C” which is the Creed. The idea of an American creed – a set of values and beliefs that define the American people – has its roots in Tocqueville, but is most commonly associated with the 1944 classic An American Dilemma by Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal. According to later creeds such as Samuel Huntington, Seymour Martin Lipset, and Martin Diamond, there are a number of core American values - equality, freedom, pluralism, rule of law, checks and balances, limited government – that define what it means to be American. The particular benefit of this new version of the Creed of America is that it separated citizenship from the earlier notions of race and ethnicity. Everyone was invited to the table while they were ready to manifest their allegiance to these basic ideals.
Goldman shows particularly well how this belief in America shaped the defense of democracy in its struggle against first National Socialist and later Communist totalitarianism. Films like Why We Fight, Sahara and Bataan showed ethnically mixed combat units, all engaged in the fight for democracy. This inclusivity was of course limited, as the ubiquitous racism of the era against the Japanese shows. The film The House I Live In and its theme song, sung by Frank Sinatra, were a hymn to American freedoms and our peculiar form of tolerance.
What is lost or overlooked in Goldman’s report is the voice of angry American nationalism.
The question is: why has even this very broad, non-denominational creed proved so fragile? Here I let Goldman speak in his own voice:
American policy observers have long noted that the simultaneous commitment to freedom and equality, the pursuit of justice and respect for the Constitution, the universality of moral principles, and the uniqueness of the nation are not entirely interrelated. Under social and political stress, one aspect could be played off against another. The result was internal conflict that Huntington’s dubbed “Passion of Faith” moments.
It is not just charges of internal incoherence, but failure to adhere to our self-proclaimed ideals that make this creed so vulnerable in the face of civil rights and antiwar protests of the 1960s and recent resurgent claims in the name of American nationalism.
Goldman’s final chapter, provocatively titled “After Nationalism,” describes his own solution to our national dilemma. His solution is a combination of melting pot and federal history. From the crucibilists he wants to preserve the importance of pluralism and the recognition of different cultural identities. Nevertheless, he would like to look for certain values from the Creedalists that are broad enough to do justice to our different cultural identities. He claims as a precedent Frederick Douglass’ vision of America as a “composite nationality”.
Will this happy vision of America after nationalism endure? Can it accommodate both multiculturalists on the left and nationalists on the right? It is impossible to say because the proposals for taking up our conflicts require more concretization in order to make them meaningful. How would they be implemented in law and politics? The book ends with an exciting question. “What might American plurality be like in the 21st century?” Goldman needs to provide some specific examples of people or guidelines who might meet his normative obligations. While I don’t expect him to have a detailed answer to his question, perhaps we would have expected at least an outline of what an answer might look like.
Goldman wants Americans to embrace the tensions he rightly believes have always defined us. As I argue in my book Reclaiming Patriotism in an Age of Extremes, from the start we were divided between federalists and anti-federalists, Whigs and Jacksonians, Wilsonian internationalists and America Firsters, and today’s multiculturalists and nationalists. But never in our history has an outgoing president convened a mob to overturn the election results of his successor – and found people who were ready to follow him!
What is lost or overlooked in Goldman’s report is the voice of angry American nationalism. Appeals to race and ethnicity as a source of national unity have been a flaw in American character from the start. This goes back to the American Party – better known as 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 deprive millions of African Americans from voting . Those running through the Capitol building on January 6, 2021, waving the Confederate counterrevolution flag could be a fourth “C” in Goldman’s report.
Like many writers on American national identity, Goldman has an excellent understanding of the history and tensions within our national self-image, but has less to say about how to get beyond the “Age of Division” in which we live. I suppose the book was completed long before the Capitol invasion and consequently underestimates the sheer amount of anger and hatred that animates the nationalist right. As a result, it is underestimated how fragile our democratic institutions have become.
Goldman’s book is a timely reminder that there is still much to be done.