Too Big to Not Fail

‘After Nationalism’
Immigrants disembark from a ship at Ellis Island circa 1907 (Archive Pics/Alamy Stock Photo).

I used to say that if I had to recommend one book to understand America, it probably would be Daniel Walker Howe’s What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815–1848. Unfortunately, it’s one book that happens to be about 930 pages long, so the likelihood of my recommendation being taken up by anyone was, unlike that tome, pretty slim. But now, thanks to Samuel Goldman’s After Nationalism: Being American in an Age of Division, I can recommend a much more digestible volume. Goldman’s book can easily be finished in a single day by an enthusiastic reader, clocking in at a mere 153 pages, but he accomplishes much in that short span: nothing less than a compelling reflection on the meaning of our country’s existence. 

I choose the word “reflection” deliberately: After Nationalism is not a polemic or a manifesto, and Goldman’s arguments are no less penetrating for the lightness of touch and charitable readings of interlocutors on display. His writing is measured and fair, even courtly—an adjective that fittingly suggests both decorum and judiciousness. The book is clearly the result of a great deal of thought and erudition that he’s elegantly refined to essentials. Goldman is a conservative in the best sense of the word—a sense very few others have a right to claim today—and his work is helping to keep alive a kind of humanistic writing that is in danger of being lost, but whose continued value his book makes abundantly clear.

After Nationalism can be understood as a response to the current interest on the American Right in “nationalism” as a panacea: the idea that if we just doubled down on a sense of shared national identity we’d have fewer troubles as a country. Goldman gently demonstrates how, even at its most benign, such a notion ends up being woefully abstract and facile when applied to a country like the United States, which contains multitudes. Unsurprisingly, then, he does not find a single, unifying symbol of American nationhood that’s persisted across time, but three recurring attempts to provide one: “covenant,” “creed,” and “crucible.”

Modeled on the Israelites of the Bible, the covenant was the chosen symbol of the Puritan settlers in New England, emphasizing as it does a particular people’s relationship with God. Where the God of the Old Testament made a covenant with the Jews, the God of America was thought to have made a covenant with the WASPs—a covenant that was then extended, with the War of Independence, from the new Canaan of the Northeast to the whole of the thirteen colonies. “Recasting Puritan analogies,” Goldman writes, “Yankee patriots presented the thirteen states as counterparts to the tribes of Israel, destined for freedom in their own land.” God guided these new children of Israel and demanded from them moral probity, individual industriousness, and communal dedication. But this symbol proved ill-suited to a country that was rapidly expanding its territory and absorbing great influxes of immigrants: the covenant required an ethnic and religious homogeneity that was impossible to maintain. Still, Goldman points out that elements of the covenant have lingered to the present day, such as the persistent efforts to explain the American character in terms of “Anglo-Protestant” values. The Biblical phrase, “a city on a hill,” first used in reference to the Puritan colonies by John Winthrop in 1630, still resounds in our political rhetoric, employed by both conservatives and liberals—Kennedy, Reagan, Obama, and Romney have all used it. 

‘After Nationalism’ can be understood as a response to the current interest on the American Right in “nationalism” as a panacea.

The next potential symbol of shared national identity and purpose was the crucible, or “melting pot,” in which a new people would supposedly be forged. If the covenant is “retrospective and filiopietistic, insisting on deference to great ancestors,” the crucible “shifts emphasis to the future. It envisions a new kind of human being living in a new world, in which arbitrary borders and boundaries will be dissolved.” This utopian vision of a refashioned people foundered on the brutal realities of the nineteenth century: nativism, slavery, the Civil War and ultimate failure of Reconstruction, the persistence of racism and the institution of a racial-caste system, inter-ethnic conflict in the great cities, and waves of anti-immigrant sentiment from both workers and elites that fueled exclusionary laws. Today, because of its association with forced assimilation, the melting pot has fallen out of favor—and replaced, at least among many elites, with a supposedly more tolerant multiculturalism. 

Goldman’s third national symbol also emerged in the nineteenth century: the American creed. Among its champions were Frederick Douglass, who believed that the diversity of the American people was an “asset that would secure American greatness in the future,” though one that depended on a shared dedication to constitutional principle: “In whatever else other nations may have been great and grand, our greatness and grandeur will be found in the faithful application of the principle of perfect civil equality to the people of all races and of all creeds.” Though this creedal account of national identity first quickened around the time of the Civil War, it would reach its greatest influence almost a century later, in the mid-twentieth century, when the United States found itself in ideological conflict with fascism and communism. By situating creedal nationalism this way, Goldman provocatively presents it as an intrinsically fighting faith, one intimately connected with war. This probably undersells the possibilities for a more domesticated version of a national creed; for example, it’s worth emphasizing that the New Deal, a peacetime initiative, also called upon this tradition (even if, as historian Eric Rauchway has recently underscored, the New Deal was inextricable from Roosevelt’s anti-fascism). Nonetheless, the creed failed like its predecessors did, unable to hold together a fractious people. Both the disappointments of the civil-rights movement’s aftermath and widespread disillusionment with the Vietnam War broke its hold on the American imagination: we could no longer fully believe.

Because none of these symbols of national identity can deliver on their promises of unity, Goldman argues, per his book’s title, that we now live “after nationalism.” He borrows the conceit from Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, which argued that we have become hopelessly disconnected from the origins of our moral language to the point where it barely makes sense anymore—a jumble of subjective opinions having replaced a shared understanding of virtue and vice. The same confusions afflict our appeals to any supposedly shared basis of American identity. “We do not merely disagree with each other about its origin and purpose,” Goldman writes. “We disagree with ourselves, relying on rickety amalgams of words, authorities, and examples that crumble under scrutiny. We live ‘after nationalism,’ in the sense that our public discourse is characterized by appeals to various and potentially incompatible conceptions of the nation.” Our disposition toward these possible national symbols is reflective: we return to them through memory, nostalgia, and theoretical reconstruction; they no longer form the pre-reflective substance of our national existence, if they ever really did. This points to a tension, albeit a productive one, in the book: the present return to nationalist appeals is presented as somewhat artificial, but part of Goldman’s argument is that American nationalism was always produced and thus never entirely successful. In a sense, we’ve always existed before and after nationalism, never quite able to arrive at a single understanding of ourselves as a country.

Goldman believes there is an irreducible plurality—a cacophony even—in America that we shouldn’t pretend we can submerge beneath glittering generalities. Still, he admits that a certain minimal framework is necessary to create even a modus vivendi. To do this, he comes closest to endorsing the creedal perspective of Douglass and Lincoln, a civic patriotism based on dedication to the Constitution, the rule of law, and civil equality as “rules of coexistence for people who don’t share much.” He differentiates his own position from traditional appeals to a national creed by moderating its pretenses: in his words, this model’s sustainability is a “wager” rather than a profession of “quasi-religious orthodoxy.”

Goldman believes there is an irreducible plurality in America that we shouldn’t pretend we can submerge beneath glittering generalities.

Goldman’s affect is eminently reasonable and wise. He offers a very adult perspective, involving the acceptance of limitation and reality—the facts of the matter are always before him. He does not traffic in illusion, while refraining from iconoclasm. This is refreshing today, but it borders on resignation. Resignation, though not despair: Goldman allows us the hope of muddling along, of tolerating one another, and continuing to exist together. There’s an element in his voice of the preacher in Ecclesiastes; he reminds us that there is nothing new under the sun. In this Goldman is a markedly different and more salutary thinker than the many figures on the Right who traffic in dreams of apocalypse and downfall. His outlook is genuinely philosophical—calm and self-possessed. 

Were more people blessed with Goldman’s perspicacity, especially those of us who argue and write about politics, our country would be far better off than it is now—again, I highly recommend Goldman’s book. We really do need to properly reflect on these myths: to turn the clarity of the rational mind toward concrete things rather than settle for fanciful admixtures of empty slogans and nostalgic longing. But that leads to perhaps the most significant hesitation I have with Goldman’s argument. The crisis that occasions the present revival of nationalism is ultimately one of faith and imagination more than intellect: as much as philosophical reflection can guide us, art and religion play their role as well. So I wonder, then, if these symbols are really so various and irreconcilable as Goldman supposes—if he’s not too skeptical of what possibilities remain. At one point, Abraham Lincoln is shown as characterizing the United States as an “almost chosen” nation, with a responsibility to uphold its ideals, suggesting a synthesis of creed and covenant that tempers the warlike certainties of both with humility. We cannot know if we are ever upholding our ideals, they might be forever out of our reach, but they give us a direction to move toward. How and if we will get there is another question. 


After Nationalism
Being American in an Age of Division

Samuel Goldman  
University of Pennsylvania Press
$24.95 | 208 pp.

Published in the September 2021 issue: 

John Ganz is a writer in Brooklyn. He is working on a book about populism in the nineties and has a newsletter called Unpopular Front.

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