Being American in an Age of Division
by Samuel Goldman
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Pub Date 04 Jun 2021 | Archive Date 14 May 2021
Nationalism is on the rise across the Western world, serving as a rallying cry for voters angry at the unacknowledged failures of globalization that has dominated politics and economics since the end of the Cold War. In After Nationalism, Samuel Goldman trains a sympathetic but skeptical eye on the trend, highlighting the deep challenges that face any contemporary effort to revive social cohesion at the national level.
Noting the obstacles standing in the way of basing any unifying political project on a singular vision of national identity, Goldman highlights three pillars of mid-twentieth-century nationalism, all of which are absent today: the social dominance of Protestant Christianity, the absorption of European immigrants in a broader white identity, and the defense of democracy abroad. Most of today's nationalists fail to recognize these necessary underpinnings of any renewed nationalism, or the potentially troubling consequences that they would engender.
To secure the general welfare in a new century, the future of American unity lies not in monolithic nationalism. Rather, Goldman suggests we move in the opposite direction: go small, embrace difference as the driving characteristic of American society, and support political projects grounded in local communities.
"Samuel Goldman offers readers a concise, learned, and profound reflection on the elusive nature of American national identity, whether defined in terms of covenant, crucible, or creed. Given the current divided condition of our polity and culture, I am hard-pressed to conceive of a more timely and essential book."--Andrew Bacevich, president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft
Available on NetGalley
Average rating from 6 members
After Nationalism is an interesting and thoughtful discussion of American identity (and whether or not such thing can or even should exist). Prof. Goldman brings together original texts, historical and political analysis, and commentary to explain where we are, and reminds us that in many ways America has been here before. His conclusion is thoughtful and reasonable. To his immense credit, Prof. Goldman avoids the urge to say "therefore we're doomed" on one hand, or "only my advice and singular brilliance can save all that is right and just" on the other. He also writes well, which matters a lot. Prof. Goldman's prose is straightforward, occasionally funny, and never draws attention to itself at the expense of the ideas his writing advances. I learned a lot and thoroughly enjoyed reading After Nationalism.
The author, Samuel Goldman, a professor at GW, is extremely well-read and his prose is outstanding so you should read this short book. That said, my major complaint is that he omitted the two major reasons that our nation may be unable to obtain any form of nationalism today. These are politics and genetics. In the current era, we are experiencing the greatest resurgence of collectivism (socialism and neo-Marxism) at the expense of individualism (freedom and liberty) that has not been witnessed since the 1960s. Roughly, one-third of all Americans favor getting rid of capitalism and this figure is well over 50% among our nation's elites. This has resulted in the biggest political split that has occurred in decades and will continue until the left-wing professoriate learn that collectivism has never worked anywhere and has in every instance that it has been attempted resulted in totalitarian governments that have imposed only misery and unhappiness. In short, socialism can only work by making everyone equally poor.
Prof. Goldman's second major omission is the recent (during the last 20 years) findings that almost every complex human behavioral trait is almost entirely rooted in one's genes. The nature argument has almost completely overwhelmed the belief in nurture. Scientific findings have demonstrated that "shared environment" plays virtually no role in human socialization and that a "non-shared environment" is both idiosyncratic and random thereby rendering all attempts at amelioration useless as the past 50 years have demonstrated.
Regardless, you should still read Goldman's book!
This book was received as an ARC by the publisher on NetGalley.
If my Goodreads followers haven't been able to tell yet, I love reading about American national identity and material leading up to the "Age of Trump." I don't care much for memoirs or biographies on the subject, but larger studies of American history to make a point about our present moment are a genre of books that I tend to find difficult to put down.
This book belongs to that category. Although not dealing *explicitly* with political debates as they're shaped today, Goldman's book is dedicated to a perennial question in American history that many around the country are asking: How do we define the "American nation?" Or rather, "What is the best way to define the American nation?" To answer this, Goldman spends the bulk of his book examining three enduring definitions of American nationhood: the Covenant, the Crucible, and the Creed. Then, he goes onto argue that one of the greatest causes of divisiveness in this country is that none of these conceptions are held by all, or even most, Americans.
The Covenant was the earliest "universal" defintion of the American nation, and it is rooted in the New England Puritan ideal of America as a city upon the hill. Although English, German, Dutch, French, and other European languages were spoken in the US, it saw the United States as a fundamentally Protestant country.
The Crucible emerged as a result of the crises of the late 19th-early 20th centuries: the American Civil War, mass immigration, the Great Depression, two World Wars; the Crucible defines the United States of a melting pot where all peoples living in the States--barring those who are "unassimilable" (in the period at hand, primarily East Asians) into one people. Rather than all people blend equally, the myth was that all peoples would blend into the WASP ideal that emerged after the American Civil War. Unlike the religious conception of America seen by New England Protestants, the Crucible saw American identity in ethno-cultural terms.
Finally, the Creed reached its moment as the definition of American nationhood in the years following the Second World War, which we generally describe as a period of liberal consensus. To those supporting the idea of the Creed, ethno-cultural background and religious faith are secondary to civic attitudes, and it is in the Creed that we see the idea of "civic nationalism" par excellence. Adherents of the Creed saw American nationhood in basically political terms.
While all three of these conceptions of American nationhood are, in some sense, true. All three are also myths. None really do a great job of defining who the "American people" are, although they do have coherent narratives based in strong understandings of the past.
After his discussion of the three ideas of American nationhood, Goldman goes on to examine more recent attempts of defining the American nation, especially since the end of the Cold War. The first multicultural attempt was tried by the New York Board of Education in the early 1990s, which looked to give more emphasis to the <i>failings</i> of American state and society, alongside its strengths. This aim came under fire by Lynne Cheney, who was then Chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Cheney argued that it was necessary to continue to give due deference to the positive history of the United States, especially through the lens of great figures like the Founding Fathers, Abraham Lincoln, and the rest. Another notable attempt was Jill Lepore's recent book, These Truths [which have yet to read], which aims to paint a positive picture of American history without the transendence attempted by those who came before.
In the end, Goldman finds that any attempt to create a coherent narrative and/or mythology of the American nation is doomed to failure. However, he concludes on a positive note, arguing that the necessarily failure of historical narratives does not inevitably lead to national divisiveness. Instead, the way forward should be to create and/or strengthen community institutions that allow Americans to contest the ideas of their neighbors, colleagues, friends, family, and media without descending into a spiral of polarization. In some ways, this solution echoes that of Herbert McClosky at the 1962 Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, in which McClosky argued that American politicians need to move <i>past</i> consensus to prevent American politics from being dominated by what would become a uniparty. McClosky would get his wish, and now we're facing ludicrous levels of partisan polarization.
I think Goldman has a lot of sense here. The first objection I had when working through his argument is that there already are spaces for contestation--especially on the internet. But, as I thought about it more, I realized that few people listen--<i>actually</i> listen--to one another in political discussions, unless they already share the same constellation of ideas. In this sense, the internet cannot replace local, face-to-face interactions facilitated by larger institutions. I'm still not wholly convinced, but Goldman's idea is definitely worth thinking about closely.
Goldman opens this book with a helpful distinction between nationalism and patriotism and ultimately develops his position with contextual clarity and historical influences regarding America's origins. In considering the future of America, Goldman looks at the past. In a time of great divisiveness, I'd recommend this book to anyone curious about how an "us vs. them" ideology is built and what may come in the aftermath of unaddressed political chaos.
This is a brisk and readable survey of the "nationalist" push in American politics, and a fair treatment of why the term is often ill-defined (and ill-suited for the contemporary context when it is more precisely defined.) Goldman is a deft guide to some of the drawbacks of common understandings of "nationalist" politics, and is clear that he thinks those (such as National Review's Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru) who advocate for a "benign nationalism" end up putting a heavy emphasis on the former word and less on the latter; in short, patriotism.
Thank you for a copy of this pub in exchange for honest feedback. I am approaching this feedback as someone who has as PS/IR background, but I don't want to pontificate about my views on the content. Rather, I'd like to say that I think this publication is timely and poignant. I requested to read this publication because I think the divergence in the US (and several other nations currently) is interesting, and ultimately, turning to those who have trained in this area can sometimes spark new discourse. I was a bit surprised to see that this was a really in-depth discussion which boiled down to the roots of the notion of nation/nationalism. This pub was a really well written exploration of difficult and sometimes convoluted concepts that are highly relevant even outside the sphere of academia.
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