The Case for the Nation
By Jill Lepore
Toward the beginning of “This America: The Case for the Nation,” Jill Lepore, a professor of history at Harvard and a staff writer for The New Yorker, says: “When serious historians abandon the study of the nation, when scholars stop trying to write a common history for a people, nationalism doesn’t die. Instead, it eats liberalism.” Purging American identity of nationalism and refounding it on a purified liberalism is her purpose in this brief but ambitious book, based on essays in Foreign Affairs and The New Yorker.
The definition of the nation, and its relation to the state, can be pictured as a circle, with “thick” versions of identity on one side and “thin” versions on the other. On the side of thick identity are found both illiberal nationalism and illiberal multiculturalism or identity politics, which in different ways privilege descent-based communities above a common cultural or civic identity shared by citizens of a democracy. On the thin side of the circle are found both liberal nationalism, which is nonracist, and “civic patriotism,” or what the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas calls “constitutional patriotism,” which is nonnational. In “This America,” Lepore defends a version of civic patriotism against the three alternatives: illiberal nationalism, identity politics and liberal nationalism.
Much of the book is devoted to describing how nonwhites and disfavored European immigrant groups in previous generations were excluded by illiberal nationalists both from the polity and from mainstream accounts of American history. Lepore makes this familiar material fresh with her attention to Native American nations. She does a public service by drawing her readers to Frederick Douglass’s “Composite Nation” address of 1869, a magnificent denunciation of racist immigration laws as well as segregation at home.
In contrast, Lepore’s critique of illiberal identity politics is so brief it is easily overlooked. Of the left she writes: “A politics of identity replaced a politics of nationality. In the end, they weren’t very different from each other.” Lepore was less circumspect in a Rolling Stone interview about her previous book “These Truths”: “And so you have this conservative ‘we are colorblind’ American history, and then you have this very lefty history that can’t find a source of inspiration in the nation’s past and therefore can’t really plot a path forward to power.”
The alternative to illiberal nationalism and “very lefty” identity politics that Lepore proposes is a version of civic patriotism that she distinguishes from liberal nationalism and calls simply “liberalism.” Although Lepore is on the center-left, like conservatives such as the late Harry Jaffa and so-called West Coast Straussians she asserts that American identity consists of little more than a shared belief in the egalitarian ideals of the founding fathers. Lepore paraphrases the Declaration of Independence: “All people are equal and endowed from birth with inalienable rights and entitled to equal treatment, guaranteed by a nation of laws.”
As for liberal nationalism, Lepore argues that it is an oxymoron. She says that the historian Tony Judt was “probably right” that liberal nationalism is “essentially nothing more than a thought experiment,” and that if “nation-states didn’t already exist, they wouldn’t really be a great thing to invent.” According to Lepore, “Nation-states are people with a common past, often a mythical one, who live under the rule of a government in the form of a state.” The contrast she draws between liberal nationalism and nonnational civic patriotism is stark: “Patriotism is animated by love, nationalism by hatred.” The subtitle of her book — “The Case for the Nation” — should have been “The Case Against the Nation.”
The United States has never been a nation-state at all, Lepore claims, but that rare “hen’s tooth” in world politics, a “state-nation” (a term originally devised to describe multinational post-colonial states in Africa and the Middle East and elsewhere). Her attempt to disentangle good American patriotism from bad American nationalism, however, tangles American history in knots. Isolationism is nationalist — “American nationalism in the first decades of the 20th century also took the form of economic nationalism and advocacy of isolationism.” But interventionism can be nationalist, too: America’s entry into World War I “only stoked nationalism.” And Franklin Roosevelt cannot easily be disentangled: He is a patriotic Dr. Jekyll when he leads the United States into World War II but a nationalist Mr. Hyde when he signs the order for the internment of Japanese and Japanese-Americans.
Lepore acknowledges that a liberal nationalist alternative to illiberal nationalism and illiberal identitarianism has long existed: She points to such figures as Abraham Lincoln, the Roosevelts and the post-1945 “Cold War liberals.” But she notes with regret: “In American history, liberals have failed, time and again, to defeat illiberalism except by making appeals to national aims and ends.”
To build up her preferred alternative to liberal nationalism, she denigrates the liberal nationalists of the civil rights era: “Cold War liberalism, for all of its celebration of American civic ideals, turned only belatedly and inadequately to the question of civil rights.” As evidence for this accusation, she cites the fact that the historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. wrote speeches in the 1950s for Adlai Stevenson, who, as a presidential candidate, urged “at most, a gradualist approach” to desegregation. But Schlesinger was a co-founder, with Eleanor Roosevelt and John Kenneth Galbraith, among others, of Americans for Democratic Action, as well as its national chairman in 1953-1954. Its members supported President Truman in 1948 in integrating the armed forces and promoting civil rights measures, which led the racist Dixiecrats to break away from the party, nearly costing the Democrats that year’s presidential election. Belated and inadequate?
Lepore’s major critique of liberal nationalists involves immigration. She dedicates her book to her father, “whose immigrant parents named him Amerigo in 1924, the year Congress passed a law banning immigrants like them.” Throughout “This America,” Lepore adopts a view that puts her on the side of pro-employer libertarians of the right, one that has traditionally been opposed by organized labor: She insists that liberalism properly understood forbids any limits on any kind of immigration. “To restrict immigration, a practice associated with the rise of illiberal nationalism, is to regard foreigners who arrive from friendly nations as invading armies.” She complains that “most liberals who fought for the 1965 Immigration Act” — which abolished racial and ethnic quotas — “no longer questioned the idea of immigration restriction itself; they merely changed the way restriction worked.” She does not discuss how a policy of unlimited immigration would work, or what its consequences would be for wages, taxation and welfare.
Jill Lepore has written a thoughtful and passionate defense of her vision of American patriotism as a purified liberalism. But supporters of American liberal nationalism are unlikely to be persuaded to replace Abraham Lincoln’s belief that America is a nation dedicated to a proposition with the quite different idea that the American nation is nothing but a proposition.
Michael Lind, a professor at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, is the author of “The Next American Nation.”
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