Into this conversation steps Harvard University historian and New Yorker writer Jill Lepore. Lepore must have attended the same conferences that I have and decided: Enough! She argues that when historians abandon the nation for the study of “smaller or bigger things,” such as “race, sex, or class” or “global history,” the nation’s story will then be told by “other, less scrupulous people.” She worries that best-selling writers such as Bill O’Reilly and hateful politicians such as Donald Trump are filling the space vacated by publicly minded historians.
In This America (2019), therefore, Lepore seeks to do three things: explain where nations come from, provide an overview of American nationalism past and present, and make “the case for the nation […] by arguing against nationalism, and for liberalism.” Her case for the nation is quite simple. “Nations,” she writes, “are made up of people but held together by history.” And if history matters to the public life of nations, then it also matters who tells it. Citizens can get their history “from scholars or they can get it from demagogues.”
So that’s what is at stake: “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.”
Hers is a pragmatic argument. She is not providing a defense of the nation-state per se, but instead arguing that, historically, the nation-state has been the context in which Americans have struggled to achieve a more liberal and just society. To those who denounce nations as inherently exclusive and unjust, Lepore responds, “It’s no use pretending people don’t live in nations, or that the age of the nation-state is over, or about to end.”
Historians in a democracy like the United States have a responsibility to inform citizens in ways that can promote liberal principles, Lepore argues. Fortunately, liberalism is baked into the American creed. Lepore offers an exceptionalist narrative. Because the United States was a sovereign state before it was a cultural nation, she believes it can have a different history than other places. From its very beginning, the United States has been committed to the ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Of course, achieving those ideals was and remains no easy task. Yet, because of its founding ideals, Lepore concludes that much of American history can be understood as a competition between “liberal nationalism,” which expanded the Declaration’s commitments to equality and individual freedom, and “illiberal nationalism,” which excluded others from the nation.
Successful liberal reform movements — including the abolitionist movement, the women’s suffrage movement, and the Civil Rights movement — spoke in the national idiom. Rather than reject the nation, liberal reformers called on Americans to live up to their own professions. Lepore wants historians once again to provide the historical narratives that will inspire Americans to uphold American ideals. As she notes, despite the rise of illiberal nationalism in the United States, “[l]iberalism is still in there.”
Lepore is correct in her assertion that citizens in a democracy need to understand their nation’s history. Efforts to overcome or transcend national history are, from a civic perspective, dangerous, because they do not provide Americans with the knowledge and frameworks they need to be effective and responsible members of their shared polity. Lepore is also correct in saying that nations are social facts and that advocates of justice will thus be more effective when drawing on them rather than resisting them or wishing them away.
Lepore recognizes the dangers of nationalism by way of distinguishing between patriotism and nationalism, the latter being “less a love for your own country than a hatred of other countries and their people and a hatred of people within your own country who don’t belong to an ethnic, racial, or religious majority.” If President Trump is a self-proclaimed nationalist, then those who oppose him can’t be. But whatever we call ourselves, Lepore rightly argues, advocates of justice need the nation. But there’s the rub: if citizens are held together by history, that’s because they see themselves as a common people, not just because of their ideals. Patriotism may well depend on the deeper bonds cultivated by the nation.
Émile Durkheim taught us that societies require precontractual bonds, something below the surface to enable us to function as a society. Reason is not enough to inspire a people living in the same state to seek common goods. For better and for worse, nations are forged through notions of sacrality. That’s why nation-states borrow so much from religion, including sacred symbols (the flag) and rituals (standing for the national anthem). That’s why public schools both develop the critical skills of citizenship and acculturate children into the nation.
To make a nation requires a people, and making a people requires a culture. Today, Americans on the right and left question whether we can share a common culture in a society as ethnically and religiously diverse as ours, but can we really afford not to? If, on one hand, we must resist illiberal nationalism, on the other hand we must resist the dream of liberalism without the bonds of nationhood. The United States’s diversity makes solidarity more important than ever. A nation of nations must still be a nation.
Lepore hopes, I think, for a nation in which liberal ideals can be secured without the baggage of cultural solidarity. But this may not work. As Lepore knows, civic virtue has not been enough to make Americans care about each other’s welfare. Something else is needed. Sustaining the American Revolution’s universal ideals depends on emotional ties between citizens, what President Abraham Lincoln referred to as the “mystic chords of memory.” At some level, all national histories, whether upbeat or deeply critical, rely on Lincoln’s chords, and even forge them. Americans are not exceptional. If we are to be true to justice, we must accept that we seek justice among flawed human beings who need more than ideals to inspire them to care for each other. We need our liberalism served to us in a broth with many other ingredients.
In This America: The Case for the Nation, Lepore argues that Americans need a story. In Lepore’s other recent book, These Truths: A History of the United States (2018), we see the kind of national history that Lepore advocates. These Truths emphasizes political questions over which we, as members of the polity, have struggled. She relies on the words and deeds of politicians, thinkers, and major activists such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Phyllis Schlafly. I worry, however, that she defines the political too narrowly.
These Truths sometimes reads like a textbook in which the political and intellectual history is left in, and the social and cultural history largely left out. This may be because, as she claims in This America, historians’ focus on “race, sex, or class” prevents them from telling a national story. I’d respond, however, that these groups are fundamental to the national political story. Women, enslaved people, free blacks, laborers, evangelicals, LGBTQ+, and other activists made demands on the nation-state that shaped elections, pressured political elites, and enabled Americans to imagine a more (or less, depending on your politics and the issue) just society. These Truths offers a history of democracy without democratic citizens.
My hunch is that Lepore left out social and cultural history in part because, as she demonstrates in This America, she sees the nation as a conversation about ideas. To bring in too much social and cultural history would create a thicker history than her civic project demands. However, I’m not sure that this minimalism works. First, she marginalizes the agency of ordinary people, thus missing an opportunity to help citizens understand how they can make change in a democracy (a liberal goal). Second, nation-states are not parliamentary bodies. Unlike illiberal nationalists, Lepore does not want to offer “a tissue of myths and prophecies, prejudices and hatreds, or to pour out the contents of old rubbish bags full of festering incitements, resentments, and calls to violence.” However, in ways that perhaps Lepore does not want to admit, the nation must be more than a debate club.
As an immigrant from India, I know that nationalism can exclude. Within six weeks after President Trump’s inauguration, two Indian immigrants were shot in a bar in Kansas (killing one), and a Sikh man was shot at in a Seattle suburb while working on his car on his driveway (what could be more American than tinkering with your car on your driveway?). For a period after Trump’s election, I felt conspicuous in my brown skin, just as I did after 9/11. While biking to work, I would look over my shoulder to make sure that the car behind me was not a threat: why were they following so closely? They weren’t, but I did not feel safe. These feelings were renewed by the president’s July 14, 2019, tweet, urging four members of the House of Representatives to “go back” where they came from (they’re all Americans, of course). For too many Americans, feeling unsafe is a daily experience. On the other hand, I have also experienced the opposite: to be welcomed as a fellow citizen of the nation. The history that Americans share (and that I teach) is not the property of only some Americans by descent or blood; it belongs to all of us. Being American is not a matter of biology, but both culture and principle.
As Ta-Nehisi Coates testified before Congress on June 19, 2019, during hearings about reparations, “we are American citizens, and thus bound to a collective enterprise that extends beyond our individual and personal reach.” That is why I share the hope with Lepore that we Americans can be called on to live up to the better angels of our nature. Lepore is asking American historians to reach out to their/our fellow citizens. She reminds us “whether nations can remain liberal actually depends on the recovery of the many ways of understanding what it means to belong to a nation, and even to love a nation, the place, the people, and the idea itself.”
Johann N. Neem is author of What’s the Point of College? Seeking Purpose in an Age of Reform (2019) and Democracy’s Schools: The Rise of Public Education in America (2017), which was reviewed in the Los Angeles Review of Books. He is a professor of history at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington.