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A New Americanism

Why a Nation Needs a National Story
By Jill Lepore March/April 2019

Proud to be Americans: at a Trump rally in Huntington, West Virginia, November 2018 Cathal McNaughton / Reuters

“We can write history that implicitly denies or ignores the nation-state, but it would be a history that flew in the face of what people who live in a nation-state require and demand,” Degler said that night in Chicago. He issued a warning: “If we historians fail to provide a nationally defined history, others less critical and less informed will take over the job for us.”

The nation-state was in decline, said the wise men of the time. The world had grown global. Why bother to study the nation? Nationalism, an infant in the nineteenth century, had become, in the first half of the twentieth, a monster. But in the second half, it was nearly dead—a stumbling, ghastly wraith, at least outside postcolonial states. And historians seemed to believe that if they stopped studying it, it would die sooner: starved, neglected, and abandoned.

Francis Fukuyama is a political scientist, not a historian. But his 1989 essay “The End of History?” illustrated Degler’s point. Fascism and communism were dead, Fukuyama announced at the end of the Cold War. Nationalism, the greatest remaining threat to liberalism, had been “defanged” in the West, and in other parts of the world where it was still kicking, well, that wasn’t quite nationalism. “The vast majority of the world’s nationalist movements do not have a political program beyond the negative desire of independence from some other group or people, and do not offer anything like a comprehensive agenda for socio-economic organization,” Fukuyama wrote. (Needless to say, he has since had to walk a lot of this back, writing in his most recent book about the “unexpected” populist nationalism of Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Poland’s Jaroslaw Kaczynski, Hungary’s Viktor Orban, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, and the United States’ Donald Trump.)

Fukuyama was hardly alone in pronouncing nationalism all but dead. A lot of other people had, too. That’s what worried Degler.
Nation-states, when they form, imagine a past. That, at least in part, accounts for why modern historical writing arose with the nation-state. For more than a century, the nation-state was the central object of historical inquiry. From George Bancroft in the 1830s through, say, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., or Richard Hofstadter, studying American history meant studying the American nation. As the historian John Higham put it, “From the middle of the nineteenth century until the 1960s, the nation was the grand subject of American history.” Over that same stretch of time, the United States experienced a civil war, emancipation, reconstruction, segregation, two world wars, and unprecedented immigration—making the task even more essential. “A history in common is fundamental to sustaining the affiliation that constitutes national subjects,” the historian Thomas Bender once observed. “Nations are, among other things, a collective agreement, partly coerced, to affirm a common history as the basis for a shared future.”

Officers of the American Historical Association at their annual meeting in Washington, D.C., December 1889

But in the 1970s, studying the nation fell out of favor in the American historical profession. Most historians started looking at either smaller or bigger things, investigating the experiences and cultures of social groups or taking the broad vantage promised by global history. This turn produced excellent scholarship. But meanwhile, who was doing the work of providing a legible past and a plausible future—a nation—to the people who lived in the United States? Charlatans, stooges, and tyrants. The endurance of nationalism proves that there’s never any shortage of blackguards willing to prop up people’s sense of themselves and their destiny with a tissue of myths and prophecies, prejudices and hatreds, or to empty out old rubbish bags full of festering resentments and calls to violence. When 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.

Maybe it’s too late to restore a common history, too late for historians to make a difference. But is there any option other than to try to craft a new American history—one that could foster a new Americanism?

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