By JEFFERSON COWIE
Surrendering national pride to champions of a blood-and-soil vision abdicates the fight for the soul and meaning of the American project.
The resurgence of blood-and-soil nationalism around the world seems to prove that appeals to nationhood are too racist, too tribal and too dangerous to be of value. Yet surrendering patriotism to champions of the ethno-state abdicates the fight for the soul and meaning of the American project.
The American left, from the center of the Democratic Party to its insurgent challengers, needs a dose of national vision. One of the core lessons of Trumpian politics is that Americans are starved for a meaningful politics of what it means to be American. Getting rid of the vainglorious Trump administration is only a partial solution. The causes of his rise remain.
Call what is needed a reinvigoration of “civic nationalism” or “civic republicanism” (a reference to the ancient political ideal, not the party). This is a revival of the “bond of common faith,” the “bond of common goal,” as Robert Kennedy once put it, which needs constructive outlets if what is left of American democracy is to survive.
In recent decades, progressive forces in the United States have split between two positions, both of which surrender a robust and hopeful sense of national citizenship. On one track can be found a cosmopolitan economic elite that embrace a multicultural world order shaped largely by the politics of corporate globalization. On the other track are radical critics of the racism and imperialism of the American state who often support local community and transnational solidarity but maintain a deep cynicism, even despair, about the American project. Both groups have abdicated the national story to their shared political enemies. What remains is a fervent hybrid of nationalism and anti-statism, an echo of the rebel yell.
The American past, according to the historian Gary Gerstle in his book “American Crucible,” can be understood as a struggle between “two powerful and contradictory ideals” — a civic and racialized national vision. Yet the dissolution of a progressive civic dimension has left us with an unchallenged ethno-racial nationalism.
Globalization has further complicated the problem. In a dizzying world of oppressive economic and political inequality, global trade, immigration and technological disruption, voters seek grounding not in technocratic detail but in place, in time, in tradition and, above all, in the shared fate, history and meaning of the nation.
The unhealed wounds of the 2008 financial crisis may have laid the way for Donald Trump, but the full mosaic of the American working class has long been looking desperately for routes to make America great again. As globalization expanded, it pounded foreign cars with sledge hammers, sponsored protective tariffs, promoted “Buy American” campaigns, tried to defeat Nafta, tried to organize unions and fought against undocumented migrant labor. But the plants closed anyway, domestic and foreign capital moved around, mass migrations happened, attacks on worker protections proceeded at a relentless pace, and the increasingly complicated world of national politics seemed more focused on Davos than Peoria.
Before the 1960s, dissenting and progressive movements regularly invoked nationalist and patriotic themes. The 19th-century Knights of Labor — one of the more inclusive labor organizations in American history — couldn’t get enough of the Fourth of July and the Declaration of Independence. Teddy Roosevelt advocated his “New Nationalism” as a counterbalance to the seemingly unchecked power of the robber barons. The socialist leader Eugene V. Debs drew on American traditions to frame his radical critiques of corporate power. The labor upheavals of the 1930s openly expressed faith in a “working-class Americanism.” Even the American Communist Party cloaked itself in “Americanism” and the words and visage of Abraham Lincoln. In Franklin Roosevelt’s efforts to reconfigure class power, he did not attempt to speak for workers or the poor but simply said that tax on the rich was “the American thing to do.”
In the midst of the Cold War, when Paul Robeson was questioned by House Committee on Un-American Activities about his association with the African-American radical Ben Davis, he replied, “I say that he is as patriotic an American as there can be, and you gentlemen belong with the Alien and Sedition Acts, and you are the nonpatriots, and you are the un-Americans, and you ought to be ashamed of yourselves.”
Reviving this older stream of dissenting rests on the active interests and lost authority of its citizens and its fading democratic values. This would replace “my country right or wrong” with the centuries-long struggle, as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. put it, “to be true to what you said on paper.” This is the position from which voting rights, civil rights, immigrant rights and economic rights can be fought: with a vision of what is acceptably American and what is not. Decent people will rise to the challenge.
The nation is the only “imagined community,” as Benedict Anderson put, where everything from mass transit to health care to wealth distribution to a green economy can find traction. A rejuvenated national vision would transcend the backward-looking — and often reactionary — search for an America in arrested decay that has too often informed politics since Ronald Reagan first promised to make America great again.
Civic patriotism must also be an aspirational story of struggle and inclusion. The narcissistic and racist politics of right-wing nationalism must be challenged with an expansive and inclusive civic vision about hope and potential. It’s what Barack Obama spoke of at the 50th anniversary of the Selma march. Standing before the Edmund Pettus Bridge, he asked, “What greater form of patriotism is there than the belief that America is not yet finished, that we are strong enough to be self-critical, that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals?”
To be sure, the rhetoric of nationalism can be dangerous in a place with a history of settler colonialism, slavery, anti-immigrant hysteria and territorial expansion. Any civic framing risks fomenting exclusion by drawing lines between those who are in and those who are out — an especially profound problem in an era of mass migration. Yet when the American left abandons any vision of social patriotism because of the racist ugliness it has come to symbolize, it concedes the American story to the voices of exclusion and avarice.
The pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty made many of these arguments 20 years ago in a book, “Achieving Our Country.” That book became famous after the 2016 election for having predicted the rise of a “strongman” to fill the void in national politics. He feared that indulging in cultural politics rather than emphasizing the material interests of American working people, and surrendering the struggle to shape the national vision where that can happen, would lead to such a catastrophe. While his nightmare of the nationalist demagogue has come to pass, few people are talking about the foundation of his predictions.
Patriotism may well be the last refuge of the scoundrel, but as a pragmatist like Mr. Rorty would tell you, it is too powerful and too important to leave to the scoundrels. Voters are in search of a place of vision for average Americans, a place of idealism in an age of cynicism, a place of unity in a time of fracture and a place where policy can be embedded in something greater than technocracy.
While commentators are getting worked up over the revival of “socialism,” an increasing number of insurgent blue-collar Democrats across the country are looking to recapture a sense of nation. The dark-horse candidate from Kansas, the Army veteran James Thompson, for instance, promises to “Fight for America.”
As we approach midterm elections, we urgently need to hear these messages in good faith and rise to their challenge.
Jefferson Cowie is a professor of history at Vanderbilt University and the author, most recently, of “The Great Exception: The New Deal and the Limits of American Politics.”