It is clear from the 2020 presidential race that America is not exactly one people agreeing to disagree, but increasingly a house divided. The first president of the United States left us a few words of warning against disunity that we would do well to heed. In his 1796 farewell address, George Washington implored, “you should properly estimate the immense value of your national union to your collective happiness… indignantly frowning upon… every attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest.”
Are we following his advice? What should the new president do to strengthen our “national union”?
Historically, national cohesion and nationhood (the strongest cohesion-building force for large populations) have been driving forces in American public policy and private behavior. But politicians and scholars have taken them for granted, so much so that now their importance to the destiny of states has been forgotten. National cohesion and nationhood are often maligned as dangerous, supported only with empty rhetoric, or politicized to serve the narrow interests of particular groups. Americans lack a rich conception of nationhood at every level. We fail to recognize its importance, what we need to do to strengthen it, and what happens if it dissolves.
To understand nationhood, we need to define “nation.” Ernest Renan provides a definition in his classic lecture on the subject: “a soul, a spiritual principle… the desire to live together, and desire to continue to invest in the heritage that we have jointly received…. a great solidarity constituted by the feeling of sacrifices made and those that one is still disposed to make.” This may require “forgetting… even historical error.” A product of long, shared history, involving both bottom-up organic evolution and top-down state-led socialization, nationhood creates a strong sense of togetherness and common destiny and identity—an “imagined community”, in the words of Benedict Anderson. This sentiment of nationhood is upheld in, as Renan said, “a daily plebiscite, just as an individual’s existence is a perpetual affirmation of life.” It requires continuous reinforcement, especially in large populations, in order to maintain its force. This is especially true as the baton of leadership is passed on from generation to generation.
Both the left and right, however, now act in ways that weaken the glue that holds our nation together. Their fierce fight for power increasingly undermines our sense of common nationhood, tearing apart the very social bonds that unify us. In fact, they seem to be taking on the appearance of two separate nations. Each side has its own flag—the right waves the stars and stripes while the left waves the rainbow banner; anthem, with the NFL playing both the American and Black national ones before some games; version of history; media; sources of authority and heroes; and moral framework, with the left more worried about fairness and harm and the right more about in-group loyalty, authority, and sanctity.
The importance of national cohesion can be seen in every global ranking of countries. Almost all developed countries—which are mostly in Europe, North America, and East Asia—are nations. The few who struggle with social divisions based on identity—notably Canada, Spain, the United Kingdom, and Belgium—serve to highlight the importance of national cohesion to stability and to satisfying the desires of a population (who naturally want to feel their country reflects their identity). Similarly, in the developing world, the most successful states (e.g., China, Turkey, Botswana, and Chile) are the most cohesive, and the most violence-prone and impoverished the least cohesive (e.g., Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Guatemala). Cohesion does not guarantee success—good policies are essential (as North Korea shows)—but a comparison of countries reveals how cohesion is a prerequisite for many of the basic goods (security, prosperity, sense of belonging) that people want their countries to provide.
Why is it a prerequisite? The affinitive power of shared national identity and group allegiance channels itself into defending and developing a country, encouraging self-sacrifice, compromise, and a willingness to lift up other members of the nation. As David Brooks writes in The New York Times, “If you don’t breathe the spirit of the nation, if you don’t have a fierce sense of belonging to each other, you’re not going to sacrifice for the common good.” Not surprisingly, then, populations with high levels of cohesion are more likely to invest in ways that benefit the country as a whole, build institutions that serve everyone, accept changes in government even when their side loses, follow court decisions even when they are unfavorable, and trust—and thus cooperate with—strangers irrespective of their background simply because they are their fellow countrymen. The result is greater stability, more trust, better governance, less corruption, faster growth, and more of an orientation towards promoting economic development.
America’s weakening cohesion can be seen everywhere: elites increasingly disconnected from the rest of society, businesses operating with little regard for the national interest, and cultural and educational institutions engulfed by a philosophy that splinters society into identity groups along victim/oppressor lines. The work of integrating and assimilating the population to our national heritage and to the way we live and labor together—necessary for any nation to sustain a sense of cohesion and reproduce itself—is sputtering and risks stopping altogether. Our ability to arbitrate disagreements between opposing political camps through the action of highly legitimate institutions—necessary to ensure that political differences stay within reasonable bounds—is rapidly diminishing.
If a shared sense of national identity is key to the survival of the nation, what will this current experiment do to America? Can a country as large, diverse, and sprawling as the United States continue to be stable and prosperous without the cohesion—the centripetal force—that nationhood brings? Can it survive as a democracy if that force is being continuously undermined?
America has always been an imperfect nation, as are all nations. Starting with slavery—our greatest sin—our country has often acted deplorably and failed to live up to its founding principles. But the American national idea has long served to unite arguably the most diverse of all nations, inspire great reformers, such as Martin Luther King, Jr., and overcome great challenges, such as communism and World War II. It has been a beacon of freedom and hope to people everywhere. Although much work remains to be done—starting with uplifting African Americans and continuing to fight racism—we will not get anywhere by weakening the essential glue that unites us.
Quite the opposite, we should revive our commitment to nationhood and catalyze the actions of many to address our deficiencies. If Joe Biden truly wants, as he said on Saturday, “to unite” and “to heal” the country, he should make this a priority. After all, “there has never been anything we haven’t been able to do when we’ve done it together.”
A healthy nationalism, funneled constructively by the right national leadership, can be a powerful force for strengthening our common bonds—and inspiring investment in the weakest parts of our society.
National Cohesion and the American Experiment
The U.S. built its national cohesion and strong sense of nationhood from a number of time-tested sources—a common heritage, widely-accepted institutions, education, rituals, and elite modeling. These elements combined to forge the strong national identity and narrative that unite us. But many of these sources are under stress—even attack—often from within the body politic itself. The strains go back decades—starting in the 1960s and 1970s—but have significantly accelerated since the end of the Cold War and, in particular, the turn of the century.
The American nation can trace itself back to the common inheritance that the country’s early British immigrants brought with them across the sea in the 17th and 18th centuries. While different in many of their folkways—as David Hackett Fischer outlined in Albion’s Seed—these immigrants shared a language, political tradition, commitment to free exchange and reward for labor, Protestant faith, moral outlook, and common-law tradition. They made up around three-quarters of the white population at independence and dominated positions of authority, giving them immense influence in establishing the country’s early culture and institutions that subsequently shaped those who followed.
Although this inheritance was shaped by the experience of migrating to and living in the colonies—the longings for a place freer than Europe, the hardships required to build up towns, farms, roads, and livelihoods in a new land, and the bloody revolt against their mother country—it was still distinctively British. In fact, for most colonists, the revolt against British rule was carried out in order to safeguard the “rights of Englishmen” against an overreaching government. These rights included representative government, due process, trial by jury, personal liberty, and the protection of property—many of which could be traced back to the Magna Carta. The British origins of our nation were so evident that Alexis de Tocqueville called the people “The Anglo-Americans” in Democracy in America, published more than half a century after the country’s founding.
Of course, America has expanded and shifted and grown. The population is far more diverse, with the influence of African-American and other cultures clearly evident today, but the heritage—as reflected in our language, culture, and institutions—remains foundational even if, as James Kurth writes in Orbis, “the commonplace understanding about the distinctive British origins and Anglo-American nature of the United States has largely disappeared” over the past century.
Of all the values and institutions this heritage bequeathed, those embodied in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution are the most important—both because of how they have shaped the country in the years since and how they act as a glue to unite the country’s various parts. In contrast to most states, America’s founding documents play a unique role in the national identity and solidarity of the people. They are the cornerstone of what it means to be American—the basis for a sort of “civil religion” grounded in ideology rather than ethnicity. In his essay “Civil Religion in America” Robert Bellah writes, “few have realized that there actually exists… an elaborate and well-institutionalized civil religion in America…. It has its own prophets and its own martyrs, its own sacred events and sacred places, its own solemn rituals and symbols.” This is especially so given how diverse the country has become in the two and one-half centuries since its birth. Unlike the great majority of nations, the United States is not built on an ethnic identity—as are France, Japan, and Denmark. Instead, it is the leading example of constitutional patriotism, an idea popularized by Jürgen Habermas.
American institutions legitimize the use of power—always a delicate issue in diverse, sometimes deeply divided countries. Those institutions arbitrate judicial disputes, decide electoral victories, and determine the flow of government resources. They set the rules of the game for political and economic competition. And while they originally marginalized some groups—including women, African Americans, Irish, Jews, and other minorities—they have proven incredibly effective at incorporating them into the political mainstream over time, infusing the institutions with new sources of legitimacy. As such, in contrast to most similarly heterodox states, the United States has rarely had to deal with high levels of political violence—with the notable exception of the Civil War, when these institutions lost their legitimacy for half the country.
Education and rituals, our main acculturation tools, have continuously transmitted the idea of America to new generations and new citizens. Schools teach history, celebrate holidays, daily recite the pledge of allegiance, and infuse their programs with the country’s arts, sports, and culture—building pride in the nation and grooming citizens willing to work to advance it. They socialize youth—especially of immigrants—to the country’s values and norms and ways of working, enabling them to fully participate in society as adults. Meanwhile, rituals such as those surrounding Thanksgiving, the Fourth of July, Memorial Day, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, the flag, veterans, the country’s founders, the election of a new leader, and sacred places such as the Lincoln Memorial, White House, Capitol, and Civil War battlefields have unconsciously unified the country while assimilating newcomers to it.
While it has rarely been an easy process, on the whole, as William Pfaff describes for the International Herald Tribune, “The universal assumption of Americans has always been that immigrants came to the United States to become (or see their children become) culturally assimilated Americans. Americans took for granted that assimilation was essential to national unity.” Subcultures such as the Amish have been allowed to thrive as long as they stayed relatively small—marginal to the mainstream, yet also evidence of our country’s unusual level of freedom.
Elites have always served as a source of cohesion, modeling nationalistic behavior, making sacrifices when necessary, and setting norms that infused the body politic. America’s leaders, for example, have not only shared a “fellow-feeling” throughout most of the country’s history; they have understood the unique challenges we face in building cohesion due to our great diversity and size and continuous immigration. For example, while welcoming newcomers into “the bosom of America,” Washington warned that they would have to be “assimilated to our customs, measures, and laws: in a word, soon become our people.” Although John F. Kennedy delivered many memorable speeches, his most famous line might be “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country”—as nationalist a phrase as can be uttered.
During our wars, elites fought and sometimes died—at least through the 1950s. They built up our technological advantages, world-beating factories, unparalleled nonprofit sector, and cultural institutions—seeing the wellbeing of their country and communities as their own interests. They may not have been very representative of the population at large (especially after large-scale immigration in the early 20th century), or inclusive in their decision making, but they thought long-term, considered action in the public interest a responsibility, and were willing to forgo profits and self-interest when necessary—consistently setting examples for others to follow. As Robert Merry writes, “This ruling class served from the beginning as custodian of the nation’s affairs, and the nation in turn looked to it instinctively for governance.”
These elements combined to give us a strong national identity and narrative and ensure our “imagined community”—our “soul”—created a “great solidarity.” But the very forces of acculturation that brought us together for centuries—and that could be used to fully incorporate those that have been left behind—are now being used to tear us apart.
Is the American Nation Dissolving?
The almost willful ignorance among academics, politicians, and the media about the importance of nationhood to America’s future contributes substantially to our weakening social cohesion. This ignorance has infused the elements of our society explored above, affecting the attitude of the body politic to just about everything. As Damon Linker writes in The Week, “It amounts to a refusal on the part of lots of Americans to think in terms of the social whole—of what’s best for the community, of the common or public good. Each of us thinks we know what’s best for ourselves.”
The ignorance of nationhood’s importance only exacerbates a set of additional, broader shifts that are undermining our cohesion. Rising prosperity has reduced our interdependence on one another and reinforced our desire for individual autonomy. A long peace has removed the external threats that brought us together in the past. Globalization has enmeshed many in international ideas and networks beyond our borders, shifting their loyalties abroad in the process. Businesses now span dozens of countries, often searching for profits with little regard for how this affects American communities and workers. Changes in the media landscape—most notably news and social media—have deepened preexisting divisions. Growing inequality and mobility have meant that elites increasingly live apart from the rest of society. Shrinking families and declining religiosity have left many isolated or indifferent to others. Some individuals experience growing despair; some experience such a need for community that they look for it in political affiliation.
As the founders recognized, the United States is especially vulnerable to threats to its social cohesion because of its structural design. The country is spread across a great continent, with sectionalism always a risk for the unity of the whole. Waves of immigrants create unparalleled diversity, and this diversity risks undermining the existing “customs, measures, and laws” that hold our society together. Government plays a relatively limited role in society, especially when compared to other developed countries, with the population naturally suspicious of its authority. The founders designed the constitution itself with an eye to forestall the factionalism that they believed would inevitably result from the democracy they created. As James Madison warned in Federalist 10, “The friend of popular governments never finds himself so much alarmed for their character and fate, as when he contemplates their propensity to this dangerous vice.”
These structural conditions have repeatedly produced polarization—between the Federalists and the Democratic-Republican Party early in the country’s history; Andrew Jackson’s supporters and opponents in the 1820s and 1830s; the North and South in the middle of the 19th century; partisan blocks fighting over Progressivism, Darwinism, U.S. overseas expansionism, tariffs, and the gold standard in the late 19th century; Democrats and Republicans fighting over the New Deal in the 1930s; and young and old, hawks and doves, and whites and blacks in the late 1960s.
The Civil War stands out as the one time in our history when the forces of nationalism divided, not unified, us. Whereas the national idea was rarely in question during these other episodes—especially after the country had aged a few decades—in the run-up to the Civil War, secession was a constant threat because the country had become divided into two distinct geographical sections, with two distinct heritages, elites, social and economic institutions, education, moral frameworks, and identities. Given the North’s growing dominance in Washington, the South increasingly identified itself as separate and became alienated from national institutions; the election of a president who was seen as a direct threat triggered the end. As Abraham Lincoln said in his Second Inaugural Address, “Both parties deprecated war; but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive; and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And the war came.”
We are nowhere near this level of division today, given the economic interdependence of our sections and the strength of our national institutions and public security. But our ignorance of nationhood’s importance encourages divisive actions that weaken our national cohesion.
For many on the left, the wellsprings that have historically nourished our nationhood need to be blocked and replaced with a completely new source and narrative. America is not founded in 1776, but 1619—when slavery started. It is necessary, as The New York Times argues, “to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.” Instead of pride in the country’s past, there is shame, with history lessons and the media portraying the country in the worst possible light and anything related to the founders targeted for replacement.
A committee reporting to the mayor of Washington, D.C. is seeking to “remove, relocate, or contextualize” the Jefferson Memorial, Benjamin Franklin Statue, and Washington Monument in the country’s capital. Textbooks need to be rewritten to reflect the new ideology. Symbols celebrating the founding—such as Betsy Ross’s flag—need to be phased out or canceled, including a Nike sneaker that used the flag as a sign of patriotism. Such a holiday as the Fourth of July needs to be rejected because it is a “celebration of white supremacy,” former NFL star and activist Colin Kaepernick asserts on Twitter. Spurred by activist leaders or staff, many cultural institutions—including leading newspapers, public media, cable news networks, universities, and civil society organizations—reflect these trends, often framing issues in terms of identity politics, and not in terms of traditional American ideas that underpin our common nationhood.
Language and actions on the right are equally problematic. Too often, Republicans have not sufficiently empathized with the histories and lived experiences of people of color, such as when Mississippi kept a flag that included elements of the Confederate battle standard (now retired) or when the Republican Representative Steve King of Iowa repeatedly made incendiary comments about Muslims and others.
These failures on both the right and the left combine to make the maintenance of one, unifying national narrative all but impossible to a significant number of Americans. The result is two separate political tribes with diverging perceptions about even basic facts, such as the state of the economy or legitimacy of an election. The wrong political orientation can now affect one’s ability to get hired, perceptions of performance, levels of trust, and even willingness to date and socialize. The growing tribalism makes competition for power zero sum, yielding bitter disputes over elections and the selection of members of the judiciary—especially the Supreme Court. Institutions are no longer intended to arbitrate disagreements but are to be captured for a particular cause and serve as a platform for expressing outrage. We see a concomitant decline in civic norms and a willingness to compromise. These things are typical in a fragile state without any common nationhood.
So what is keeping the United States from becoming a fragile state? Our state institutions remain robust, there is little threat to security in most of the country, the legacy of tolerance and political liberalism will likely last quite a while longer, and the divisions are not so rigid as to prevent changes in affiliation. In addition, while left and right groups tend to congregate in distinct geographies, these places are not nearly as clearly divided as they were in 1861.
And yet, the experience of other countries that lack a strong sense of nationhood suggests that if we allow polarization to get out of hand, political instability and economic stagnation would likely beckon. And so we must ask: Is America still one nation? Will it remain one when we cannot agree on our common national narrative? Will we make promises to one another? Will we come together to fight an external enemy? Will we be willing to pay the taxes necessary to maintain our public services and make the long-term investment necessary to maintain our defense and competitiveness? Will we continue to be willing to peacefully accept defeat at polls and substantial differences in outlook among neighbors? In Legitimacy and the Modern State, John Schaar summarizes Abraham Lincoln’s thinking:
We are a nation formed by a covenant, by dedication to a set of principles, and by an exchange of promises to uphold and advance certain commitments among ourselves and throughout the world. Those principles and commitments are the core of American identity, the soul of the body politic…. If we fail in our promises to each other, and lose the principles of the covenant, then we lose everything, for they are we.
We need to renew our American covenant and reinvigorate our society’s centripetal forces by going back to what unites us—our common heritage, widely-accepted institutions, education, and rituals—elites playing a leading role as stewards and models. Only by reinforcing the transmission and socialization channels—by building a unifying pride in our common history, national ideals, and nationhood—are we likely to avoid the dangers that diminishing cohesion poses. Our founding documents—the sources of our constitutional patriotism—have a central role here, and we must use every opportunity in schools, the media, and public events to educate our youth and population on their meaning. Elites need to step up by acting as they used to—as stewards and models, making real, not virtual, sacrifices for the common good and setting a standard that others will want to follow. They led us astray, and only they can lead us back.
This renewal must be accompanied by greater efforts to incorporate those previously marginalized so that it is truly an inclusive nationhood; one that builds social cohesion among all parts of our country. While many opposed to the national idea see it as the source of exclusion, it is, in fact, the single best route to tackling the problems of racism and discrimination. As Bill Clinton declared in his first inaugural address, “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.”
For some today, the national community is anything but inclusive. But a failure to achieve a core element in a national ideal does not invalidate the ideal; rather, it shows how it might be achieved. In fact, it is precisely the ideal of a truly inclusive nationhood that Martin Luther King, Jr. upheld in his famous “American Dream” speech: “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’”
African Americans have long influenced American culture and mores. As Albert Murray writes in The Omni-Americans, “American culture, even in its most rigidly segregated precincts, is patently and irrevocably composite…the so-called black and so-called white people of the United States resemble nobody else in the world so much as they resemble each other.” Yet, Orlando Patterson points out in The Cultural Matrix: Understanding Black Youth, “the paradox here is that this quite remarkable level of civic integration (unparalleled among the heterogenous, majority white nations of the world) has been accompanied by the stubborn persistence of high levels of social and residential segregation.” While many minorities have thrived others, most notably African and indigenous Americans, still feel the effects of their historically different, unequal relationship with the dominant culture. A significant proportion of the white population does not consider them to be part of the imagined community.
Finding ways to invest in disadvantaged groups in a way that garners broad support is more likely to actually help disadvantaged groups than projects that provoke a backlash from those afraid of losing out. For example, investing in our poorest neighborhoods irrespective of who lives there would disproportionately improve the lot of African Americans without actually targeting them. Joe Cortright and Dillon Mahmoudi report, “the number of high-poverty neighborhoods in the U.S. has tripled, and the number of poor persons living in them has doubled since 1970.” These places—more polluted, more violent, less connected to opportunity, and full of inadequate housing, schools, and public services—are home to millions of Americans.
How can we build an inclusive nationalism that both carries on the country’s traditions while taking steps to ensure that it incorporates those it has failed in the past? The wildly successful multiracial musical “Hamilton” suggests a way forward. Patriotic to the core, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s production cast African American and Hispanic performers as the founding fathers and their allies and ingeniously blended different music in a way that evoked the great diversity of our nation. As A.O. Scott summarizes in a 2020 review, this “brilliant feat of historical imagination” is inspired by “a faith in the self-correcting potential of the American experiment, by the old and noble idea that a usable past—and therefore a more perfect future—can be fashioned from a record that bristles with violence, injustice and contradiction.”
This has been the vision of reformers—men and women, black and white, left and right—throughout our country’s history. This is what Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony wanted for women, and what Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, Jr., wanted for blacks. We need to recover this vision while recognizing that, as Shadi Hamid writes for The Wisdom of Crowds website, “a nation must have a narrative that enough people buy into, even if they do so passively.” Though self-criticism is necessary, Hamid asks, “How much self-disgust can a nation sustain?… When does hating who we were prevent us from loving who we might become?” If the right is unable to provide a vision for inclusive nationalism, the left should, with the new president-elect taking the lead. There is a long tradition of nationalism on the left as well as the right—Democratic presidents such as Franklin Delano Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy championed it, and it would be a great way for a Biden administration to achieve many of its goals in the four years ahead.
Claiming our American inheritance requires many reforms—from classrooms to police forces to national symbols—to make our society more inclusive. It also means a strong focus on building up the whole nation, which requires a renewed emphasis on strong families and communities, dignified work, industrial development, and investments in cutting edge technology. But it does not mean rejecting the best parts of our nation’s past—our common heritage, historical achievements, rituals, and national narrative—nor does it mean the creation of a parallel ideology that is meant to compete with it and destroy it. As Wilfred McClay says, “If we are not allowed to venerate George Washington anymore, if we have lost the ability to venerate admirable but imperfect predecessors, it is very hard to see how civil religion [will encourage] shared affection… it is not a community of shared values, but a collective memory that binds [us] together.”
Instead of fighting over the value of the nation and acting in ways that divide us, we should be funneling its constructive energy and the best parts of our heritage towards improving the country we love. When challenged for finding too many faults with his adopted country, Carl Schurz, an immigrant and U.S. senator who rose to become a Union general during the Civil War famously declared, “My country, right or wrong: if right, to be kept right; if wrong, to be set right.” His maxim still holds.
Dr. Seth D. Kaplan is a Professorial Lecturer in the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at Johns Hopkins University and consultant to organizations such as the World Bank, USAID, State Department, and OECD. He is the author of two books on fragile states and is working on a book on reversing social breakdown in the United States.
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