American Nationalism Reconsidered

History as a National Security Issue | 4 of 6

This is the fourth of six installments on ‘History as a National Security Issue.’ This post considers how our current challenges echo those of the early-twentieth-century America.

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In our moment, the term nationalism is controversial, contested. Nationalism is on the rise throughout the world—and it is generally expressed as a threat. In the United States we hear of white nationalism, black nationalism, Christian nationalism, even vaccine nationalism.

Are we unconsciously in thrall of an outdated, Eurocentric conception? Hitler was a nationalist—so was Mandela. De Gaulle was a nationalist—so was Ho Chi Minh. Churchill was a nationalist—and so was Gandhi.

Benedict Anderson proposed that a nation “is an imagined political community—and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.” Those who share a national identity recognize commonalities that enmesh them in serving one another. They are prepared to die for people they will never know personally. Perhaps nations are the largest practical entities whereby people can achieve shared visions and ensure mutual security.

Nationalism resembles Justice Potter Stewart’s characterization of pornography: You know it when you see it.

In the United States, we are not seeing it now.

The Love That Dares Not Speak Its Name

Today there is a palpable reluctance on the part of many Americans to declare love for the United States and our history.

Even patriotism, that most anodyne, amorphous formulation, is freighted with questionable connotations. This seems most common among people possessing high levels of formal education.

Recognizing patriotism as a necessary yet insufficient basis of solidarity, some suggest “Americanism.” This seems to mean adherence to the liturgy of our civic religion, something akin to the American Creed. Theodore Roosevelt, with a more demanding standard in mind, deployed the terms nationalism and Americanism interchangeably.

The most consequential American leaders have shared and expressed passionate dedication to the ideals we share as a nation. They revered the nation-state established by the Constitution. Political combat has occurred within the gap separating the ideals of the Declaration and the realities of their implementation.

At their best, these leaders personified and elicited a sensibility of American nationalism, properly understood.

The American national vision is not built on exclusion and division. It cannot remain static in the way of states built on shared racial, ethnic, religious, and caste distinctions.

Ours is a nationalism of inclusion and service. It is a living thing; it must grow or die. The Declaration’s ideals of individual equality and recognition of the “pursuit of happiness” exemplify this. So, too, with the Constitution’s lodestar: “a more perfect union.”

Each succeeding generation of Americans can be comprehended as founders. We seek to leave our imprint on the ongoing American story, facing a series of recurring questions:

What is our identity as Americans?

What do we owe—and how do we serve—one another?

What do we owe—and how do we serve—the nation?

What do we owe—and how do we serve—the world?

Like other living things, the American national project must be tended to. Applying history is central to the task.

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Image Credit: ‘Make the Fourth of July Americanization Day: Many Peoples—But One Nation.’ New York: National Americanization Day Committee, 1915–1919. Woodrow Wilson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (082.00.00)