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Myths of American Identity
Ben Klutsey and Samuel Goldman discuss unifying narratives throughout U.S. history, non-exclusionary nationalism and much more
BENJAMIN KLUTSEY: Today, we’re talking to Sam Goldman. He’s associate professor of political science at George Washington University. He has expertise in political theory, religion and politics, political theology and conservative political thought. He’s the executive director of the John Loeb Institute of Religious Freedom. He’s also the director of the Politics and Values Program [at George Washington University]. His first book was “God’s Country: Christian Zionism in America,” and his second book, which will be the subject of our conversation today, is “After Nationalism: Being American in an Age of Division.” Sam, thank you for joining us today.
SAMUEL GOLDMAN: Thank you for having me, Ben.
Is America More Divided Today?
KLUTSEY: Great. Now, let’s dig into the subtitle a little bit. Your book is titled “After Nationalism: Being American in an Age of Division.” Where do you see the deepest divisions in America? Obviously, division, polarization is the topic du jour, but it seems a lot of these things are reflected in the polarizing nature of our politics. Do you have any thoughts on why we’re divided, where the division is coming from and how bad it is?
GOLDMAN: One of the things I try to show in the book is that questions about American national identity and the boundaries of the American community are nothing new. One of the sources of division today, I think, is that we share a kind of false memory of a past of cohesion and consensus, which we have lost at some point between 1965 and the present.
One of the purposes of the book is to challenge that false memory and to remind readers that the question of who we are, and what connects us as a people, is a perennial one in American thought. Even if it seems particularly bad today, we are actually in much the same condition that many of our ancestors were.
KLUTSEY: Basically, we’ve always been divided?
GOLDMAN: If we haven’t always been divided, there are distinct ups and downs. The middle of the 20th century—from about December 7, 1941 (the attack on Pearl Harbor), through some time about 1965—was probably a high point of national cohesion, even though if you look back on the history of that period, there was much more anxiety and questioning and division than you might expect.
But many of the questions that we face today, which are posed by increased immigration, by cultural pluralism, by political polarization and powerful party identification, are really quite familiar from other periods of American history. I think our situation today is more similar to that of the late 19th or early 20th century than to the America of 50 or 60 years ago.
KLUTSEY: Right, but fundamentally you think that it’s really a struggle to figure out what our identity really is?
GOLDMAN: I think yes. America is a puzzling place, and I spend a little time, early in the book, reflecting on that puzzle. I take, as a point of departure, an observation by the early 20th-century cultural theorist Horace Kallen, who notes in the very name of this country—the United States of America—a curious ambiguity. The United States—there’s a reference to some kind of federal political structure of America.
But America, at that time, was understood as a geographic expression really including the whole of the Western hemisphere. It’s not all of America. There’s a federal political structure in a part of America, and there’s no obvious reference to a people in the way that the Germans—the Deutsche—are the inhabitants of Deutschland, or the Scots are the inhabitants of Scotland. From a very early stage of American history, there’s a kind of emptiness or question about the character of the nation. Ever since then, we’ve been fighting about how to fill in that space.
The Covenant Myth
KLUTSEY: Now, in the context of trying to figure out that character, you divide the different periods of American nationalism in symbols, right? You talk about the covenant, the crucible and the creed. These are narratives, to a certain extent, that we’ve used to describe who we are. I wanted to give you the chance to talk about narratives more generally and the value that they have in helping us understand our society. Why do we need narratives? Are they meant to unify us, or give us a certain identity?
GOLDMAN: Maybe I should say something about these historical narratives or myths first, and then we can talk about the role of narrative more generally. Throughout the book, I recur to the term myth because it seems less theory-laden. Although, in modern English, myth often means something false; to call something a myth means it’s not true. In its original ancient Greek sense, it means a story; it’s a certain kind of story. These are stories that explain who we are.
The first of the stories, which I call the covenant, is really a narrative that emerges from Puritan New England, in which, first, New England—and they by no means included all of the British colonies in North America in that category. But eventually, what becomes the United States are seen as a new chosen people on the model of the biblical Israel, or even a successor to the biblical Israel, who are constituted both by a vertical relationship with God—they had a responsibility before God to uphold and promote the divine will—but also a horizontal bond among the people, which draws, to some extent, on religious faith.
I emphasize in the book that it’s not just a generic religious faith or a Judeo-Christian faith, as people say today. It’s a very specific set of theological assumptions on shared culture. It was New England, after all, and it was very important to many of the leaders and inhabitants of New England that they were English—not even British, but specifically English. Also, to some extent, of blood or ethnicity. In New England, more than any other region, descent from the original settlers was considered, if not exactly a criterion for citizenship, was a criterion for full membership. This is a way of seeing America and its purpose that emerges in the 17th century and is gradually nationalized and politicized in the late 18th century.
You see it clearly on display during the revolutionary and founding period. Even at that early stage, at a time when we think of the American population as more homogeneous and more ideologically and religiously coherent, it was simply too narrow and too peculiar to one region, and even one class or community within that region, to serve as a unifying national narrative. I quote, in the book, politicians and cultural leaders from other parts of the country, including Pennsylvania, who say, “Who are these people? Who do they think they are to tell us what it means to be an American?”
I think that as a result of these cultural challenges, growing religious pluralism associated with what we now call the second Great Awakening—eventually, immigration and territorial expansion undermine this narrative of the covenant, which doesn’t disappear, by any means. It remains a feature of political rhetoric and was even revived, in some ways, in the middle of the 20th century by figures like John F. Kennedy. That was symbolically very important since he was a descendant of Irish Catholic immigrants. So, when he talks about covenant and the city on a hill, he’s very clearly laying claim to something from which he would’ve been excluded at most earlier points in history.
It also has a long afterlife in academia and high culture because the New England Puritans were wonderful writers, and they never stopped writing. That means, for scholars like me, they are an endless source of material and inspiration.
The Crucible Myth
GOLDMAN: By the early 19th century, this is no longer a unifying vision. It comes to be seen as a regional identity rather than a national one. That leads to the second myth or grand narrative, which I call crucible, to preserve the alliteration—especially with a short book, people want little phrases they can keep—but it’s also familiar under the term melting pot. This is the idea that Americans may have different ethnic, religious and cultural backgrounds, and may even seem quite different today, but in the fullness of time, they will be fused together into a coherent people.
Often, you find associated with this idea a comparison to the Dark Ages of Europe. You imagine the fall of the Roman Empire or its decay, and there are these Teutonic peoples, the Goths and the Vandals marching around, and the Huns are attacking. Through this turmoil and violence over the centuries, the French, the Germans, the English and the other great nations of Europe emerge. Theorists of the crucible say we are doing the same thing in the New World and on the American continent.
I think that’s really the dominant metaphor for much of the 19th century when it’s associated in particular with the frontier experience. That’s why I think the analogy to the Dark Ages is important. The idea is that through territorial expansion, through battle and conquest, a triumphant people will emerge mingled in its blood and master of its territory—again, on the European analogy. This is the heyday of classic Romantic European nationalism. But that image, too, has limitations. The crucible has cracks, and probably the most profound has to do with race.
Race was not very important to the covenant because it defined membership in the American community so narrowly. It was about being of English (or at least British) descent, being a Christian but specifically a Protestant, and even a particular kind of Protestant. That included all sorts of people who, by our standards, were very similar. Merely being white or of British descent was far from enough. Precisely because it’s more expansive and inclusive, the crucible invites the question of where the limits are. For many theorists of that idea, race becomes a way of defining those limits.
They say, in effect, it’s okay that by the middle of the 18th century, immigration from Germany, from Ireland, from Scandinavia, is really becoming obvious and is affecting American culture because all of these people are white and Northern European. But if the wrong blood enters the mixture, then the alloy will be degraded and will be unable to play this heroic historical role. In the Civil War, this tension confronts the problem of slavery, and whether African Americans are really Americans or are an alien race that perhaps should not be enslaved, but should not be allowed to participate fully in American life.
Many theorists of the crucible supported a colonization initiative. The thought was, we don’t have to enslave people, but we should send them back where they came from. They’re not part of us. Later, in the 19th century, as the pattern of European immigration shifted to Eastern and Southern Europe, there were fears that Jews, Mediterraneans, Slavs could not enter the melting pot, or that if they did so, again, the whole mixture would become degraded and worthless.
The Creed Myth
GOLDMAN: That leads to the third symbol or myth, which like the others has precedents going back to the beginning of American history, into the colonial period, but emerges more fully in the late 19th and early 20th century. This is the idea that Americans may be different in culture, or ethnic origin, or religion or even in race, but we are unified by shared political principles realized in historical American institutions. Unlike the crucible, there’s no expectation here that in the future those differences are going to disappear, that they’re going to be melted away.
Rather, the claim is that we can live in and among a high level of cultural diversity, as we would now say, while retaining political unity. In the book, I describe how, at the same time in the early 20th century, scholars are actually changing the definition of assimilation, which is a key term in this discourse. Originally, assimilation meant becoming altogether like the model. In the rhetoric of the crucible, you had the melting pot and the mold. Everyone would get melted down, and they would get poured into the mold. The mold was essentially a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant. Anyone could become like that.
But sociologists in the 1920s and 1930s redefine assimilation in terms of values, which was then a new term, not familiar as it is today. They say it’s okay if people are different in all sorts of ways—different in political preferences, different in culture, in food, even in language—if they have common values.
During the Second World War and early Cold War, this idea—which had been current in more or less left-wing intellectual circles—is really taken up by mainstream American political institutions as a way of distinguishing America and its cause, on the one hand, from the old-fashioned blood-and-soil nationalism of Europe, but on the other from the communists. One of the reasons that we are so confused and anxious today is that the high point of creedal nationalism in the decades following the Second World War is now just at the limits of living memory. We remember, or can almost remember, something that’s slipping away, but we have very little personal connection to these older understandings of American identity or the conflicts they provoked.
The Next Myth?
KLUTSEY: Yes. With regard to that, the creedal myth, which talks a lot about equal rights and things like that, you’re saying that we’re at the limits of memory of this. We’re seeing different conversations around equal rights still, whether it’s police shootings or the criminal justice system. And sometimes it’s framed around positive rights—access to healthcare, broadband, what have you. The creed language seems to provide a lot of latitude for the current discourse in reenvisioning who we are, or the narratives that describe who we are.
What do you think will constitute our next symbol or narrative? Does this give us some hints about what the next symbolic myth or narrative might be?
GOLDMAN: I’m not sure that there will be another. I think this country, like many societies around the world, is faced with centripetal forces, forces pulling us apart that are technological and economic, as well as cultural and political. I’m not convinced that there’s a way to put Humpty Dumpty back again. I certainly don’t have the next option ready to unveil.
I think the problem we still face with the creed—and we see this in many of the debates today about education and so-called critical race theory—is the way it was entangled up. It was entangled with a progressive narrative of American history. It’s one thing to say these are American ideals that we should struggle to realize, and to which we have in the past and will in the future inevitably fall short. If that’s all that creedal nationalism means, then I think it’s a good thing, and I endorse a version of that in the book.
The problem, though, is that the way the creed was articulated in the 1940s, ’50s and early ’60s was as a kind of providential history in which the Declaration of Independence is pronounced and freedom rolls out inevitably and naturally through the generations. Then there’s this unfortunate misunderstanding in the Civil War, but Lincoln sets things to rights. Then we ignore the next 50 years of American history, and then we beat the Nazis, and then we beat the communists and all is well in the world. It’s very hard to sustain that as a historical narrative as opposed to a moral and political argument.
I think one of the reasons that our debates right now about the teaching of history are so bitter is that we want history to do the work of that moral and political argument. Because it’s easier to say, “That’s the way it was, that’s the way it’s always been, that’s the way we should keep it,” than it is to admit that these principles have always been challenged. They’re always in battle. They’re always contradictory and subject to hypocrisy. It is our task in every generation, not simply to uphold an inheritance from the past, but also to promote or sustain or even to found anew. Arguments about what the founders wanted or what Lincoln said just won’t do that for us.
KLUTSEY: Yes. You write about this in your book, that history plays a very significant role in this. You even mentioned “Rashomon,” Kurosawa’s film, that it depicts the notion that people look at certain facts and they come to different interpretations of that. It just seems like that’s not resolvable.
GOLDMAN: It’s very difficult to resolve, at least without a degree of centralization and coercion that makes me very, very nervous. There clearly are institutions and policies that can be used to create or encourage cultural consensus, and we see some of those policies on display in China today. That seems to me a nightmare to avoid rather than a model to imitate.
Even in the United States, even though we’ve rarely gone to quite those lengths, the history of public education is a history of dispute and resistance, not a history of consensus. Because it’s always some group or faction trying to impose its narrative or myth on others who may not share it. I think we need to be comfortable with a higher degree, if not an unlimited degree, of disagreement and pluralism. To me, that points toward a greater range of educational options in which families and communities can find schools that teach in ways that they approve, rather than trying to find the one lowest-common-denominator story that is going to be least offensive to the greatest number of people.
Part of the reason I take that view is that I just don’t think it works. People are very exercised today about what’s in textbooks. The problem with textbooks today is that they’re boring, and they’re written by committee, and they don’t say anything coherent—not that they have too much of the wrong information and not enough of the right. I think the way to restore coherence is not to find a single unifying narrative that everyone can approve, but rather to work on a somewhat smaller scale of communities that do have coherent views. Then figure out how these different communities can live together in peace and reconcile some of those differences, rather than fighting them out at every election.
KLUTSEY: Right. You quoted John Dewey in your book as saying, “Our Babel is not one of tongues. It is a cacophony of the signs and symbols without which shared experience is impossible.” You were saying that, no, we have to live with a sense that we may not have shared experiences, but we can still live together, perhaps harmoniously.
GOLDMAN: Yes, and I probably should have pointed out in the book that I quote Dewey, but I’m also disagreeing with Dewey. Because Dewey thinks this is quite a bad thing and was, at least at some stages of his career, a kind of nationalist of the left. I’m saying that some degree of Babel is not such a terrible thing. That, indeed, if we look back in American history, especially past this midcentury interlude, we find more of that than we are likely to expect.
KLUTSEY: Let’s talk about nationalism a little bit and if you can define what you mean by nationalism. I think sometimes it’s a concept that’s in tension with a classical liberal, cosmopolitan view of the world because nationalism is somewhat exclusionary—primarily looking to the interest of those within some borders or classified a certain way. Can you speak to some of those tensions and how you define the term nationalism?
GOLDMAN: Yes. Nationalism is one of these “-ism” words that is what philosophers call fundamentally contested concepts, which—they mean there’s no possibility of agreement. When we argue about them, often we’re just arguing about definitions rather than substance. That’s important because although you indicate some tensions between nationalism and liberal traditions, historically, they’ve often been allied. Although after the 1870s or so, the late 19th century, liberalism and nationalism seemed to be at odds, or at least not easily identified.
Before that time, liberalism and nationalism often went together. You see that in no less a liberal than John Stuart Mill, who defends in “Considerations on Representative Government” and elsewhere a kind of nationalism as a precondition for accountable and effective yet limited government. All that is to say that I don’t think all definitions or all forms of nationalism are bad or at odds with liberalism.
What I really mean by nationalism is the idea that there is a cultural or ethnic community that stands outside political institutions, and to which political institutions must accommodate themselves, and which can overthrow or alter or adapt those institutions if they’re seen to be incompatible with some national essence. There are reasons that that idea might be appealing in other historical and geographic settings. There are some nations or some peoples that do seem to have this extra-political and pre-political character.
In this book, I say nothing about that because one of the frustrating things about the nationalism debate is that it’s always so abstract and so vague, and I really want to be specific. But I don’t think that’s true of the American people. I think it is through participation in our constitutional institutions, and through the process of interaction under those institutions, that the American people exists and thrives and develops into something, we know not what. What I’m opposing is not nationalism in the sense of policy. I take no view here on tariffs or immigration policy.
Rather, I’m challenging what could be called “national essentialism,” that there are these fixed characteristics outside political and historical practice that define a nation. Because I don’t think that’s true in that case, I am much less existentially anxious about the future of the United States or the American people. Not that we don’t have many problems and challenges, but I just don’t share the sense which seems to be pervasive among people who call themselves nationalists, that some essence that we once had is slipping away and is in danger of disastrous collapse. I don’t think of myself as an optimist, really, but I think that that disposition could be described as a relatively optimistic one.
Is Samuel Goldman Optimistic?
KLUTSEY: That’s a great segue because I often ask my guests whether they are optimists or pessimists. I guess, in this case, are you optimistic that we will find a sense of nationalism that is unifying and that helps to perhaps diminish some of the polarization that we’re seeing in society?
GOLDMAN: I’m optimistic and pessimistic. I gave you the optimistic part. Here’s the pessimistic part. The pessimistic part is that I think that historically, it’s only when confronted with something really, really terrible that Americans have been willing to set aside some of their disputes, or to learn to live with some of their disputes and to emphasize what we genuinely have in common. The Civil War is one example of that. And of course, it’s an incomplete example, which shows the problem because the cultural reconciliation and political reconciliation after the Civil War very much excluded African Americans.
That was the deal. White America could return to peace if Black America was kept separate and apart. But still, in the confrontation with the utter horror of the Civil War, there was a kind of sobriety as a result, that we don’t want to push this too far. Then again, in the encounter with the totalitarianism of the 20th century, the Nazis in World War II and the communists in the Cold War that followed, I think Americans were reminded of what was at stake and how much we genuinely have to lose. I don’t know if we will face another crisis of that kind in the future, or if we do, what exactly it will be.
I think, further, it would be crazy to pursue crisis in order to enjoy the unity that can result from a response to crisis. I get quite nervous when people sometimes seem to talk about our relations with China this way, as if we should cultivate tension because that will unify us and call us to ourselves. But I think that it is in those confrontations with genuine danger that we are most likely to find some workable compromise, if not perfect solution. The books that intellectuals write or the policies imposed by politicians, I just don’t think are going to do it. The reason I don’t think so is that they haven’t been very successful in the past.
KLUTSEY: Yes. In the context of how we might unify when faced with an external threat or external threats, often—when the pandemic emerged, I thought that this could be something that brings Americans together and might forge a kind of narrative. Do you have an explanation or an idea for why that didn’t happen?
GOLDMAN: I think partly it was the result of partisanship. Many people have noted how positions on restrictions on social gatherings or vaccines flipped quite dramatically depending on the party in power. That proved very difficult to overcome. I also think that the public health authorities did not handle this well. Just in many areas, refused even to consider tradeoffs or the possibility of blowback or the consequences of overreaching, and that has not been helpful. Also, COVID, a germ is not sufficiently personal to really have this effect.
Maybe if it had turned out to be even more deadly and disgusting than it actually is, we would have responded in a healthier way. I think that part of the American political psychology requires a confrontation of principle. The Civil War had that function. The Second World War, the Cold War all had that function, arousing this question of what the principles are for which we are willing to cooperate and fight and, if need be, die. Germs don’t care about those things. In that respect, maybe the pandemic didn’t trigger some of the resources for solidarity that other risks and challenges might have done.
Frederick Douglass and Nonexclusionary Nationalism
KLUTSEY: Yes. Now, on nationalism, from the way that you’re explaining it, is not necessarily exclusionary. What would nonexclusionary nationalism look like? Would it be something like Frederick Douglass’ “composite nationality”?
GOLDMAN: Yes. In the book, I quote this speech that Douglass gave. He gave versions of it throughout the later 1860s, in which he describes the United States as a composite nationality. It’s really a speech that is ahead of its time in many ways because this is still at a period when many Americans are thinking in terms of the crucible and the emergence—again, maybe in decades, maybe in a century, but eventually—of a coherent American national type.
It was thought that the Civil War—which was itself a kind of crucible of fire and blood, the blood mingling on the ground. You see this incredible rhetoric in speeches and texts that people are producing on the time. Through this mingling of blood and shared suffering, the American people will rise anew. Douglass says, in effect, yes and no. Obviously, he believes that the war has vindicated American principles, including the principle of union, which is a kind of nationalism—a priority of the national government over the states and regions. He says American nationality isn’t going to look like European nationality. It is defined by political principle and participation in constitutional practices, and it is compatible with a much wider range of ethnic and cultural diversity than almost anybody at the time thought was possible.
It’s notable, I think, that he’s giving this speech at a political moment when the first national campaign for immigration restriction is getting underway. Before the 1870s, actually, states maintained their own immigration policies, in effect. It wasn’t until after the Civil War that immigration and border control came to be understood as a definitive national responsibility, as part of this process of nationalization that I’m describing. The first movement for the deployment of this power was a movement to exclude Asian, specifically Chinese, immigration.
The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1872 is the first national act of immigration control, in effect. Douglass is saying, as this campaign is getting underway, that it’s unnecessary. There is no inherent threat in the immigration of what were then called “Chinamen.” They too can be Americans, and over the generations, and through their participation in American politics and life, will become as American as anyone else. At the time, this was not an obvious thing to say. This was a really radical claim. It was only in the 20th century, as I’ve described, that it became a mainstream view. I think Douglass is admirable and prescient in that way.
At the same time, Douglass avoids the self-congratulatory historical narrative that is often associated with creedal nationalism. As he knows perfectly well, as the leading African American spokesman and (previously) leading abolitionist of his day, there is no smooth or inevitable arc of history toward justice. For Douglass, upholding American ideals and principles is a constant struggle, again, in every generation and at every time. It’s not a kind of providential cruise control.
That’s why I cite Douglass here because even at this early stage, he’s aware of some of the problems or tendencies within what I call creedal nationalism that can undermine it.
Consensus Is Not the Goal
KLUTSEY: As we bring this conversation to a close, I wanted you to go back on something that you’d talked about earlier, which is the pluralistic perspective, that you think that is a good solution for moving forward. You said it’s strengthening institutions of contestation. Can you elaborate on that a little bit?
GOLDMAN: Yes. This is a broader version of the argument that I made a few minutes ago about education, which is that I think our tendency is to seek generality and agreement. Then we get very frustrated when that doesn’t happen because it turns out that people don’t agree with us. On the contrary, I would tend to go in the other direction, not to cultivate disagreement for its own sake or to be provocative, but rather to pose what I again think of as a perennial American question, which is, how can people who don’t have all that much in common live together in peace?
On the one hand, that may require weakening or decentralizing certain powers from the federal or national level—or even from the state level—to permit cultural, religious or other communities to more consistently and effectively live in their own ways and according to what they believe. On the other hand, that means strengthening those communities and making sure that they are permitted, by law, to operate in ways that are satisfying to them.
In the book, among other things, I express a certain skepticism about the application of sweeping anti-discrimination mandates to religious communities. Because I think it’s quite important that religious communities be able to operate not only as houses of worship, but also as sets of social institutions—schools, hospitals, social service organizations, and so on—in ways that reflect what they really believe, rather than trying to turn them into vehicles of an ostensible national consensus.
We need to go small in certain ways, and then we can ask again what we have in common, and what our truly shared interests are, rather than trying to settle them, as I say, through periodic elections, and especially presidential elections every four years. I just don’t think our institutions can bear that weight. If you think the fate of the nation, one way or the other, rests on the occupant of the White House, you are almost certainly going to be disappointed.
KLUTSEY: That’s really interesting. Yes, I think your comments are really relevant to the extent that we are facing certain challenges with regard to contesting ideas, challenging orthodoxy, viewpoint diversity and things like that. Do you have any insights that could help particularly academics, educators, professors? Quite a number of our audiences are professors who teach and so on. Any insights that could help them reflect some of these ideas in their pedagogy?
GOLDMAN: I don’t think I have any special or unique insights. I should say this is a short book on a big topic, and that means it’s a work of synthesis. I’ve drawn liberally on the insights of others, more than providing my own. I especially think that I’m unlikely to have insights for the listeners of this podcast who may not agree with me about everything, but probably agree with me about some things.
More generally, I do think that educational institutions, and maybe especially higher education, really are failing in their role of preparing students to live in a country in which not everyone is going to agree with them. I, like many others, am concerned by the increasing ideological and cultural constraints about what is permitted even to be said in academic settings. I think that’s bad for scholarship on the one hand, but also and more importantly, I think it’s bad for citizenship.
KLUTSEY: On that note, I think we can bring this to a close. Thank you very much, Professor Goldman, for taking the time and speaking with us. This has been a very insightful conversation. Thank you.
GOLDMAN: Thank you, Ben. It’s been a pleasure.