The recent publication of Samuel Goldman’s fascinating After Nationalism and the excellent roundtable held at Law & Liberty have led to one of the best and certainly most thoughtful recent conversations on the place and even reality of nationalism in Twenty-First Century American life. Goldman’s call to reinvigorate constitutional nationalism based on legal creeds and his circumspection regarding aspects of the new nationalism is insightful, reads well, and leaves the reader asking necessary questions about the American order. It is, put simply, an excellent book whether one agrees with Goldman’s thesis entirely or not. The panelists at Law & Liberty offered varying levels of affirmation for After Nationalism. My colleague Richard M. Gamble offered a sympathetic review of Goldman, while Bradford Littlejohn, although respectful, was more circumspect.
In the interest of full disclosure I consider myself a professional friend of Professor Goldman and read early drafts of his book. And I’m in substantial agreement with his arguments. I’m not sure an American nation along the lines of the one supposed by conservative nationalists ever properly ever existed, and if it did, I don’t think it lasted very long. The first national ideal, according to Goldman, lay in New England’s socio-religious covenant that drove not only New England’s intellectual life but also the first national ideal in British North America and then the fledgling American republic until Andrew Jackson’s presidency in the 1830s. The other succeeding forms of nationalism, according to Goldman, were that of crucible nationalism and creedal nationalism. The Crucible is an analog for what has often been called the melting pot, “an automatic process involving intermarriage among ethnic groups, civic education, and voluntary cultural exchange.” This type of nationalism typified Gilded Age America in the era of great migrations and national consolidation after the Civil War. Finally through much of the Twentieth Century there was a nationalism of creed which focused on political philosophy. Creedal America was and is “defined by fundamental principles. Above all, it proclaims the equal individual rights proclaimed by the Declaration of Independence. America is defined less by who lives here than by the correspondence between its institutions and these universal ideas.”
Warnings about coercion form a major polemic in Goldman’s cautions about the conservative national alternative to covenant, creed, and crucible. Gamble notes that Goldman’s books shows that “the quest for uniformity leads to coercion and thereby increases the likelihood of conflict. Beyond a certain point, the more we try to agree, the more we disagree.” I agree with Professor Gamble’s caution. He and Goldman both seem less than convinced that New England’s covenantal nationalism was ever that real or that useful and I am inclined to agree. Goldman is certainly right that New England covenantalism could not contain the expansive American republic in the Nineteenth Century.
Littlejohn pushes back against Goldman’s ultimate proposition that the United States should maintain—or return to—its historical creedal nationalism based on the Constitution and the ideals of the Declaration of Independence. While I’m less convinced that that New England covenant was a particularly “thick” cultural nationalism than Littlejohn is, I share to a degree his doubts about whether any nation “long sustained themselves on shared constitutional principles alone.” Which leads to what I think is an important question for conservative thinkers: does the United States actually need to be nationalistic to endure, or is the desire for unitary nationalism merely a political polemic created by the Right for the purpose of facing down en masse social and political liberalism?
The pursuit of a unitary American identity is undoubtedly something that should be approached with intellectual caution. Gamble is correct when he says that “we need to face honestly and intelligently both the benefits and costs of our attempts to march all one way.” And Goldman certainly does enter “the current debate over national cohesiveness as a scholar and patriot.” And yet most Americans have taken at face value Abraham Lincoln’s admonition that a house divided cannot stand. Until citizens of the American republic desire major devolution, some measure of unitary nationalism will be seen as necessary for the maintenance of the civil order. And the question will be one of which (or whose) nationalism will govern that civil order.
Finding the answer to what ails the contemporary United States is less Goldman’s aim than making sure the wrong prescription is not adopted. “Attempts to impose a monolithic understanding of national unity,” he warns, “risk undermining the legitimacy of the political system, decrease trust among members of different social groups, and encourage extreme, even violent measures of self-protection.” Attempts to create a unitary nationality “are also in tension with the variety and decentralization that are important aspects of America’s past.” That is correct, but it seems like a tension in the creedal national program. Conservative nationalists point out quite often that the very forces that tear down localism and federalist—telemedia and oligarchical corporations—are the very ones they think should be hemmed in by a resurgent national government.
Where I remain somewhat guarded towards After Nationalism is not whether I think Goldman’s argument is right or not, but whether it ultimately matters if he is right or not. Goldman’s rendering of how citizens should conceive the American republic is certainly preferable to most of the new alternative nationalist ideologies. His assertion that the mistake the American people have made is not that they forgot how much Americans have in common, but that they “undermined or abandoned structures and organizations that express and embody disagreement” is true, and deeply problematic. But have Americans undermined or abandoned those institutions? Or have specific groups of Americans abandoned those institutions and betrayed the creedal American regime? If the answer is the former, why should we expect a majority of the American populace to return to them if they no longer believe them necessary for modern life? If the latter, do devotees of ordered liberty need a sort of latter-day Lincoln to wrestle the levers of cultural, political, and social power away from whatever nefarious groups have stoled the constitutional regime from a pluralistic, tolerant, and charitable people? Goldman’s work appears to be predicated on a hope that a sort of silent majority does affirm the creedal nationalism and constitutional liberties of the American republic. My own lurking fear is that Americans are far more comfortable with populist nationalist and progressive iconoclastic rejections of the creedal national order. But I hope I’m wrong. And I hope Sam Goldman is right. After Nationalism offers a worthy vision of how Americans might conceive of their still-worthy republic. The question will be what happens after After Nationalism.