National identity has been a constant object of American public debate ever since Donald Trump rallied his first crowd to “make America great again” in 2015. As waves of demonstrations, riots, and purges have washed over the body politic, generalized worry over American unity has only grown. Voices of the left promise some distant unity after passing through the crucible of diversity, racialism, and intersectionality. Voices of the right respond with a “new nationalism” to resolve the country’s divisions here and now. Centrists seek reconciliation through pluralism, moderation, and political decentralization as a low-temperature modus vivendi.
Every debate is afflicted by a confusion of terms, but the debate over American national identity is cursed seven times over. Does the United States even constitute a “nation”? In the sense of common descent (the root of “nation” is the Latin nasci, to be born), clearly not. Widespread fear of such an ethnic sense of American identity drives considerable hostility to the very idea of nationalism. Most American elites prefer words like “patriotism” (never mind the Greek root patrios, of one’s fathers), a shared love of the law rather than a shared love of a people. The well-worn American creed, a belief in deeply American and yet simultaneously universal principles of liberty, equality, individual rights, and self-government, is offered as both the means and the object of this patriotic love binding the plures into an unum.
The problem with this conception of patriotism is that it is a weak glue. The recent history of the United States offers ample evidence. Rather than objects of agreement, liberty, equality, individual rights, and self-government are instead the objects of discord. The advance of one definition of equality is necessarily the violation of another definition of liberty (viz. the current political struggle over religious freedom). Even rival definitions of equality battle against one another in a zero-sum game (viz. the current equality versus equity debate). The expansion of individual rights as a solution to conflict has not only proved no solution at all. It throws more and more of the republic’s common life into the courts and the private realm, leaving less and less to be governed in common and thus shared in common.
Thus the understandable anxiety of American conservatives who are the loudest in proclaiming the limits of diversity beyond which no political community can survive. The problem with conservative complaints is that no one knows exactly where the American Rubicon lies. The left, in condemning unifying projects like “a city upon a hill” and “the melting pot,” implicitly suggest the line is exceedingly far away. Some centrists argue that national unity has always been a myth and, outside the brief era between Pearl Harbor and the Watts riot, strong divisions of cultural and political values have been the norm. Nevertheless the republic persisted.
How much unity does a political community even need, then? The question is meaningless in the abstract. Needed for what? The standard answer is civil peace. Without unity, so it is claimed, a polity is bound to descend into factional violence. Indeed, contemporary levels of political and civil violence in America are worrisome. Yet Scotland has been governed by a secessionist party for fifteen years without an outbreak of factional bloodshed. Flemings and Walloons have lived largely separate and parallel political lives for decades without even a hint of a Belgian civil war. Moreover, excessive demands for unity can themselves provoke violence, as happened in Spain in 2017.
A more elevated answer is rooted in America’s national mythology, according to which unity is necessary for the very cause of liberty, equality, individual rights, and self-government. This belief famously animates Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, a speech historian Gary Wills insisted “remade America” (for which Wills won a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award). To Lincoln and those who follow him, republicanism itself may “perish from the earth” without a united United States. Nor may America itself continue without republican values. In words Lincoln spoke in his 1862 State of the Union address and repeated often by American politicians since, American unity is “the last best hope of earth.” What more elevated, more lofty, more grandiose claim could exist?
Here we come to the real glue of America. From the founding of the country in the fires of war, the United States has been an expansionary republican empire ever incorporating new lands, new peoples, new goods, new resources, new ideas. This “empire of liberty,” as Thomas Jefferson called it, knew no limits. Even after the closing of the frontier at the end of the 19th century, Americans continued onwards to claim Hawaii, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, the Philippines, and a chunk of Panama. They absorbed island chains in the Caribbean and the Pacific. They went to Europe in World War I and established permanent military bases across both Europe and East Asia after World War II. Eventually Americans gathered half the globe under their indirect rule. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, they proceeded to gather the other half.
Continuous military, commercial, and cultural expansion since Jamestown and Plymouth cultivated the restlessness, vigor, optimism, self-confidence, and love of glory for which Americans have long been known. The glue of America has thus ever been what Niccolò Machiavelli called virtù in service of “a commonwealth for expansion.” Such a republic is always in tumult, yet a tumult that, if well-ordered, finds glory.
It is this promise of greatness, this glory of the expanding republican empire that knows only the boundary of the earth itself, that has been the glue of America. Because the United States is not a nation in the European or even Asian sense, common descent, common religion, and common culture bind only parts. That common glory of imperial expansion, combined with a republican form of government through which all citizens secure it and share in it, binds the whole.
Forward motion thus becomes the lifeblood of such a polity. Without it, the purpose of the civic bonds of unity inevitably come into question. An America that is not a glorious republican empire in motion is not America, full stop. This part of the American mythos Lincoln left unsaid at Gettysburg.
Since the 1960s, the glory of the American empire of liberty has tarnished. Since the mid-2010s it has fallen under sustained internal attack. The failures of national purpose in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan are amplified by the failure of globalization to generate common wealth for the commonwealth. If Americans are not united for expansionary republican greatness, what then are all these fissiparous races, creeds, and cultures bound together for? While belief that self-government may perish from the earth without American unity may have been plausible in 1863 or 1941, it is a hard sell in 2021. It becomes even harder when would-be centrists urge Americans to unite around drag queen story hour today so we can all fight the Chinese together tomorrow.
Americans can learn a lesson here from the British. Like the United States, the United Kingdom is a union of parts that faced a similar dilemma of purpose emerging from a similar cause. While the forward motion of the British Empire ground to a halt in the 1920s, its glory staggered on until the 1956 Suez Crisis. The U.K.’s humiliation there led to a rapid unraveling of nearly all of what remained of the British Empire. Its demise also unravelled many threads of the United Kingdom itself. With access to an expansionary globe-spanning empire, Scots were content to understand themselves happily as an integral part of a united British people. After empire, Scotland increasingly asked itself to what purpose it remained in the United Kingdom. These questions bore fruit not only in Scotland’s 2014 independence referendum but more importantly in wider British constitutional reforms and debates that still show no sign of resolution.
Like the British, Americans, too, are asking themselves what the point of the union really is. The longstanding myth of the American refounding is emotionally moving in the abstract, but it lacks binding force in the concrete. How can unity exist among groups that not only disagree deeply on the implications of liberty and equality but now cannot even agree on shared definitions of the most fundamental concepts of a common life? Not simply concepts peculiar to the polity, like “citizen” and “foreigner,” but “woman,” “man,” “human being”?
Unity among such people could be based on common interest. After all, American and Chinese firms find plenty to agree on when it comes to economic production and consumption. But cooperation between people who share so little could never be truly political. As Americans have rightly soured on the promises of their commonwealth for expansion, they cannot now avoid questioning the existence of the commonwealth itself. Shared interest can sustain a free trade zone, but only shared love can sustain a community.
Darel E. Paul is a professor of political science at Williams College.
September 20, 2021 4:01 am