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American Nationalism: Neither Creedal nor Racial
This review appears in the Winter 2019 issue of Modern Age. To subscribe now, go here.
Any discussion of American nationalism must give pride of place to narratives that weave together the areas of focus and contention for advocates of the modern nation-state: settlers and immigrants, culture, language, and people. In The Case for Nationalism, Rich Lowry offers several compelling narratives for a characteristically American nationalism.
The book consists of twelve chapters, each devoted mainly to refuting the left’s interpretation of the American project and its cultural significance. The topics include colonial America, immigration, language, deracinated elites, and cultural nationalism. In several chapters, Lowry recounts well-known historical episodes and documents, such as the American Revolution, the Declaration of Independence, George Washington’s Farewell Address, the Gettysburg Address, and the Monroe Doctrine. Each is described as nationalist, even if the word was not used in their original context.
Lowry wants to go beyond civic or “creedal” versions of American nationalism. To dispense with any misunderstandings up front, however, the first three chapters emphasize that dedication to home and country is not synonymous with racism and nativism. Lowry is well aware of the blood-and-soil encrustations that nationalism has acquired elsewhere in the West. The ancient Greek concept of autochthony foreshadowed ethnic and nativist nationalist movements in modern Europe. Autochthony was an all-encompassing racial and political concept the Greeks used to argue that they were exceptionally unified owing to a common blood line and having sprung directly from their native soil. Lowry lays to rest any suspicion that his advocacy of American nationalism is tainted with nativist elements by arguing that the practices and beliefs “that set us apart from other countries: our founding documents, our skepticism about overweening government . . . our middle-class orientation, our celebration of commerce, our broadly democratic politics, our gun culture, our brassy self-confidence and optimism” are not based on race or place of birth.
The flip side to an atavistic nationalism is the creedal conception of America. Lowry goes to great lengths to debunk this reading, too, which holds that the American collective identity is ultimately grounded in the ideas expressed in the formation of the United States in 1776. In the absence of a common ancestry and culture, the argument goes, ideas like the rule of law and human equality generate the cohesion and national pride that other cultures’ religious traditions, language, and history provide. The unspoken premise of the creedalist is that given America’s size, heterogeneity, and historically thin culture, the power of America’s founding propositions is the best we can do to inspire and create unity.
That Lowry concerns himself with refuting this narrow and legalistic way of construing America and its Founding is no surprise, considering that such a reading prevails among America’s left-leaning academic, entertainment, and corporate elite. Yet this reading is also found on the right. In The Conditions of Freedom, Harry Jaffa argues that America was not unique in virtue of “some particular mission, but because of rights which it shared with all men everywhere.” Lowry acknowledges the importance of natural rights to the American Revolution and constitutional founding. But limiting national identity to these principles amounts to an abstract legalism that is incapable of uniting and inspiring Americans old and new.
In chapters on “Our English Forerunners” and “A Nation of Settlers,” Lowry refutes other creedal shibboleths espoused by the left and the right. In particular, he rejects the claim, familiar on college campuses and made by several think tanks, that America is a nation of immigrants. America has never been a nation of immigrants. It began as a nation of settlers with a particular religious mission, in a particular geographic location, among a particular culture, and among a particular people. Lowry tells the story of the Puritan leader John Winthrop, who embodied many of the sentiments that would come to define the American identity. In 1630, the Massachusetts Bay Colony, under the leadership of Winthrop, spearheaded a migration to Boston in response to the anti-Puritan practices and religious policies of England under Charles I. As Lowry puts it: “If there isn’t a direct line from John Winthrop, the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, to the Founding Founders, there is a clear connection. The historical resonance of recalcitrant New Englanders insisting on their rights and defying the English Crown is obvious.” Lowry is right: it is obvious.
In addition to the Puritans, others from the British Isles soon followed. There were the Pennsylvania Quakers, the Cavaliers and servants of Virginia, and the Scotch-Irish from northern Britain and Northern Ireland who settled in Appalachia. From these early settlers, an American identity was formed out of a core of English-speaking peoples who resided in the eastern United States before 1776.
African American Contributions
It is important to point out here that African Americans had a cultural presence in this period, albeit a compromised one. Black Americans, as Thomas Sowell points out in Ethnic America, are some of the oldest Americans. Because they are not directly descended from a particular “African nation or culture,” blacks, says Sowell, have the unique distinction among Americans of being “a cultural and biological product of the New World.” Which is to say, African Americans, too, are a core part of America’s original, pre-creedal identity.
Lowry does not overlook the significance of African Americans to American nationalism. He discusses black Americans, however, mainly in the context of cultural nationalism and the arts in his concluding chapter. There he argues that blues music and jazz are quintessential American art forms that demonstrate “the glories of American culture.” Lowry is refreshingly unusual among conservatives in acknowledging that the art forms native to America should be celebrated as a source of unity.
Given the English-speaking core culture that settled America, three cultural attributes, according to Lowry, became an essential part of the American identity: the belief in American chosenness, the idea of the covenant, and the King James Bible. From John Winthrop and Cotton Mather to Abraham Lincoln and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the idea of a city on a hill, consecrated through a covenant with God, has stirred and inspired the American political tradition. A secularized interpretation provided the basis for the American citizen identity and the country’s founding documents. Most important, these attributes were not simply the product of philosophical reflection; they were the cultural inheritance of England.
These attributes became the grounds on which America eventually broke free from England and African Americans eventually fought their enslavement and second-class status in America. Lowry’s American nationalism, then, has its roots in an Anglo-Protestant core culture animated by cultural and civic ideals that continue to be relevant in today’s multicultural America.
No doubt Lowry understands that by acknowledging America’s core culture, he is also highlighting the fact that America includes fringe elements. Lowry doesn’t spend as much time reflecting on the core-fringe distinction as I would have preferred. He does make it clear in several chapters, especially in his chapter on “The Treason of the Elites,” that these fringe elements are not necessarily characterized by race, ethnic origin, or religion. They are predicated on a deep disdain for the institutions and values that have defined America for the past 243 years, including the bourgeois values of delayed gratification and marriage. Academic historians have played an outsize role in catering to these fringe elements in America. Most notably, Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States portrays America and its history as irredeemably racist and exploitative.
Such views, however, are not confined to academics. The elites in most sectors of American society have abdicated their roles as custodians of culture and moral uplift. This does not mean nationalism ought to be just boosterism. But it does mean that critiques of American institutions and values should be accompanied by an abiding commitment to the American project.
Despite the forces arrayed against American nationalism, Lowry argues in his concluding chapter, “The Importance of Cultural Nationalism,” that it is still possible to instill a nationalistic sensibility among Americans. Through the unique cultural artifacts and traditions that define the American people and its rich history, Americans can be persuaded that a common culture unites us. From jazz music to the national anthem to Thanksgiving, the “mystic chords of memory” Lincoln spoke about can be a sustaining narrative, bestowing a sense of naturalness and rightness on America and its cultural particularities.
I am in full agreement with Lowry’s argument in The Case for Nationalism. But it is not clear whether he is advocating American nationalism per se so much as he is affirming conventional values and institutions. There is nothing wrong with such an affirmation. But nationalism proper requires more from its citizens.
The formation of an American national identity requires that certain anti-American identities that are presently given free rein, especially on college campuses, be marginalized. I am speaking mainly of multiculturalists. Multiculturalism, and the corrosive identity politics it has unleashed, has proved to be a powerful counter-narrative to the traditional American sentiment e pluribus unum. The New York Times’ “1619 Project,” which describes the American Revolution as a defense of slavery, has already achieved curriculum status in many schools.
The public square is now dominated by competing national narratives, all enjoying equal billing. Eventually these competing narratives will come into conflict. Coexistence among diverse groups can be maintained only through a national identity grounded in a robust common narrative. Accordingly, a moderate amount of illiberalism directed at the expression of certain types of speech might be necessary. The “white privilege” trope is one type of speech I have in mind.
Institutional practices of illiberalism to curtail political extremism are not unprecedented within our constitutional framework. The Supreme Court, for example, consisting of unelected justices with life tenure, and the Senate, in which a collection of members who represent a small fraction of the country can block legislation, are examples of illiberal checks and balances within our constitutional framework that are in defense of democratic constitutionalism. Likewise, within the public square, a moderate illiberalism should be brought to bear on multiculturalism in defense of an American national identity—which is to say, Lowry’s case for nationalism could use a bit more prescriptive edginess.
Andre Archie is an associate professor of ancient Greek philosophy at Colorado State University and the author of Politics in Socrates’ Alcibiades: A Philosophical Account of Plato’s Dialogue Alcibiades Major.
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