Samuel Goldman, associate professor of political science at the George Washington University, is an intellectual historian and political commentator. In his new book, After Nationalism: Being American in an Age of Division, he criticizes traditional notions of patriotism while trying to lay out how members of modern nations can preserve some form of pride of country.
In this week’s conversation, Samuel Goldman and Yascha Mounk talk about different notions of patriotism and debate whether strong participation in local institutions is the key to restoring a healthier political climate.
This transcript has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Yascha Mounk: You just wrote a book that's very surprising in many ways. You are conservative—you're certainly not a Trumpian conservative—yet this is a book that in some ways criticizes or undermines the idea of American patriotism, and argues that there's really not a very coherent logic to, or justification for, it. Is that broadly right?
Samuel Goldman: Well, I don't think the book is critical of the idea of American patriotism. Quite the contrary: I see [the book] as an act of patriotism and a defense of what I think is the most plausible and effective form of American patriotism. It is a criticism of the quest for a thicker conception of national identity, which is not something new—it predates the Trump moment, and indeed predates the establishment of the United States. But it's an enterprise which I think has generally been unsuccessful. And the book is a case for learning to live within the limits of a vast and extended republic that nevertheless protects the freedom, prosperity, and peace of most of its inhabitants remarkably well.
Mounk: Let's talk about the second, very influential, notion of patriotism that you think doesn't quite account for how we should view America—and that, I take it (as shorthand), is the idea of a “melting pot.”
Goldman: The “melting pot'' is associated with the new immigration of the early 20th century, but that's something of an anachronism. The image actually emerges in the late 18th and early 19th century, and it's focused not in the port and industrial cities of the East, but rather in the West. The idea, which is closely associated with a Jeffersonian agrarian perspective, is that people from all over the world will come to America, they will move to the West, they will mix their labor with the soil, and they will transform themselves into a distinctive American people. [...] The [melting pot] shifts the focus of national identity into the future. So Americans are not yet a people [in] the way the French or the English are, but they will be in the future, partly as a result of cultural fusion under the pressure of frontier condition—Theodore Roosevelt wrote about this in many of his books—but also as a result of ethnic or biological mixtures of their blood, in a way that is uncomfortable for many of us today.
Mounk: [The melting pot] is a very unpopular idea today, to some extent among the public, but certainly among academics. When you read something about American national identity, there's always an obligatory riff or rant about a “melting pot” [understood as the idea] that all immigrants have to completely shed their cultural origins. In my mind, it looks like a sort of 1950s [or] 1960s American living room where people are watching television and having TV dinners. That doesn't allow for the kind of diversity that America has, and frankly would be a pretty sad vision of what America might look like. It's not a particularly vibrant, interesting or rich idea, certainly if you follow this metaphor of the 1950s living room.
[But] it's not clear to me that [this characterization] has been, historically, what the idea of a melting pot is. My concern about it comes more from the play by Israel Zangwill which popularized that name, which is a story of ill-fated lovers: a Jew from Russia and [an] aristocratic Russian who fall in love, and share a violent history in which her father has killed his family and a lot of other people. [The play] is a heroic call to overcome the enmities and the feuds, and the massacres and murders, of the old country in order to share what we have in common. It's actually, I think, a morally very rousing vision, a very difficult one, and one that I think is ultimately unconvincing. But [it’s] rather different from the 1950s or 1960s TV dinners. [Do] I hear you saying even that is actually a sort of limited vision of what a melting pot is really?
Goldman: The striking thing to me about Zangwill’s play is that the melting pot, even though it serves as the title, is actually not the dominant metaphor. The image to which [he] keeps returning is a symphony. It's a musical composition that David, the male romantic lead, is composing. That's actually quite different [from] what the melting pot was usually understood to represent. Initially, the melting pot meant all of these different cultures went in and came out the same. Zangwill is describing something different, which is also found in the work of pluralist theorists like W. E. B. Du Bois, which is the idea that you can have all of these different contributions that remain distinct, but nevertheless contribute to a sort of broader harmony. So just like a musical composition, the different instruments [and] sections of the orchestra are all playing different things. And yet, the result is greater than the sum of its parts. [...] I think that is the most appealing of the three, although I argue that it's really not the melting pot, which stands for something different, [but] “creedal nationalism,” which developed theoretically and institutionally in the early 20th century, even though it draws on much older sources.
And the creed suggests more or less that Americans will retain significantly distinct cultural, ethnic and religious identities, but they can cooperate in a way that yields goods of beauty and order that would not be immediately obvious. And I think that when we talk about American nationalism today, we are almost always talking about some version of this creedal image.
Mounk: It seems to me that in broader intellectual [and] journalistic circles, [it’s believed] that you should either reject patriotism or nationalism altogether as a sort of anachronistic, backward-looking vision that is unjust—or you give a defense of it which is creedal, civic in that way which says, “As long as your American identity is a commitment to the ideals expressed in the American Constitution, even though we have never quite lived up to them, that can give us a kind of guiding light towards the future.” [...] Why is it that you think that isn't capable of explaining and representing American identity today?
Goldman: It's not that I think it's incapable of doing so. But rather, we need to sever the political and moral argument from a particular historical narrative which one encounters in various forums that claims that the United States was founded as a creedal nation, and of course, there were setbacks and contradictions, but they were all inevitably worked out over time leading us to our present condition of enlightenment. I just don't think that's true. The creedal vision that I largely accept is a possibility that we can (and I think ought to) pursue, but it is not an historical reality that has been present with us from the origin.
Mounk: At what point did it develop?
Goldman: It [developed], at least in theory, from [the] early stages of American political history. The creedal narrative always depends heavily on documents like the Declaration of Independence, and also formal rhetoric [and] set-piece speeches given by presidents and other statesmen. And I don't deny any of that. They said what they said in the 18th and 19th centuries, but it was really only in the 20th century that [the creedal vision appeared] as a coherent theory of what it means to be an American, and [was] institutionalized as something like an official philosophy—and by that I mean reproduced in textbooks, in popular culture, used as the basis for legislation, and so on. And that happens largely because of the pressure of the Second World War, which encouraged—if it didn't force—Americans to understand themselves in a way that was very different [from] the kinds of nationalism on display among our enemies. So, this isn't an idea that was invented in the 20th century, far from it. But I think it's in the 20th century, and particularly the middle of the 20th century, that it comes to be a widely shared default understanding of what it means to be American in a way that it wasn't earlier.
Mounk: Why is the fact that it actually arose to some extent in the middle of the 20th century, in response to World War II, limiting [with regards to] the role it should play today?
Goldman: I think the two challenges for the creed arose in the middle of the 20th century, and we've never really been able to get past either of them. One was the challenge of race, which continues to define many of our political debates today. The creed was associated with a kind of moderate reformist liberalism which acknowledged that there was injustice, there was exclusion of African Americans, but argued that American institutions could slowly be brought in line with creedal principles without doing violence to any of them, and that proved to be very difficult. And we can discuss now or on another occasion the trajectory of the civil rights movement as moderate reformist policies became less satisfactory to people who demanded equal treatment for black citizens, and some of them even concluded that the idea of equal treatment is itself incoherent, and is counterproductive. I think that's where our present debates about “critical race theory,” so-called, come from. The other challenge is that, as I described, the creed was very closely bound up with a particular conception of America's international role as the leader of the Free World, as the bastion of liberty and equality. And that was an easy thing to believe during World War II and perhaps in the early Cold War. It became much harder in the midst of the Vietnam War and a series of subsequent international conflicts.
I think where we are today is a sort of admiration for the creed in principle, but discomfort with the political and institutional conditions that upheld it. And that's why we see political figures, presidents and others, continually invoking the same documents, same principles and the same figures. And yet, it never seems to generate the unity and solidarity that we want, or that we think we remember from the past.
Mounk: For those of us who think that it is important for precisely a huge, diverse nation, to find something which we can rally around, something on which we can agree, something that makes it easier to say, “We may have these differences of race and religion or other things, but I still owe you a duty of solidarity. I owe you consideration precisely because we're both Americans”—what can the basis of that be?
Goldman: Well, I think somewhat counterintuitively, that we need to encourage and protect institutions that can embody and cultivate a more limited sense of identity and solidarity, and that will allow us to better [answer], “What are the things that we truly have in common?”
I think that the problem with consensus-seeking patriotism is that we look for things everyone agrees on, and there's a short list, [but] it doesn't tell us very much, and that's unsatisfying. I think that it's only through religious and local and interest-based associations that we can figure out who we really are. And once we have a sense of who we are, we can determine how we relate to others with whom we have some things in common. We are fellow citizens, and we have certain cultural similarities, but not all of them. So, whereas conventional appeals to patriotism or nationalism have this top-down quality that I think makes them thin and unsatisfactory, I'm much more interested in finding ways that we can pursue and realize disagreement as a serious and legitimate feature of American life, rather than dismissing it in pursuit of some evanescent similarity.
Mounk: What does it mean to take disagreement as one of the fundamental building blocks of what it is to be American? [...] [For example], it lies in the nature of religion to say, “We are one religious community, and we disagree with the other communities.” There's nothing inherently worrisome about it, but it's hard to see how it can provide a fulcrum for some form of recognition that we have things in common, no matter how thin that notion may be.
Goldman: Well, I think that reflection on differences is often helpful for discovering which things we truly do have in common, and which we don't. I'm teaching a seminar on nationalism, and among other things, I'll be teaching the historian Bill McClay [and] his essay “America—idea or nation?” And one of the things he points out, which I think is correct, is that contrary to what you would think, it's often people who are most closely engaged with and identified with a religious community, a town or region, or a labor union or other interest-based association, who are also most patriotic about America as a whole. You would think that would be a paradox, but in practice, it actually isn't. And again, I am less worried about difference pulling us apart when it is embodied by and structured by institutions. The problem arises when we're simply yelling at each other on social media.
Mounk: Why does [social media] make a difference?
Goldman: Two differences: First, I think it's very important psychologically and sociologically that we do things in person and face-to-face. The abstraction of social media encourages irresponsibility and heightened rhetoric of a kind that is much more difficult when you actually have to look at the people you are talking to.
The other is that institutions of this kind are responsible for delivering results, they promise something to those who participate. And presumably, if they don't provide the goods, they will lose their participation and support. So, again, I think that on the level of rhetoric, it's very easy to disagree and to yell at each other and to denounce each other. But when you actually have to do things, for particular people, there are much greater incentives […] to engage in the kind of pragmatic negotiation and compromise that is necessary to our institutions. And if there is a sort of background intuition to [my] book, it's that, like it or not, [...] the United States is not a classic nation-state and can't be governed like one. So here we are. We're stuck. It's our job to make the best of it.
Mounk: We are at a moment of ongoing political crisis. We are certainly in a moment of a very deep lack of mutual comprehension [between] political tribes that really hate each other quite deeply. […] [O]ne thing I worry about today in terms of American identity is not whether we have anything in common; it is not whether we're going to have regional independence movements in Texas that rival [those] we're seeing in Catalonia in Spain or Scotland in the United Kingdom; it is whether our inability to afford each other empathy and sympathy, our inability to see each other as citizens that can be decent parts of a common polity, isn't going to push us to ever more dangerous forms of political conflict. Do you share that fear, and is there something that your model of patriotism can do to contain that risk of fracture?
Goldman: I do share that fear. But I think I would direct the causal arrow in the opposite way. I don't think that our institutions are threatened because we have an insufficient sense of social and cultural solidarity. Rather, [it’s] the other way around. Our institutional failure is encouraging and putting pressure on those cleavages, and the centralization of authority in the national government and in the executive branch, in particular, drives the sense that every political conflict is an existential one that depends on the occupant of the White House. I just don't think our institutions can bear that pressure. I think—and it may be too optimistic, but I don't really see the alternative—that a renewed commitment to the authority of Congress, which is designed to deal with these sorts of disputes [better] than the executive branches; to federalism, which allows states to pursue their own course in a range of matters in which national consensus is impossible; and to local government and voluntary association would relieve some of that pressure, and make it easier again for us to see ourselves as fellow citizens and as sharing certain, but not all, interests. My approach suggests that we really need to focus on the political institutions rather than the culture, and that if we get the institutions right, then the culture will, to some degree, follow.
And in that respect, I think of myself as thinking constitutionally, not in the historical sense of trying to figure out exactly what Hamilton or Madison or any of the others were trying to do, but rather following their suggestion that the only way to organize an extended republic on this scale is through the setup of its political institutions, rather than through the kind of top-down uniform cultural formation that would become much more common in Europe. [...]
Mounk: What would be the good, patriotic way of alleviating these pressures on the individual level?
Goldman: I think the best thing that people can do is to participate in the kinds of local and voluntary associations that I've been describing. I truly believe that, whether it is [joining] a political party or running for local office, participating in a church or other religious community, it is only by living and working together with other Americans that we can recover a sense of shared responsibility and shared enterprise. None of us is going to succeed in solving the problem on the grand scale. All that we can do is contribute to its solution, or at least to its management, for ourselves and for people that we actually know.
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