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It Takes All Kinds

The Next American Nation: The New Nationalism and the Fourth American Revolution

by Michael Lind
Free Press, 436 pp., $25.00

1.

The Next American Nation is a deeply imperfect book. It is also exhilarating, original, and mostly right on target in its criticisms of the current state of American politics. Even where not, it is wonderfully thought-provoking. Its imperfections are very obvious: it is needlessly repetitive and needlessly combative; it is more boastful of its own originality than is quite decent; it contains too much wishful thinking; and there are too many purple passages that a kindly editor should have struck out. But these are a small price to pay for the energy and high spirits of which they are a reflection. Sacred cows are slaughtered at the rate of one a paragraph—Jefferson is a villain, Hamilton a hero, Lincoln a good guy, but inferior to FDR; the Mexican War did more good than the Civil War, and President James K. Polk should be as revered as the Founding Fathers. Lind is a liberal but attacks affirmative action and “open door” immigration policies; and when talk of nationalism reminds us of xenophobes like Zhirinovsky and Karadzic, Lind is an unabashed American nationalist.

Intellectually, The Next American Nation is most interesting as a work of iconoclastic history and political science. Michael Lind turns upside down every platitude of orthodox American history and political science. But Lind’s unorthodoxies are not offered for our pleasure; they serve a political purpose. Lind believes that American politics will go badly until everyone understands that the United States is a nation-state like other nation-states, not a “multicultural” state but a state built on a single American culture, to which 95 percent of its inhabitants subscribe.

Hostility to multiculturalism sounds like the conservativism of the “angry white male,” but here it is not. Lind wants a transracial, melting-pot America, where the lines of color, national origin, and religion are dissolved by interracial, interethnic, and interfaith marriage. He is perhaps the only liberal today who says openly that interracial marriage is necessary for national unity and racial harmony. Angry white male hostility to multiculturalism usually goes along with a hatred of government. But Lind insists that it takes a strong and active government to look after the interests of ordinary Americans. Indeed, Lind wants government to redistribute wealth and income from the well-heeled to the citizenry at large, with no nonsense about trickle-down economics or tax cuts for the indecently rich, no nonsense about state’s rights, and no kowtowing to corporate interests. He is a big-government populist and a liberal nationalist.

The Next American Nation sets out its unorthodox views on three different questions. The first is philosophical, or methodological. “Are we a nation?” asks Lind—following Senator Charles Sumner in the aftermath of the Civil War. Like Sumner, Lind answers yes. But he must clear the way to that reply. The first obstacle is the multiculturalists, who say that the United States is not a nation-state. “Rather,” they argue, “it is a nation of nations, a federation of nationalities or cultures sharing little or nothing but a common government: a miniature UN.” Who composes these nations is a matter of doubt; nowadays, many writers use the Census categories—“white, black or African-American, Hispanic, Asian-Pacific Islander, and American Indian/Inuit.” Others—Michael Walzer among them—think of ethnic groups rather than racial groups in much the way that Horace Kallen and Randolph Bourne did during the First World War. Both welcomed the idea that bilingual immigrant communities should cultivate a European culture while taking part in American political life. Either way, the upshot is that there is no American nation-state. As Walzer puts it, “It isn’t inconceivable that America will one day become an American nation-state, the many giving way to the one, but that is not what it is now; nor is that its destiny.”

Many opponents of multiculturalism, says Lind, espouse an equally unacceptable view of the United States. It is “not a nation-state at all, but an idea-state, a nationless state based on the philosophy of liberal democracy in the abstract.” Democratic universalists, celebrating America as the first global civilization, are invariably “exceptionalists”: American institutions and character are not just different but better. The United States is the bearer of the future, the prototype of the global community; as the political analyst Ben Wattenburg has it, this is the first universal nation.

Lind will have none of it. “The United States is not, and never has been, either a multinational democracy or a non-national democracy. The United States has been, is, and should continue to be a liberal and democratic nation-state.” Nor is the United States exceptional because it is “a nation of immigrants.” The United States is less a nation of immigrants now than in 1930, and less so than modern Canada: “The chance that a U. S. citizen is an immigrant is one in fourteen; that a Canadian citizen is an immigrant, one in six.” The United States holds together not because Americans of different cultural allegiances share a principled attachment to the Constitution, but because they share a national culture. They share, most of them, the English language, and they share a host of habits, and tastes, and loyalties that distinguish them from other English-speaking peoples. Educated Americans feel this as much as anyone, but they have too long associated nationalism with fascism in Europe and nativism at home. Lind believes what Lord Acton never doubted: liberal nationalism is not a contradiction, and the modern nation-state is the best hope of political freedom.

Lind’s chief preoccupation is the defense of American nationhood. His second is a hatred of the political cowardice that hides behind the “dictates” of economics. American workers, he argues, have been the victims of an allout war on their standard of living, waged by employers and their allies in Congress. Among the ideological smoke screens they have thrown out to disguise what they are up to, the most effective has been the fetishism of free trade. Free trade has reduced tariff barriers; more importantly, it has legitimated the export of American jobs to Mexico, the Philippines, and wherever else cheap labor is to be had. Lind believes in “economic pragmatism”—we should begin from the premise that a high-wage economy is the only basis for social peace and friendly relations between classes, ethnicities, and races and do whatever it takes to preserve such an economy.

2.

The third of Lind’s unorthodoxies is his vision of American history. The subtitle of The Next American Nation is “The New Nationalism and the Fourth American Revolution.” Most of the book is an exasperated account of what is wrong with the present—Third—Republic, and how a more satisfactory Fourth Republic can be built, but the book’s credibility rests on that of the longer history. The First Republic was Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, and federal. “To be an American in Anglo-America, according to the informal but established conception, was to be an Anglo-Saxon (or Teuton) in race, a Protestant in religion, and a republican in political principles.” Political attachment mattered less than race and religion. Whether Catholics or Jews could ever become “real Americans” was very doubtful; Indians were doomed; and emancipated blacks, as Lincoln himself once said, should go and colonize some other territory.

This first America gave way after the Civil War to “Euro-America.” The racial coalition was expanded to include all white Europeans, many of them recent immigrants; they were protected from black competition in the job market by segregation and culturally by segregated housing. The national creed was “something called the Judeo-Christian tradition, promulgated by a tri-faith establishment that sent a delegation made up of a pastor, a priest, and a rabbi to pray at every high school commencement.” The political formula was “democracy,” a catchall ideal detached from any particular institutional frame, but something to be exported to other nations, fought for in two world wars, and as essential to Americans as the air they breathed.

It was the Second Republic that first engaged in serious debate between nationalists and multiculturalists. Mass immigration raised the question “Who is a real American?” more starkly than before. “Hyphenated Americans”—the term was invented by conservatives complaining that newcomers were reluctant to learn English and assimilate—were a threat to the peace of mind of Americans born in the country: they ate strange food, undercut wages, provided voting fodder for the outrageous political bosses of the day, and frequently brought with them an anarchist or socialist contempt for the very idea of patriotism.

Oddly enough, The Melting Pot, the vastly successful 1909 play by Israel (later Sir Israel) Zangwill that gave its name to the assimilationist view, was written by an Englishman rather than an American—his family had immigrated from Russia to the East End of London. The play was a propagandist work commissioned by the New York Society of Emigrants. It was attacked some years later by Horace Kallen in an essay on “Democracy versus The Melting Pot” which shares with Randolph Bourne’s essay on “Trans-National America” the honor of originating the theory of cultural pluralism.

Kallen, who taught at the New School, and Bourne, who wrote for the New Republic and Dial, had different views of American pluralism. Lind rides roughshod over them, which makes his own account of the conflict between the One and the Many cruder than it need be. Kallen really was a multiculturalist. He invented the post-modernists’ favorite term when he accused his opponents of being afraid of “difference.” His essay was provoked by the “Americanization” campaigns of the First World War; even in 1915, the war hysteria against the German language, music, and culture was already building. Kallen’s views were summed up in the phrase “No man chooses his grandfather,” a proposition meant to suggest that our deep cultural attachments are unchosen, while our political allegiances are a matter of choice. “Hyphenated Americans” were born to the cultural allegiances to the left of the hyphen, and migrated to the political allegiances to the right. The United States could and should demand political loyalty, not the obliteration of all difference.

Bourne was more of an individualist; his ideal was “the good life of personality lived in the environment of the Beloved Community.” He knew that America was good at deracinating immigrants but feared it was no good at reracinating them. He feared, too, that America lacked a worthwhile culture in which they could be reracinated. Lind offers the somewhat fantastic suggestion that Bourne acquired a belief in cultural pluralism from Austrian social democrats whom he had met on his prewar travels, but it’s much more plausible that he picked up the idea of “the Beloved Community” from Josiah Royce and most of the rest of his ideas from John Dewey. What Bourne acquired on his European travels was the liking for German culture that reinforced his antipathy to the destructive effects of “Anglo-America.” Lind dwells on these battles because he rightly thinks the Second Republic was a considerable success, and a clear victory for the melting pot. By 1950 few Americans lived in ethnic neighborhoods, second-and third-generation immigrants spoke only English, and interethnic and interfaith (though not interracial) marriage was commonplace. Still, it had not been a forced assimilation. There had been more cultural “pull” than political “push,” so to speak.

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