A Review of Samuel Goldman’s After Nationalism
No shortage of ink has been spilled on the subject of a divided America. A perennial topic for pundits to fret over, the idea of a divided nation has become almost an article of faith for aspiring commentariat clerics to assent to.
However, this is not a mere fantasy of the media elite. There are numerous reasons for our division, but one might start at political polarization, increasing population, and the fragmentation from epistemic closure, algorithmic filter bubbles, and the dizzying variety of subcultures online. Modern American life, as seen on TV and social media, might as well be a white-hot flame war, with partisans on all sides launching campaigns of cancellation, condemnation, and rancor. This even spills into real life—while we are nowhere close to the levels reached in the Sixties and Seventies, homicide rates have been steadily ticking upwards.
This situation does not seem promising for those who hope for a kinder, gentler future. We have good reason to suspect that things will get worse before they get better. In his 2020 book The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success, columnist Ross Douthat makes a persuasive case for prolonged decadence coupled with ever-increasing levels of virtual vitriol and Dreampolitik, his hybridism for Cheshire Cat fantasy politics that untether us from reality and invite us deeper into Wonderland.
But what if division is not a cancer ravaging the body-politic? What if, instead, America always was and is a diverse and pluralistic nation, with many contrasting and conflicting components? Division may or may not be our original sin, but it surely is endemic to our political history. This is part of the argument George Washington University political theorist Samuel Goldman wishes to make in his new book After Nationalism.
The first thing to know is that it’s short--only 141 pages including notes. This is more important than one may initially realize. Goldman’s prose flows beautifully and simply, and he avoids long, tendentious discussions so common to the genre. Packed with judiciously-chosen quotations, the reading experience is akin to what I imagine an undergraduate lecture, seminar, or podcast episode with Prof. Goldman to be like. The accessibility of the book is one of its key strengths. A consistently-underappreciated aspect of the Founding is that it was public: there are numerous contemporaneous accounts of the Federalist Papers becoming the subject of boisterous contention in pubs and town halls. A failure to promote public philosophy leads to the erosion of civic life, as Harvard political theorist Michael Sandel famously argued in 1996’s Democracy’s Discontents: America in Search of a Public Philosophy. Goldman’s tight yet accessible argumentation marks a return to this egalitarian American tradition of public philosophy.
Notwithstanding Goldman’s brevity, he manages to cover substantial ground. He organizes the book around a discussion of three American myths: the Covenant, the Crucible, and the Creed. Each follows a pattern; Goldman fills in the historical and political background that color in each myth, identifies the apex of the myth’s influence and impact, and finally carefully filets the myth, exposing all their inconsistencies and contradictions that lead to the myth’s denouement. After this triptych, Goldman jumps to a fascinating meta-discussion of the role of the historian in shaping public memory and history, lensed through a critical reading of Harvard historian Jill Lepore’s recent comprehensive American history book These Truths. He concludes by situating his own project in the context of Alasdair MacIntyre’s seminal work After Virtue. For MacIntyre, virtue has become “a matter of shifting, subjective opinions rather than the enduring basis of a shared way of life.” As goes virtue, so goes the nation in Goldman’s view.
I’ve used the term “myth” a lot without describing what Goldman means. Briefly, he is talking about E pluribus unum (out of many, one) and the tensions our short Ciceronian motto implies. A central dialectic in the American experience is the interplay between diversity and unity (the pluribus and the unum), and Goldman wants to trace and uncover myths of national solidarity that, in his view, occlude that tension. He deals with the covenantal Puritan founding, the melting pot of race and culture, and finally the American creed of equality among men.
Goldman sees his project as a responding salvo to the barrage of recent books and articles by the New Nationalists. For the sake of brevity I will not rehearse their arguments here in detail, so suffice it to say that this cadre on the right seeks to find and rehabilitate a founding mythos that will confirm American greatness and set the stage for some sort of renaissance. They position themselves against the academic and cultural left and occupy an essentially reactionary position. For the reasons described above, Goldman does not believe that their attempts at a new Founding will succeed.
Goldman’s challenge to the New Nationalists clues us in to his overall project. By demystifying the nation, he tries to tell the true story as best as he can. His is a disenchanted myth, a bucket of cold water poured over the fiery rhetoric of populists. By pulling back the curtain on nationalism and showing each iteration (Covenant, Crucible, Creed) to be contradictory and unstable, he shows the reader a dim path forward. The path to American greatness does not lie down the road of culture war. Rather, it lies in telling the unvarnished truth: the good, the bad, and the ugly.
This allows Goldman’s work (perhaps intentionally) to occupy a unique position in the latest front of the culture war: the battle over critical race theory. Regardless of one’s opinions on this issue, Goldman provides a useful reminder that American history—and how it is taught—has always been a source of conflict. The incommensurability clearly present in many of our culture’s most acrimonious debates is, in Goldman’s reading, nothing new. In other words, we’ve always been at each other’s throats.
Is that ideal? Perhaps not. But Goldman isn’t concerned with vague, unifying, nationalist desiderata—this is what has led to much of the breakdown in discourse in his telling. Rather, he suggests that the way out of the wilderness is in strengthening disagreement. Why would anyone do this? We can return to MacIntyre for an answer. He suggests in works like 1994’s Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry that when rational deliberation has broken down, the only path forward is for interlocutors to place themselves in the shoes, so to speak, of their opponents and to argue from within their premises. A dialogue that begins with empathy, especially if it ends in refutation (or at least clarification) while following the opponent’s premises, knits together the unraveling fabric of discourse. While MacIntyre’s project is to rehabilitate Aristotelian-Thomism by following this process in conversations with analytics, Nietzscheans, and other rival traditions, Goldman’s goal is to introduce this project of empathetic discourse to American debate.
Unfortunately, a renewal of discourse may not be enough to save the nation. Goldman gestures towards solutions in the last pages, name-checking Jacob Levy, Michael Lind, John Inazu, and Yuval Levin in support of associational freedom, the revival of labor unions, freedom of religious institutions, and healthy political institutions. These are all admirable causes, and in the sense that all these thinkers ask contemporary Americans to relearn their own history and recommit to institutions close to them, they’re valuable. Goldman himself slots neatly into this genre. But, will this help Americans ratchet down the animosity? Can America repair its divided house?
My answer is both that it’s unlikely and that it’s okay. If we’ve always been at each other’s throats, then maybe we just have to accept that tenuousness as the price of living in a constitutional republic. Perhaps we are misguided to even wonder if “the nation” needs some sort of “salvation.” Can a polity be saved? At least in the American experience, that’s unclear.
The case against national solidarity, ultimately, rests on the proposition that the good life will still be attainable even when citizens embody and promote incommensurable accounts of what it looks like. This proposition should make us uncomfortable, for it implies a circumscribing of our political and moral ambitions. Can we truly live together if we disagree on so much? The first step, as Montaigne reminds us, ought to be learning to live with ourselves:
“Tis an absolute and, as it were, a divine perfection, for a man to know how to enjoy his being.”