Nationalism, Pinko Style
Michael Lind's eccentric and peculiar book, The Next American Nation, conveys great energy and enthusiasm, but also much muddle-headedness and self-contradiction. Lind's "liberal nationalism" provides a striking counterpoint to the nationalistic conservatism of Pat Buchanan; it is intriguing to speculate on what the two of them might say to each other, if they ever sat down together. I suspect they wouldn't get along very well, which is a shame. It would be a fine thing if two men, coming from opposite sides of the political fence, could reconcile their differences in a common loyalty to their common nation.
As it is, Lind attacks both Left and Right polemically, instead of arguing persuasively against either. I doubt his attacks will sound convincing to anyone who doesn't already agree with them. It may be that his (mostly) inaccurate and unfair smears of conservatives might disarm liberals' prejudices against the rest of his message, but his fair and accurate slams at the multiculty Left did not make this Right-wing reader any more amenable to his socialism. Still, he has enough good and interesting things to say that he is well worth reading.
This book is a conscious exercise in mythopoeic historiography: Lind retells the American story as a grand narrative whose culmination is the future triumph of his own ideals. He divides American history into three "republics" founded by three "revolutions": Anglo-America, founded by the Revolutionary War and the Constitution; Euro-America, founded by the Civil War and Reconstruction; and Multicultural America, founded by the "Civil Rights Revolution" of the 1950s-1970s. "Each of these three republics has put the basic building blocks of the nation-state -- race, culture, and citizenship -- together in a different way" (p. 11). The first "republic" was Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, and republican; the second, more inclusively, was white, Christian, and democratic. That was progress, culminating in the middle of the twentieth century. Then things went awry: the Civil Rights Revolution, instead of fully including black Americans in the nation, ended up dividing the nation into five quasi-racial castes, with special privileges for the nonwhite castes. Lind proposes a fourth "revolution" and "republic" to set history back on track.
As important as these changes may have been, it is obviously hyperbolic to say that they constitute different "republics." The only actual constitutional change from one republic to another was that from the original Confederation to the present Union; the one thing resembling such a change since then was the New Deal of President-for-Life Roosevelt, whom Lind admires exorbitantly. The increasingly democratic character of this republic was obvious long before the Civil War, as Lind admits (p. 93 -- where he also has to admit the transformative role of the New Deal; cf. p. 377). He exaggerates the political discontinuity caused by the Civil War, while minimizing the discontinuities within the "Euro-American" period, distorting the facts to make them fit his thesis.
As for the religious and ethnic character of Lind's so-called "republics": the U.S. as a whole has, of course, never had an established church; nor was any group of European immigrants -- not even the Irish -- ever legally defined as second-class citizens. The North has always been more diverse, in the origins of its population, than the South; the later waves of immigration, which it assimilated, did not change its character as much as the Civil War (and the accompanying political realignment) established its primacy within the Union. And whatever the genetic composition of our population, the unifying force of the English language was never threatened until the rise of multiculturalism and Hispanic immigration after the 1960s. If language is the primary criterion of nationality -- as Lind quite correctly asserts (p. 264) -- then "Anglo-America" was founded, not by the events of 1775-1790, but by the English settlements from 1607 onward; and it persists to this day.
In his concluding chapter (pp. 362-368), Lind quite properly re-emphasizes the process of conquest and settlement that built the American nation, as against the founding of our political system. His point is that the real life of the American nation has been continuous, despite the superficial changes in our political system and our self-understanding. But this finally undercuts his four-republic scheme. Although he does well to remind us that English America was not born on July 4th, 1776, thirteen disparate colonies were severed from the British Empire (including, let us not forget, the rest of English America) and joined together to form the United States of America. If this was not the birth of the American nation, it was surely the most epochal event in our history.
After 1790, the main themes in American history are westward territorial expansion and northeastern urban/industrial development. The Civil War is commonly considered the most epochal event after the Revolution (in this regard, Lind's interpretation of history is quite conventional). Certainly it presents the most vivid spectacle; but an epoch marks an end and a beginning, while the main consequence of the Civil War was continuity -- i.e., the preservation of the Union. The Civil War did result in the abolition of slavery, but otherwise Reconstruction was a dismal failure, and the South soon restored its racial caste-system in a new form.
Looking backwards and forwards, the only significant difference to be seen is in electoral politics: the sixty-year supremacy of the Democratic party is replaced by seventy-two years of Republican ascendancy. But this realignment was the cause of the war, not its consequence. The antebellum Democratic party was a transregional coalition dominated by the Southern master-class, which doomed itself by its aggressive struggle to spread slavery into free territories. Having inadvertently brought Lincoln into office, the Southern master-class -- like so many spoiled brats -- tried to wreck the Union they could no longer control.
The outcome of the war was predestined by the balance of power between North and South: the agricultural slave-economy had forestalled industrial development in the latter and diverted the immigration of free labor to the former. After the war, the South continued to stagnate while the North continued to advance, attracting and assimilating immigrants.
In truth, the first epoch after independence corresponds approximately with the end of the nineteenth century. In 1890, the Western frontier was declared closed by the Census Bureau (an occasion memorably commemorated by Frederick Jackson Turner in 1893). America had (almost) reached its present extent during the administration of our most underrated President, James K. Polk; now it was officially full. In 1898, the war with Spain marks our emergence as a power on the world scene, and the subsequent imperialist episode (including annexation of the future state of Hawaii) was a lurch to -- and a bit beyond -- the natural limits of our geographical expansion. Economic development continued and spread, though immigration was finally curtailed in 1925.
As for electoral politics: the Jeffersonian/Hamiltonian divide had, under various names, marked American politics from the Washington administration to the election of 1900. The rise of Populism, Socialism, and Progressivism ultimately redefined American politics as a Left/Right divide, after the European fashion. The realignments of 1932 and 1972 were only stages in this ongoing process.
After World War One, America had been only one power among powers; after World War Two, one of two superpowers; after the Cold War, it was a solitary "hyperpower." But this outward strength masked deep inward weaknesses: the division between Right and Left, between the historic American nation and the nihilistic anti-culture; and the loss of control over its borders, adding injury to the insult of "multiculturalism." In the 1990s, America was again facing an epochal situation, whose outcome is still undetermined. This is the situation that Lind addresses, though he partially misunderstands it and offers the most dubious recommendations for it.
In Lind's "fourth republic," culture is the least important of the three national "building blocks": his chief interests are in promoting a "transracial" definition of nationhood, based on legal colorblindness and general miscegenation, and a "national democracy" that resembles nothing more than a third New Deal and second Great Society. Oddly, he admits in passing that the New Deal did not actually cure the Depression (p. 378), and he knows full well that the Great Society was a disaster of unintended consequences (pp. 110, 132); yet he still proposes an appalling array of harebrained, radical, centralizing, statist reforms and policies.
His crucial error is to dismiss the culture war out of hand as a non-issue; instead, he wants to start a populist class war against the "white overclass" (pp. 99-102). According to him, this ruling elite -- both liberal and conservative -- benefits itself by dividing the rest of the nation along quasi-racial lines.
There are innumerable objections to this thesis, so I will stick to the one most pertinent: if your purpose is to benefit the nation as a whole, you cannot define an entire class within the nation as the enemy of the nation. A nationalist movement, such as he imagines, must try to mobilize the body of the nation against its enemies, as defined by those enemies themselves: those who set themselves, individually and organizationally, apart from and against the nation -- i.e., internal secessionists. Defined socioeconomically, after all, Lind himself is a member of the "white overclass" (as is Pat Buchanan): if we take him at his word, he is declaring war on himself.
This is not only a moral principle, but a practical one: what he advocates would be counterproductive. A policy of class war is, after all, divisive. So is the culture war -- but that was started by enemies of the nation. A movement to unite the nation must not begin by dividing it.
His advocacy of class war contradicts the aim he sets for it: to promote national solidarity by reducing economic inequality. This aim can only be achieved by raising up the poor, not by pulling down the rich. Lind proposes, and I whole-heartedly agree, that the wages of native workers should be protected from foreign competition by cutting off immigration and raising tariffs. To go so far is simply to protect the relatively free American economy from the "negative externalities" (to use economic jargon) of more statist economies abroad. But any attempt to go beyond this must be undertaken with the utmost caution, and without attacking the basic system of private property and free enterprise. If Lindite nationalists succeeded in wrecking our economy, it would be the most vulnerable who would be hurt worst -- not the "white overclass."
Turning back to the issue of racial integration, I am again in total agreement with Lind's goals, but not the means he proposes. He advocates that the law be race-neutral, but contradicts this by supporting laws against private discrimination. He does not see that such laws establish special privileges for those protected by them, since those specially protected can impose claims to benefits that others cannot. If (for instance) you may discriminate against fat people but not black people, a black person can sue you but a fat person can't. Moreover: how can "discrimination" be proved or disproved, except by the proportion of black employees to white employees, compared to the general population? Does this not lead inevitably to quotas and affirmative discrimination? A truly race-neutral legal system must be blind not only to race but to racism -- trusting that reason, nature, and nationality will ultimately prevail.
In the end, despite himself, Lind's affirmation of America (as a specific community, not as the epitome of a universal ideal) puts him on the Right side of the culture war. His belligerent egalitarianism is only a diversion from the really important issues, on which the very survival of America ultimately depends.
© 2003 by Karl Jahn