A New Americanism

Why a Nation Needs a National Story
By Jill Lepore – Carl Degler issued a warning: “If we historians fail to provide a nationally defined history, others less critical and less informed will take over the job for us.”

The nation-state was in decline, said the wise men of the time. The world had grown global. Why bother to study the nation?

Francis Fukuyama is a political scientist, not a historian. But his 1989 essay “The End of History?” illustrated Degler’s point. Fascism and communism were dead, Fukuyama announced at the end of the Cold War.

Fukuyama was hardly alone in pronouncing nationalism all but dead. A lot of other people had, too. That’s what worried Degler.

Nation-states, when they form, imagine a past. That, at least in part, accounts for why modern historical writing arose with the nation-state.

But in the 1970s, studying the nation fell out of favor in the American historical profession. Most historians started looking at either smaller or bigger things, investigating the experiences and cultures of social groups or taking the broad vantage promised by global history.

But meanwhile, who was doing the work of providing a legible past and a plausible future—a nation—to the people who lived in the United States? Charlatans, stooges, and tyrants.

The endurance of nationalism proves that there’s never any shortage of blackguards willing to prop up people’s sense of themselves and their destiny with a tissue of myths and prophecies, prejudices and hatreds, or to empty out old rubbish bags full of festering resentments and calls to violence.

When historians abandon the study of the nation, when scholars stop trying to write a common history for a people, nationalism doesn’t die. Instead, it eats liberalism.

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Maybe it’s too late to restore a common history, too late for historians to make a difference. But is there any option other than to try to craft a new American history—one that could foster a new Americanism? more>

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