When Ken Taylor passed away, he was working on a manuscript titled Farewell to the Republic We Once Dreamed of. Was Ken right to think the American experiment is on the verge of collapse?
As part of the inaugural Ken Taylor Memorial Episode, we are republishing Ken's 2018 blog post, "Why America Is Not a Nation," in which he articulates some of what inspired this week's special program.
America is not a nation. It is only a place. Or so I will argue in this blog entry. And this fact, I claim, has great significance for understanding the potential demise of the republic we once dreamt of.
Why do I say that? Well, there's a short answer and a slightly longer answer. The short answer is that too many Americans hate, or at least really dislike other Americans for us to count as a nation. The longer answer is similar in spirit, but will take some work to spell out in detail. Spelling out the longer answer requires me to say a bit more about what I mean by a nation. There are, I think, two different conceptions of nationhood. In one of these senses of ‘nation’ America is as much a nation as any other. But that, I shall argue, is hardly a sense of ‘nation’ worth caring much about.
On the one hand, you have a nation wherever you have an intact state, held together by some means or other, under the unified jurisdiction of some central government, with the power and authority to make laws, defend itself, etc. In this sense, American is clearly a nation and a pretty powerful one at that. But in this sense, Iraq under Saddam Hussein was a nation. So too were the former Soviet Union under the Communist Party and the former Yugoslavia under Tito. And I hope these examples will help you see where I am headed.
The point is that despite the power of the glue that holds nations so understood together, nations in this sense can in fact be pretty fragile and precarious things, especially when they are held together, not by common bonds of citizenship or common projects and values, but by little more than force and fear. The coercive glue that held the old Soviet nation together was composed partly of the Communist Party, partly of the KGB, and partly of the Red Army. But as the coercive power of that glue began to weaken its hold on the disparate peoples of the Soviet Union, it quickly ceased to exist, even as a nation-considered-as-state. That’s because the Soviet Union was, in fact, never really a nation in the deeper and more important sense that I outline below. It too was ultimately merely a place.
To grasp the deeper sense of nationhood I have in mind, think of a nation not as defined by the potentially coercive instruments of statehood, but by mutual bonds of sympathy, respect, and tolerance among citizens. Such bonds may serve to gather people into a single or at least unified collectivity. They may serve as the basis of a shared national identity, grounded in a set of mutually endorsed commitments, projects, and values. To participate in the life of a nation in this sense -- call it nation-as-shared-project -- is not merely to be subject to the coercive power of this or that state. It is to participate willingly in set of shared commitment and projects. And it is for one’s participation in those shared projects and commitments to form an important component of one’s identity as a being in a world. When I am a citizen of a nation so understood, I identify with my fellow citizens as partners in a set of joint national projects and they, in turn, identify with me.
I do not mean to say that we can never have it both ways. It is surely possible for a stretch of land to be occupied by a people whose common nationhood encompasses both nation-as-state and nation-as-shared-project. Perhaps many of the current nations of the world do precisely that. But since I know only America from the inside, I will reserve judgement on this score. On the flip side, there are also stateless nations, as we might call them. A stateless nation is constituted by a people bound together by a system of shared projects, values and commitments, but without access to the instruments of statehood. Think here of the Palestinian nation or the Kurdish nation.
And I certainly do not mean to suggest that nations are necessarily forces for good in the world. Some nations, with their defining national projects, are loci of pure evil. Arguably, Nazi Germany was more than a mere place. It was, however briefly, a genuine nation-as-shared-project. Its people were united by a grand, powerful, and dark project. And its attempt to carry out that project was enormously destructive for humanity at large. All things considered, It would surely be better for a stretch of land to be a mere place, than a nation-as-project of this sort.
So I hope it is clear that when I say that America is not a nation, but merely a place, I certainly do not mean to deny the existence of the America state. As I have already conceded, the American state definitely exists. Again, it is a highly consequential and powerful state. What there is not is an American nation-as-shared-project, defined by a set of mutually endorsed values, projects and commitments that serve to unite the inhabitants of the place that is America into a single people of a single nation-as-shared-project.
To some extent, this means that America is somewhat akin to the now defunct Soviet Union. It too was merely a place, as I have already argued. Of course, the glue that holds the American state together is rather different in character from the glue that once held the Soviet state together. The instruments of state power here are more democratic in character than were the instruments of Soviet state power. But we should not let this dissimilarity blind us to the possibility that just as the glue of the Soviet state dissolved and weakened to the point of ineffectiveness, so too may the glue of the American state. If that day should come, not only will America not be a nation-as-state, it could possibly cease to exist as even a place -- at least in one sense. Of course, there will still be the land mass once occupied by the American state. But just as 'the Soviet Union' no longer serves in common parlance even as a geographical designation for a stretch of land, so too might 'America' cease to function in common parlance as a geographical designation, should the American nation-as-state cease to exist.
Now it should be said that in both the old Soviet Union, and in the Eastern bloc nation states that fell under its sway, people knew how to mouth the slogans of nationhood. Indeed, the Soviets were extremely determined to create what they called the 'Soviet man' whose identification with the Soviet-nation-as-shared project would run deep indeed. And the peoples who toiled under the sway of the Soviet state did appear to go along, at least outwardly. They learned the ins and outs of dialectical materialism from an early age. They learned to sing the songs and chant the chants. But in their heart of hearts, very few were true believers. Perhaps it is the same with us Americans. To test this thought, imagine that you are an alien cultural anthropologist, sent to study America. You want to know what commitments truly define the American body politic, as a collectivity, in their heart of hearts. You are determined to look past the official declarations, documents, and pronouncements of the ruling elites. You are determined to search deep into the everyday lives and consciousness of Americans at large. What would you find there? Would you find a people deeply committed to democracy, equality, tolerance, and a reasonable pluralism? I am not sure. Part of me suspects not. I suspect that you would find that though many have been socially conditioned to mouth the slogans of American nationhood, our true level of commitment to such ideals runs pretty shallow.
Once upon a time, perhaps America had more of a claim of being a nation-as-shared-project than it now has. This is a tempting thought, but I doubt that it is true. I suspect America has never been a nation-as-shared-project -- at least not for very many of the inhabitants of the place that is America. Or perhaps I should say that if America ever was a nation in the sense that concerns me here, it was a nation that excluded very many of the inhabitants of the land mass that housed the people of that nation. Or to put it differently, it may have been a nation-as-project for the few, but it was a mere place for the many. This is evidenced by the fact that America has seldom welcomed into its bosom the full range of peoples who have from time to time dwelled in this place. Think of how many of the inhabitants of this land mass were brutalized, exploited, enslaved, even exterminated in the name of one after another of America’s putatively defining "shared" projects.
This is not to deny that at various singular moments in the troubled history of the place that is America, we have experienced at least temporary stirrings of a deeper sort of nationhood. One thinks here of the very revolution with which America began, or of the westward expansion of the American state, or of the two World Wars, or the Great Depression, or even the Cold War. To be sure, even at such moments of apparent deep national unity, there have always been alternative voices, with competing, even irreconcilable ideas about what the project of America should be. The complete cynic will even say that such moments of apparent national unity and joint commitment were always merely apparent. They have been overly mythologized in our imaginations, the cynic will say, and bear little or no relation to concrete historical reality. We Americans have always been a people divided and at odds, with little sense of shared purpose, engaged in constant and bitter struggle. We hardly even know how to conduct the sort of civic conversation that might serve to bind the disparate people that we are into a united nation.
Perhaps the cynic is right. Perhaps America has never experienced even a faint glimmer of true nationhood-as-shared-project. Perhaps it has always been on the sham and illusion of nationhood. I will grant that there is a case to be made for that point of view. But arguing over history is not really my concern here. The more biting question for me and for the present moment in our history is whether we can become a nation, if not once again, then perhaps for the first time. I confess to not being optimistic. For one thing, we are now nearly as deeply at odds over the potential identity of an American nation as we have ever been. To take one small thing, think of how obsessed some Americans are over the very concept of an American. Some inhabitants of this place that is America think of themselves as the only "real" Americans and by implication dismiss others as not "real Americans." People often talk of "the American Heartland" as if primarily the people who live in those places are the "real" Americans, or at least the most authentically American of Americans. Then there is the ever popular concept of the "un-American" which is always wielded as a weapon by some Americans against other Americans and their beliefs, activities, and values.
I sometimes wonder if there is any place on earth as obsessed with the concept of a real (national) as at least some Americans are. This obsession would be sort of, barely understandable if the distinction between "real" Americans and what—”faux"(?)—Americans was applied only to recent interlopers into the American polity. After all, throughout our history, waves and waves of immigrants, from all over the world, were not considered "real Americans" by those already here. But it's not just recent immigrants who get tagged by some as less than fully authentic real Americans. Even people with deep roots in this land are often dismissed as merely faux Americans. And the deeply troubling thing is that the “real” Americans seem to want, with all their hearts, to "take America back" from the “faux” Americans.
What this shows is that America, and our identities as American, are utterly contested. And our differences are not signs of mere disagreement. They are signs of something more like incommensurable world views. We are moving closer and closer to a politics of incommensurability. The difference between a politics of mere disagreement and politics of incommensurability is quite profound. Fruitful conversation is still possible in the face of mere disagreement. But true Incommensurability makes conversation all but impossible. And as a consequence, true incommensurability is likely to bring only rupture, revolution, civil war, and dissolution.
Part of what is driving us toward a politics of incommensurability is the almost complete breakdown of mediating structures within our total civic life that might help shape and guide civic conversations among citizens, considered as partners in joint national endeavors. There are many reasons for this collapse. They include the rise of the internet, the proliferation of confirmation bias as a business model, the demise of unions, the atomizing effects of globalization, the ideological hardening of our parties, combined with extreme gerrymandering, the rising influence of ungodly sums of money in politics, the fracturing of the media landscape and on and on and on. These developments have conspired to make civic conversations, which are a sine qua non of the forging of shared national projects, much harder. As a result, "America" has become a place where people struggle and contend with hardly any basis on which we might form a shared sense of identity or adopt shared commitments to shared projects and values.
Where are we to go from here? Are we determined to share the fate of other states that were merely places held together by the weakening glue of a dissolving state? Or can we finally build a united nation where there is now only a place occupied by disparate and divided peoples? It is hard to say. Nationhood of the kind I am talking about is never a thing easily achieved. Think even of the great and enduring nations of Europe and their very turbulent histories. Think of England with its warring Kings, their Lancasters and their Yorks, their civil wars, their religious ruptures! Or of France, forged from a history of monarchy, revolution, empire, defeat, occupation, and a succession of failed Republics! We Americans are relatively new at the work of nation building by comparison. It is not entirely surprising that we have not yet gotten it right.
What is needed is a fresh start. We must build a new American Republic, one with an entirely different constitution and an entirely different civic ethos. The current Republic is not the real thing. It is a best pseudo-republic. And it is rapidly collapsing unto itself. Even if it were possible to save it, it is hardly worth saving, at least not in its current form. Best to consign the pseudo-republic to the dustbin of our turbulent history, reboot and start over. The aforementioned French, after all, are on their 5th Republic. I admit that is not altogether certain that we can achieve the New Republic non-violently, in a spirit of mutual cooperation rather than mutual enmity. But these are perilous times for the place that is America with its fractured inhabitants. Heavy burdens must be shouldered. Perhaps persons of great vision, integrity, and practical wisdom will emerge to help lead the way. A Lincoln or Mandela or Gandhi for this age!
In forming a new American Republic, there is much that we will need to renegotiate. But at least we can start by freeing ourselves of the remnants of our ancient and divisive curses—such as the sordid compromises that were written into our constitution over the evil of slavery. Indeed, those very compromises, together with their enduring consequences, are almost single-handedly responsible for many of worst features of our current pseudo-republic.