Jill Lepore, This America: The Case for the Nation (New York: Liveright, 2019), 150pp.
For some time now, says Jill Lepore, and for many reasons, making a case for the American nation (her subtitle) has fallen out of favor among historians. But we neglect this necessary task at our peril. When we fail to make a case for a liberal democratic nation that protects and promotes the equality, dignity, opportunity, and rights of all its citizens, there's an "illiberal nationalism" that comes in many guises to fill the void. This is a nationalism that is nativist, isolationist, xenophobic, intolerant, and tribal, like the "sectionalism" after the Civil War, the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, Jim Crow laws, McCarthyism, the KKK, the white nationalism of Charlottesville, the internment of 100,000 Japanese American citizens, the demonization of immigrants as "animals," ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and Rwanda, and so on.
Donald Trump is only one example of America's long tug of war between its aspirational ideals for a liberal nationalism for all citizens and a restrictive illiberal nationalism. In the fall of 2018, at a rally in Houston, Trump boasted, "We're putting America first and it hasn't happened in a lot of decades. We're taking care of ourselves for a change, folks." He then warned of a conspiracy by "globalists." He continued: "You know, they have a word, it sort of became old fashioned—it's called a 'nationalist.' You know what I am? I'm a nationalist, okay? Use that word! Use that word!"
In this manifesto, Lepore argues for America's founding vision of a liberal democracy. The lofty ideals of our founders make it easy to identify our failures and hypocrisies throughout our history (cf. Native Americans, blacks, women). But we must keep striving for "a more perfect union," of making one nation out of many peoples. "In a world made up of nations," she writes, "there is no more powerful way to fight the forces of prejudice, intolerance, and injustice than by a dedication to equality, citizenship, and equal rights, as guaranteed by a nation of law." We are rightly, then, a nation of nations. Jill Lepore is a professor of American History at Harvard and a staff writer at The New Yorker, and the author of the best-selling book These Truth: A History of the United States (2018).
Dan Clendenin: email@example.com