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Credit: Amy Swan

That the bonds holding the United States have been weakening has been obvious for more than a decade. We’re divided into red states and blue states and split into geographic blocks that track back to those of the Civil War, whose representatives might as well come from different planets with regard to ideas about the proper role of government, the relationship between church and state, and the connection between individual liberty and the common good. Congress went from being incapable of reliably raising the debt ceiling to being unable to agree that foreign interference in our elections is bad. 

Over the past year, the country’s fractures have only widened. An absence of federal leadership on the pandemic left states divided on largely regional grounds on how to respond. Revelations of continued police brutality against Black Americans led to mass multiracial demonstrations, and then counter-demonstrations by white people carrying Confederate flags. President Donald Trump’s post-election rants against the results of a free and fair election raised the specter of an attempted coup while garnering wide support from many voters and elected officials in his party. All these developments underscored how far we’ve drifted from the fundamental ideals that have managed to hold our awkward federation together for 244 years, the ones in the Declaration of Independence: the inherent equality of humans and their rights to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and representative self-government. A union Abraham Lincoln called “the last best hope of Earth” is in danger of collapse.

Joe Biden’s victory in November has bought us time. It’s essential that we make good use of it. Much needs to be done, from defeating COVID-19 to rebuilding overseas alliances to reestablishing the independence of the Department of Justice. But none of it will matter if we are not also able to restore our lost sense of shared belonging and common purpose. 

Intellectuals from Jill Lepore and Michael Lind to David Brooks and Ross Douthat have pointed to the need for a new national story, or possibly a renewed one, in order to provide a communal identity incorporating an understanding of our national origins, purpose, and possible future. People need such a story and, as Lepore has put it, “they can get it from scholars or they can get it from demagogues, but get it they will.” A society without a credible story, the historian William McNeill wrote 38 years ago, “soon finds itself in deep trouble, for in the absence of believable myths, coherent public action becomes very difficult to improvise or sustain.”

We stand at a crossroads, as we did in the 1870s, with two paths before us, two American stories. One is ethnic and exclusionary; the other is civic and, in principle, universal, though falling far short of that in practice. They each have their own heroes, iconography, and present-day standard-bearers: Jefferson Davis, the Confederate battle flag, Steve Bannon, and Donald Trump on one hand; Abraham Lincoln, the preamble to the Declaration of Independence, and the Black Lives Matter movement on the other. Each of these traditions, these explanations for why and for whom the United States exists, grew out of a separate regional culture and yet succeeded in becoming the dominant, consensus view across the federation for decades. Now neither holds sway. Instead, they have been literally clashing with one another in the streets. 

If the United States is to survive as a unified democracy, we need to rediscover, reinvigorate, and adapt our lost civic national story for 21st-century life and finally put the ethno-national one in the trash bin of history. Given that more than 70 million citizens recently failed to condemn the exclusionary narrative at the polls, this will be challenging. But there are grounds for hope that our better angels might prevail. Trump spent four years demonizing nonwhite immigrants as hut dwellers, rapists, and murderers, and deploying federal agents against those protesting the murder of Black people by law enforcement. Yet over the course of his administration, public support for taking in immigrants reached record highs, and white support for the Black Lives Matter movement increased from 40 percent in the summer of 2016 to 45 percent in September. The country remains bitterly divided. But if support for inclusion increases in the face of hate, then we have a chance, and we must take it.

Maintaining a shared sense of nationhood has always been a special challenge for the United States, arguably the world’s first civic nation—one defined not by organic ties, but by a shared commitment to a set of ideals. It came into being as a contractual agreement, a means to an end for 13 disparate colonies facing a common enemy. Its people lacked a shared history, religion, or ethnicity. (Pennsylvania, for example, had a German plurality in 1776, while South Carolina had an African majority.) There was no common language, and most of the country’s residents hadn’t occupied the continent long enough to imagine it as their mythic homeland. Its component states had been founded by completely different groups of settlers—Puritans in New England, Dutch in what is now the New York City metropolitan area, Scots-Irish in the Appalachian backcountry, slave lords from the English West Indies in the lowlands of the Deep South, and so on—with often incompatible political, economic, ethnographic, and religious characteristics. 

By the 1830s, the federation’s identity crisis had reached a tipping point. It had weathered Appalachian and New England secession movements in the 1790s and 1810s, the former in resistance to the machinations of self-interested financiers, the latter fueled by regional opposition to the War of 1812. The stopgap remedy—to celebrate the shared struggle of the American Revolution—had lost its strength as the Founders’ generation passed from the scene, leaving a gaping void. Americans knew they needed a story of U.S. nationhood if their experiment were to survive.

The first person to package and present such a story was the historian-statesman George Bancroft, the son of a famous Massachusetts Unitarian preacher. After graduating from Harvard in 1817 at the age of 17, he was sent on an epic study-abroad trip to the German Confederation, where he studied under Arnold Heeren, Georg Hegel, and other intellectuals who were developing the ideas of Germanic nationhood. He chummed around with the Marquis de Lafayette, Washington Irving, Lord Byron, and Johann Goethe; backpacked from Paris to Rome; and returned home, doctorate in hand, with his head churning with ideas about his country’s place in the world. After failing in bids to be a poet, professor, prep school master, and preacher, Bancroft set to what would prove his life’s work: giving his young nation a history. He sought to answer those great questions: Who are we? Where did we come from? Where are we going? 

His vision—laid out in his epic 10-volume History of the United States—combined his Puritan intellectual birthright with his German mentors’ notion that nations developed like organisms and from a plan history had laid out for them. It held that Americans had been charged by Providence to implement the next stage of the progressive development of human liberty, equality, and freedom, and that this promise was open to people everywhere. “The origin of the language we speak carries us to India; our religion is from Palestine,” Bancroft told the New York Historical Society in 1854. “Of the hymns sung in our churches, some were first heard in Italy, some in the deserts of Arabia, some on the banks of the Euphrates; our arts come from Greece; our jurisprudence from Rome.”

Americans, hungry for answers when Bancroft’s first volume appeared in 1834, seized on his ideas and have never completely let them go. They helped center the Declaration of Independence as America’s core ideal. They informed the teaching of U.S. history for the better part of a century, inspired epic paintings in the U.S. Capitol rotunda, and prompted one of Bancroft’s fans, the journalist John O’Sullivan, to opine about America’s “manifest destiny.” 

Americans need a renewed national story to provide a common identity. As Jill Lepore has put it, “they can get it from scholars or they can get it from demagogues, but get it they will.”

Which raises the dark side of this iteration of our national myth: the notion that the United States, being the object of God’s special favor, does not operate under the same constraints as all the other nations, that we’re excepted from normal rules and, in that sense, “exceptional.” We could not fail in the mission we had been tasked with, Bancroft counseled, so we didn’t need to take forceful action to confront obvious shortcomings, like the fact that the economic, political, and social affairs of half the federation were constructed around an extremely violent race-based slave system. Nothing would shake him from this complacent view—not the Civil War (which he had predicted would not take place) nor the collapse of Reconstruction in the face of a deadly terrorist campaign to roll back the political emancipation of Black people in the occupied Confederacy. 

Indeed, Bancroft’s neo-Puritan belief that Americans were chosen people led him to actively participate in the conquests of empire. As secretary of the navy and acting secretary of war in James Polk’s administration, he personally wrote the orders that would result in the annexations of California and Texas and the reimposition of slavery in the latter. “If you can do that—why, what is your . . . whole history of freedom, but a piece of brilliant declamation?” Theodore Parker, the great Unitarian intellectual, asked him at the time. “I love noble words as well as you, but I love deeds worthy of noble words—love them far better.” 

American exceptionalism, the idea that the U.S. can walk on water when other nations cannot, is a thread of our civic national narrative that has repeatedly led us astray. We can do better—and do better by our core ideals—without it.

Abraham Lincoln understood this. He knew Bancroft’s work and had met the historian on multiple occasions before and during the war. But when he delivered the Gettysburg Address, the president presented this civic national myth—“a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal”—not as our destiny, but as an ideal that had not been achieved and, if not fought for, could perish from the earth. Had he not been assassinated, Lincoln might have been able to deliver on that promise. 

Instead, it would be betrayed.

The discomforting truth is that Bancroft’s version of our national myth was challenged from the outset by the political and intellectual leaders of the Deep South and Chesapeake Country. These men—they were all men—had a narrower vision of who could be an American and what the purpose of the United States was to be. 

People weren’t created equal, insisted William Gilmore Simms, the antebellum South’s leading man of letters, and the continent belonged to the superior Anglo-Saxon race. “The superior people which conquers, also educates the inferior; and their reward for this good service, is derived from the labor of the latter,” he proclaimed in a seminal 1837 essay in the Southern Literary Messenger, then the South’s leading journal.

While Bancroft had done his best to ignore the presence of slavery, Simms and other lowland southerners argued that it was in fact one of the “greatest moral goods & blessings, and that slavery in all ages has been found the greatest and most admirable agent of Civilization,” creating a stable society with the master race in command. When the U.S. was considering whether to annex Texas in 1847, Simms urged John C. Calhoun to do it not for the good of the federation but of slavery in the Deep South, which he expected would continue expanding southward into Mexico. “In the case of Texas, so, beyond the Rio Grande, what we once acquired would ensure to the South and to the South exclusively,” Simms explained. “It might ultimately help us to a sufficiently large republic of our own.” If Mexico were conquered, he predicted, it would “ensure the perpetuation of slavery for the next thousand years.” 

The Confederacy lost the war, and for a brief period after, their vision was swept aside. The 14th and 15th Amendments guaranteed birthright citizenship and equal civic and legal protections and made it unconstitutional to deny voting rights on the basis of race. For more than a decade, these provisions were enforced. Black people served in statehouses and Congress. But eventually, the Confederates won the peace. Reconstruction collapsed, the amendments were effectively annulled by the Supreme Court, and nonwhites in the South were systematically subjugated to a caste system.

In response, Americans adapted the national narrative to find common ground between northerners and southerners, now clearly destined to live together in a strong nation-state. The new story, described in detail by David Blight in Race and Reunion, accepted the Deep South’s point of view on race and systematically forgot the moral content of the war: that slavery was central to the Confederate project and, thus, the conflict itself. The liberal nationalist vision of Bancroft, Lincoln, and the towering public intellectual and activist Frederick Douglass was jettisoned in favor of what was effectively an ethno-nationalist model.

This model was developed and propagated by the fiction of Thomas Dixon Jr. in the first great Hollywood blockbuster, The Birth of a Nation, and via the actions of his friend Woodrow Wilson, the first U.S. president from the Deep South. Wilson, who was quoted repeatedly in the film, screened it in the White House, amplifying and tacitly endorsing its white-supremacist message. He segregated the federal government, opposed women’s suffrage, and at the Paris Peace Conference blocked a Japanese measure professing the equality of the races. Democratic self-government, he argued, was not the heritage of mankind but “the heritage of races purged alike of hasty barbaric passions and of patient servility to rulers, and schooled in temperate common counsel.”

It was in this era that the vast majority of the South’s Confederate monuments were erected, each an homage to this illiberal, white-supremacist vision of the United States. (The Robert E. Lee statue at the center of the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally—where torch-bearing neo-Nazis chanted “Jews will not replace us”—was erected in 1924.) The second Klan, founded in Atlanta on the eve of the 1915 debut of The Birth of a Nation in that city, grew to a million members by 1921 and as many as five million in 1925. It sought to restore “true Americanism” by intimidating, beating, or killing Black Americans, Mexicans, Asians, Catholics, eastern Europeans, and most any other non-Anglo-Saxons. Members included a small army of future governors, senators, and big-city mayors and at least one Supreme Court Justice, Hugo Black. They were joined in spirit (if not in action) by elite northeasterners who believed in eugenics, including the children of some abolitionist activists.

This was a vision of a Herrenvolk democracy, a homeland by and for the dominant ethnic group. It long outlived Wilson and though especially virulent in its treatment of Black people targeted other communities as well. The ethnic and racial quotas in the 1924 Immigration Act throttled arrivals of eastern and southern Europeans, Africans, Arabs, and Asians. By 1960, more than eight in 10 immigrants were from Europe and Canada, and the proportion of foreign-born people in the country had fallen by almost two-thirds. From Dick and Jane to Leave It to Beaver, from Barbie dolls to “flesh”-colored Crayola crayons, children in the 1950s and ’60s were taught that they lived in a Euro-American society.

But even before Leave It to Beaver, things were changing. Starting in the 1930s, “othered” European ethnic groups—Irish, Quebecois, Italians, Slavs—were slowly, begrudgingly admitted into the camp of belongers, which had been rebranded from “Anglo-Saxon Protestant” to “Christian” and eventually, in some circles, “Judeo-Christian” white. The New Deal, and the political coalition Franklin D. Roosevelt forged to support it, advanced the interests of many of these white ethnic communities, though plenty of his programs effectively excluded Black people in the South to avoid displeasing the southern senators upon which their survival depended. 

Mass conscription in both world wars produced multiethnic units and multiracial armies, whose members felt they’d earned the rights to full citizenship and consecrated them with blood sacrifices. The conflicts also vividly demonstrated the dangers of ethno-nationalism and dehumanizing the other in a quest to purify a master race. Herrenvolk democracy was much harder to champion after witnessing how Adolf Hitler had practiced it. The notion that the world was best run by Teutonic, Anglo-Saxon, or Aryan minds was discredited on the killing fields of Belgium and in the death camps of east-central Europe. And what made America different and better than the Axis powers, as every Hollywood depiction of World War II blared, was its righteous inclusion, its commitment to democracy, human dignity, and the rule of law. 

We stand at a crossroads, as we did in the 1870s, with two paths before us, two American stories. One is ethnic and exclusionary; the other is civic and, in principle, universal, though falling far short of that in practice.

These forces came to a head in the 1960s, in simultaneous movements that compelled a recommitment to the forgotten promises of American civic nationhood. The civil rights movement toppled southern apartheid and challenged northern racism. The feminist movement demanded social, professional, and sexual equality for a gender that comprised the majority of the population. Gays and lesbians fought the police and discriminatory ordinances. Elite colleges began partially dismantling their old boys’ networks, and public universities rapidly expanded to increase educational opportunities. Congress passed a new immigration law in 1965 that repealed ethno-national quotas, reopening America’s gates to humanity at large, rather than a chosen people. A new generation of historians challenged the neo-Confederate narrative of American history that had dominated scholastic textbooks for a half century, while dispelling the innocence of American colonization of the continent.

So for the generation of Americans born from the late 1950s through the early 1990s, liberal civic nationalism was the received national story. Racism and prejudice were believed to be on the wane. Equal opportunity was on the rise. Western intellectuals convinced themselves that the triumph of liberal democracy and global capitalism was so complete that they’d rendered nationhood obsolete, here and abroad. The dark side had finally been vanquished, tossed into the dumpsters of history alongside the tenets of Soviet communism. 

In reality, the Second Reconstruction was never fully finished, and much like the First Reconstruction, it was under attack from the moment it appeared triumphant. Civic nationalism withered, making it possible for Donald Trump to ascend to the White House like the Redeemers of old. His Herrenvolk vision, spelled out by the president explicitly, excludes the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims (would-be targets of a travel ban); Mexican and Central American immigrants (“drug dealers, criminals, rapists”); and anyone from Haiti, El Salvador, and other designated “shithole countries,” which would appear to include sub-Saharan Africa. (Trump, in these latter remarks, said we should welcome Norwegians instead.)

Thankfully, he lost his bid for a second term. But now we must rebuild.

The challenges to building a dominant, persuasive, civic nationalist politics are formidable. One-third of the country appears to wholeheartedly embrace ethno-nationalism. These are the Americans who not only vote for Trump but also love him and his crude, exclusionary vision of the United States. (There are also plenty of Trump voters who don’t share his ethno-nationalism and might happily support a more civic nationalist presidential candidate—though probably only if they were Republican.) 

Another major segment of the population, mostly younger Americans on the political left, believe in the ideals of the Declaration of Independence but argue—because the promises America made to Black, Indigenous, and other nonwhite people have been so consistently not met, and because American foreign power has been so brutally thrown around—that racism and imperialism are immutable aspects of our character and system. The only way to convince this rising generation to enthusiastically embrace a civic nationalist story is to prove them wrong—that is, to deliver domestic policies that finally give a fair deal to Black Americans and a foreign policy that keeps the peace without embroiling the country in brutal and endless wars. 

This obviously won’t happen overnight. It is the work of a generation.

I’m not sure we’ll succeed. But because Trump so overplayed his hand, there is a real opening. According to Gallup, more than 70 percent of Americans believe immigration is a “good thing,” the highest percentage in at least 20 years. His wild excesses helped forge a multiracial coalition for racial justice; prompted an unprecedented society-wide reckoning with sexual harassment and cultural exclusion; and catalyzed the purging of ethno-nationalist monuments, symbols, and figures from public squares and private institutions alike. It’s no small feat to have prompted the NFL to reverse itself on players taking a knee for racial justice or gotten NASCAR, of all organizations, to ban the Confederate flag. Trump may have galvanized a huge coalition that’s cool with autocracy, but this country still has a civic-minded majority, and he’s managed to wake it from its slumber. Now it needs goals and leaders.

American exceptionalism, the idea that the U.S. can walk on water when other nations cannot, is a thread of our civic national narrative that’s repeatedly led us astray. We can do better—and do better by our core ideals—without it.

Biden seems to get the leadership angle. Throughout the campaign he made the championing of our civic national narrative a core theme. His addresses have woven in references to Theodore Parker’s long “arc of the moral universe” and its bent toward justice as well as to Lincoln’s “angels of our better nature.” Previous Democratic presidents, including Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, used similar language. But with increasing public support for racial justice and immigration, Biden may have more luck. He’s certainly looking to tap directly into this upsurge in tolerance. At Gettysburg a month before Election Day, the president-elect pledged to confront the ethno-nationalists as Lincoln had and to not allow “extremists and white supremacists to overturn the America of Lincoln and Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass.” 

Call it rhetoric, but rhetoric has power. That’s part of why Biden must stop using the tainted language of American exceptionalism. In his victory speech, for example, the president-elect claimed that “there has never been anything we have tried and not been able to do,” as if we had eradicated poverty, defeated North Vietnam, brought peace to the Middle East, and imposed liberal democratic norms on the occupied Confederacy during Reconstruction. For left-leaning young Americans who hold a dim view of U.S. history, jettisoning these kinds of statements is a must. Carrying out a more restrained foreign policy will also help attract their support, as well as, paradoxically, some backing from the right. On most military matters, Trump’s foreign policy was comparatively restrained, shaped by our recent history of fighting unwinnable wars. There’s a strange bipartisan consensus for a less interventionist America.

Domestically, Biden has a heavier policy lift. There’s a laundry list of ethno-nationalist actions the president-elect must reverse, from the kidnapping of migrant toddlers to the Muslim immigration ban, but this is just a start. Furthering the Declaration’s mission requires ending the laissez-faire tack our country has been on for the past 50 years, one that’s eroded equality of opportunity, fomenting discord across the political spectrum. If he ever gains control of Congress, Biden must pass laws that rechannel wealth—especially inherited wealth—in ways that reverse the outrageous inequities, racial as well as class, that have built up in recent decades. That money should be put not only into programs that level the playing field for those born without advantages, like early childhood education and health insurance coverage, but also into people’s pockets, through such things as student debt relief and “baby bonds”—money provided at birth to every non-wealthy child. 

But there is plenty Biden can do even without Congress. Through aggressive use of antitrust enforcement and other pro-competition powers at his disposal he can open up markets currently cornered by monopolies in everything from agriculture to digital technology. In so doing he’ll provide space for new companies to grow, and with more employers bidding for their labor and talent, employees will see their incomes grow, too (see Barry Lynn, “How Biden Can Transform America,” page 20). Through executive actions and administrative decisions, he can give communities and citizens greater freedom to make decisions that affect their lives. For instance, he has already pledged to increase the ceiling on the number of refugees the U.S. accepts from Trump’s historic lows, and he can empower municipalities to publicly decide whether to accept more locally (see Daniel Block, “How Biden Can Use Federal Power to Liberate Localities,” page 7). If they do—and they are likely to, as support for refugees has also climbed over the past four years, especially among Republicans—Biden can raise the national ceiling even further. It’s an easy, unilateral step he can take to make the United States more inclusive by welcoming some of the world’s most vulnerable while also giving average Americans a sense of control over the nation’s borders.

Because Trump overplayed his hand, we have a real opening to repair our story. According to Gallup, more than 70 percent of Americans believe that immigration is a “good thing,” the highest percentage in at least the past 20 years. There’s a multiracial coalition for racial justice.

As he acts, Biden must be sure that what he’s creating is freedom and equality of opportunity for everyone. For Black Americans and Native Americans, inheritors of the legacies of slavery and genocide. For Americans whose ancestors were from Asia and Latin America, India and Jordan, Poland, France, and Ireland. For rural people and urban ones. Evangelicals, Jews, Muslims, and atheists. Men, women, nonbinary people, and, most certainly, children. For Americans, a people defined by this quest, tasked by the preamble of the Constitution to promote the common good and individual liberty across generations.

This is a framework that can unite the progressive and moderate wings of the Democratic coalition. It compels patriots to fight for both racial justice and the health of the rural and small towns in the Midwest, delivering for constituencies that defeated Trump while attracting Trump Democrats back into the fold. Because it’s a platform that harkens back to a bipartisan tradition that included Teddy Roosevelt, Herbert Hoover, and Dwight D. Eisenhower, it also has valence for moderate Republicans and center-right independents. Its focus on promoting freedom, enterprise, and fairness comports to the values of the interior West and Greater Appalachia, as well as the Yankee Northeast and the Pacific Coast. In short, it’s an approach that has a chance of building a coalition big enough to win what will be a long hard struggle for America’s soul.

That doesn’t mean it will be easy. But we have to try. If liberal civic nationalism fails to carry the day, I doubt there will be a United States 25 years from now. Because ethno-nationalism can’t win democratically—it really is a minority position—authoritarian power grabs will become more audacious, undermining the rule of law and the legitimacy of elections, court rulings, and legislation. In a time of heightened crisis—war, terrorist attacks, sequential pandemics—the country could well shatter on regional lines, as our component “nations” move to protect themselves from one another. This could occur peacefully, as seems to be happening in the UK, or violently, as it did in Yugoslavia. But it’s foolish to presume that it can’t happen here. North America would become fractious, unstable, and far weaker than it is today. Parts of the former U.S. would almost certainly descend into autocracy, and they’d probably have nuclear weapons. They’d likely form alliances with entirely different foreign powers. Hopefully, they’d avoid war among themselves, but the chance of it can’t be denied. 

Such are the stakes.

Colin Woodard

Colin Woodard is the director of the Nationhood Lab at Salve Regina University’s Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy. He is the author of six books, including American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America and Union: The Struggle to Forge the Story of United States Nationhood. Follow him on Twitter @WoodardColin.