Monsters   /   Spring 2020   /    Signifiers


America is at an inflection point.

Nadav Samin

Universal Composition, 1937, Joaquín Torres-García (1874–1949); photograph: Philippe Migeat; Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, France; © CNAC/MNAM/Dist. RMN-Grand Palais/Art Resource, NY; © copyright Alejandra, Aurelio, and Claudio Torres 2017.

“I will plant companionship thick as trees along all the rivers of America,” wrote Walt Whitman in his short poem, “For You O Democracy.” The great bard of the American nineteenth century, whose bicentennial birthday was celebrated last year, provides a charming, motivational rhetoric for our increasingly throwback age, in which factions are thick with distrust and enmity for one another.

America is at an inflection point, uncertain of its course and deafened by high-decibel, low-quality debate that generally only hints at the choices at stake and the real reasons for our malaise. To take only two examples of our present disorientation, consider the terms nationalism and diversity. Once considered benign features of our civic culture, today they have become epithets in the arsenals of partisan polemicists. Nationalism has become for many progressives almost synonymous with white nationalism, with all of its associations with racism, fascism, and extremist alt-right politics. Diversity, meanwhile, has become the catch-all for all things conservatives think liberals are guilty of, whether supporting illegal immigration, downplaying the threat of terrorism, restricting free speech, or rewriting American history into an unremitting chronicle of violence, villainy, and exploitation.

Lexicographers are powerless before this co-opting of words by popular passions. But rather than attempt to rescue them from the partisan clutches of the Twitterati, it might be worth refreshing the discourse with kindred, but less fraught, concepts.

Call the foremost of these cohesion. For what is nationalism, after all, but large-scale, social cohesion? For scholars, nationalism is a technical term that denotes the most significant form of political combination in the modern world. The political scientist Benedict Anderson wondered how it was that individual compatriots could be willing to fight and die for one another, yet were almost certain never to have met in their daily lives. Nationalism’s power is its capacity to abstract and generalize the experience of social solidarity at a mass scale. The power of religion is comparable, but only a small minority of states today are built on a predominantly religious or quasi-religious basis (Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Israel, to name a few), and they too have combined religious ideas with ethno-linguistic and cultural ones to form their distinctive national mythologies. It is the wedding of the nation to the apparatus of a state, the joining of social solidarity to nonsacral, political power, that in many ways defines our post-Enlightenment modernity.

Yet I am far less concerned with what nationalism is than with what it does. Nationalism provides a society, particularly a democratic one, with its most important form of cohesion. The introduction of mass literacy and mass communication enabled millions of citizens to contemplate and share some of the same concerns at the same time, despite being separated by vast distances. We may not always agree on the solutions to those concerns. Indeed, our disagreements should be respected as integral parts of our national experience. But for there to be any real national cohesion, some agreement about where we’ve come from is crucial. If we can celebrate a shared set of political rituals, honor our political ancestors, and embrace a capacious history of our political origins, we are far more likely, to draw on Whitman’s metaphor, to see our branches growing interlaced with one another.

Can there be too much cohesion? James Madison certainly thought so. In The Federalist No. 10, he warned of the dangers of majoritarianism in a democracy like ours. He cautioned against the tendency of a majority faction “to sacrifice to its ruling passion or interest both the public good and the rights of other citizens.” Madison’s concern about the danger of a majority faction, which was the “great object” of his inquiries into the subject, surely informs disparate Americans’ fears of an ethnic or illiberal majoritarianism taking root and snuffing out dissenting views. The dangers of majoritarianism are clearly present in the world today. One need only consider the Hindu nationalist gangs that have been roving across the campuses of major Indian universities of late, plucking students from libraries and beating them while the police look on. This is a species of nationalism that many fear, the ugly populist variety that is inflamed by passions and dismissive of reasoned civic discussion.

But how do we achieve the appropriate degree of cohesion in an era of hyper-fractious identity politics? If majoritarian ethno-nationalism is the specter that looms over our democratic system, so too is the paralyzing politics of ethnic or sectarian microfaction. An inevitable tension emerges in a democratic, multiethnic and multi-sectarian republic when factions array themselves across the public space and make demands for rights on the basis of their immutable (or, as anthropologists would say, ascriptive) birth identities. The doctrine of diversity that has evolved to accommodate our new multicultural national community had the virtue of giving space to these myriad demands without ascribing to them a fixed value, a sense of greater or lesser worth. But from the vantage point of the communities in question, and particularly the religious groups, such accommodation obscures the fact that religious doctrines are fundamentally in tension with one another, since each claims a monopoly on ultimate truth. The Establishment Clause of the Constitution and the separation of church and state that it enjoins have prevented the adjudication of these rival claims from overwhelming the public or civic space, even while fostering a healthy appreciation for religious diversity. Yet today that underlying sense of the immutability of communal identity has come to inflame our ethnic and identity politics, effectively restricting our public discourse. All groups claiming minority identity, and even the one claiming to speak for the aggrieved white majority, demand rights, protections, and special recognition of their standing as, above all, ethnic or cultural groups. This gridlock of microfaction, protected by the shibboleth of diversity, threatens to erode the cohesion that underpins our vitality as a nation.

Instead of sacralizing diversity and hunkering down even further in our enclosed identities, might we consider giving tolerance a real try? Tolerance does not necessarily imply agreement with or approval of others’ beliefs or perspectives. It merely acknowledges that fellow Americans possess different belief systems and identities that merit at least peaceful accommodation so they all can coexist within the same civic culture.

If our multiethnic and multiconfessional republic is to be the virtuous home of promise for all of its citizens, we must move beyond the superficial curating of skin tones and religious professions toward a stronger regard for those cohesive bonds that draw us together as a nation, including a deeply flawed but also noble history. “What is the count of the scores or hundreds of years between us?” Whitman asked of his future readers in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.” Surely we might honor the American bard’s legacy by considering the distance between his patriotic yearnings and our own to be no distance at all.