“The prime problem of our nation,” explained Teddy Roosevelt in his 1910 Osawatomie, Kansas, speech on economic nationalism, “is to get the right type of good citizenship.” It still is. Working people want to pledge their allegiance to a country that will reciprocate with a pledge of allegiance to them. That is the lesson of Trump. A vision of the nation matters.
While many on the cosmopolitan left find visions of national anything maudlin—if not downright politically dangerous—the nation-state has long been the main place of redress and identity for most working people. It will continue to be so into the foreseeable future. And if a progressive nationalism—both social and economic—cannot be created, then progressive victories will probably only be short-lived.
The obstacles to such a progressive nationalism begin with the unsubtle and exhausting debate between class and identity politics, a debate in which progressives seem to affirm their frustrating capacity to eat each other alive. After the Trump election, Mark Lilla threw the latest fireball at the divisiveness of identity politics—that is, the building of political positions based on racial, gender, and sexual identities. It is a “largely expressive, not persuasive” form of politics, Lilla argued; one that fixates on the narcissism of difference. It creates a circular firing squad, rather than a collective agenda.
Like many others who have made similar arguments before, Lilla faced a storm of criticism, much of which merely expressed the obvious: systemic, state-sponsored discrimination based on racial, gender, and cultural categories still thrives in this country. And we have an unholy amount of dismantling to get through before we can begin to talk about a post–identity politics agenda. Both critiques are correct in their analyses and wrong in their politics.
Those, like Lilla, who posit the New Deal and postwar era as an antediluvian time of “pre–identity politics,” when collective economic interests could reign supreme, miss some important and troubling history. The problem is, identity and class do not make up a tidy binary.
The most divisive and tribal issues in American politics today—race, immigration, sexual identity, and the culture wars—functioned completely differently in the postwar era than they did before the war or after the 1960s. The New Deal excluded protections for predominantly African American occupations, such as agriculture and service work, keeping such laborers outside of social security, collective bargaining, and fair labor standards, in order to preserve the unholy alliance with Southern Democrats that Northern progressives needed to pass their cherished reforms.
Large-scale immigration was largely shut down with the imposition of the quota system in 1924, and did not really open again until 1965. This meant that during the New Deal and the decades following there was no new immigrant population large enough to prove politically polarizing. Furthermore, the post–World War Two era is seen by religious scholars as a time of “religious truce,” during which a vague new invention called “Judeo-Christian values” stood up to the international threat of atheistic communism.
The Devil Wears Pravda
The point is, once you factor out—by hook or by crook—the persistent pressures of social, ethnic, and cultural heterogeneity in American politics, it becomes a lot easier to pass policies that begin to look like a modest version of social democracy in America. It is a truism of political science that social democracy flourishes best among homogenous populations, and the realm of postwar American politics was more homogeneous than the period before the 1930s or after the 1970s. So, a blinkered version of “class” politics worked. Glory Days it was, at least for white, male industrial workers, as I argue in The Great Exception: The New Deal and the Limits of American Politics (2016).
But here’s the thing: in that New Deal golden age for white, male industrial workers, wages were going up not just for those steel and auto workers but for men and women of all races and almost all regions. The “spillover effect” of economic security even beyond the organized, basic industries proved dramatic, national in scope, and multifaceted.
Also going up were hope, opportunity, political generosity, and the idea that hard work might just pay off, which in turn created some space for what we might term “progress” in race relations. For all the real racial hate unleashed in America after the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education (1954) decision, in the mid-1960s the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Acts did actually pass, with enormous long-term implications for social justice in the country.
When the new social movements of the 1960s levied their claims for greater inclusion and equity, they were buoyed and supported by—indeed they presumed—a world in which capitalism worked better than it had before. It certainly worked better than the kleptocracy we have today. Although those social movements quickly turned to frustrated indictments of “Amerika,” and then had to fight the narrowing horizons brought on by 1970s stagflation, their very existence nonetheless suggests that the postwar political climate from which they emerged was more enriching than its caricature as a simple herrenvolk democracy. The potential exists for something more than a race-based vision of community.
At the same time, critics like Lilla, Todd Gitlin, Walter Benn Michaels, and Adolph Reed are right to castigate the politics of “identity” and “diversity” as handmaidens of neoliberal capitalism. Even perfectly equitable access cannot be called success when the system itself is failing: look, we can all have equal access to lousy, criminally overpriced health care! We can all be exploited in precarious jobs with equal treatment! Even when gilded with a commitment to diversity, American inequality is a national failure. In this light, the conflict between identity and class politics appears much less a political-philosophical binary than a messy historical problem.
The country is starved for a meaningful politics of what it means to be an American.
Bayard Rustin, a gay black man who was the tactical genius behind the civil rights movement, saw this clearly in the mid-1960s. Rustin believed that the best hope for the civil rights movement at the time was to move from protest to real political power that could address policy and economic questions. He knew that the politics of institutions win, while the politics of outrage drift off into the wind and require ever more gusts of outrage to keep the sails of condemnation full. In his classic 1965 essay, “From Protest to Politics,” Rustin dismissed as counterproductive the easy and distracting project of exposing white liberals for their hypocrisy. Moral outrage, he believed, was not politics; the only thing that truly mattered was political power. And the only way to gain political power was to have allies—lots of them.
“The future of the Negro struggle,” he wrote, “depends on whether the contradictions of this society can be resolved by a coalition of progressive forces which becomes the effective political majority in the United States. I speak of the coalition which staged the March on Washington, passed the Civil Rights Act, and laid the basis for the Johnson landslide—Negroes, trade unionists, liberals, and religious groups.” The saddest thing that happened to the freedom struggle was that anti-racism became an abstract goal, stripped of the economic citizenship and party politics that mattered so much to the elders of the civil rights generation.
Like Rustin, the philosopher Nancy Fraser already has a lot of this figured out. Asked to choose between class and identity politics, one must simply reject the question outright, she argues. “Justice today requires both redistribution and recognition. Neither alone is sufficient.” No recognition without redistribution, no redistribution without recognition. And, as Fraser does, we might add that none of this works without participation in the real ugliness of actual party politics.
Regrettably, however, the selling out of the country to a transnational corporate elite has been a bipartisan effort. But the Republicans do it with God and flag in hand, the Democrats waving a limp idea of “diversity,” and the results are clear. In 2016, Trump won claiming that he would “Make America Great Again,” with nothing but hot air for policy. Hillary Clinton lost with a vapid, vaguely feminist slogan, “I’m with Her,” and a laundry list of smart policies. It’s an old story. Jimmy Carter lost because he said there was a “crisis of confidence”; Reagan won because he believed in national greatness. Time and again, the language of national vision wins out.
Perhaps the most telling legend is this: one of Ronald Reagan’s aides, having watched his candidate offer a full-throated paean to national greatness in 1984, is said to have remarked, “I feel sorry for Mondale, he has to run against America.” This is an unwinnable contest: the construct known as America will always prevail. Like Reagan before him, Trump throws into stark relief just what the Democrats should have taken up in their turn to the right: not the policies that foster greater inequality, but a vision of national citizenship.
In contrast, anyone who has traveled the heartland in the last 20 years knows that the words “NAFTA” and “Clinton” still symbolize the Democratic Party’s national sellout for many working-class voters. Democratic support for such neoliberal policies took off in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the Democratic Leadership Council decided to push the party to the right in order to compete on the new terrain created by the Reagan landslide. By giving the party over to corporate power and severing ties with rank-and-file voters in favor of big-money donors, the DLC switch meant playing on the other team’s field rather than updating its own. While this delivered short-term victories during the Clinton years, ultimately it undermined the party’s connection to its “base” and paved the way for reaction.
The lesson of the Trump election is not that the white working class is too fixated on resenting identitarian movements to ever embrace progressive politics. Working people, even members of the white working class, can and will be progressive if they aren’t anxious that “progress” will itself be distributed according to identity categories, gracing everyone other than them. On the other hand, the politics of class, qua class, are a long way off from reality, and the labor movement is not going to come rushing in to save the day. We need to change the battlefield of the culture wars, from who is in and who is out to we’re in this together.
The country is starved for a meaningful politics of what it means to be an American. Without it, working people are left to bear the local burdens of a cosmopolitan elite who have essentially seceded from the American project. Voting is often irrational, based on vague feelings and gut impulses. The voices of progress need to give people a meaningful national impulse, not a 17-point plan on a website or righteous indignation that can be exploited by the likes of Steve Bannon to charge up the right.
Both the moral outrage in the streets and the technocratic neoliberalism in Democratic Party headquarters are traps.
Changing the playing field from a limited us-versus-them terrain to the United States of America as a whole is not easy. And it’s certainly not the most politically correct or ideologically pure approach. But in the great tradition of American pragmatism, it is the one that can work.
The pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty pushed for such a vision of national meaning in Achieving Our Country, based largely on his readings of Walt Whitman and John Dewey. Without the conscious creation, rather than the mere assertion, of solidarity, there can be no progress. And the unifying theme of that creative process needs to be, in the midst of globalization and destabilization, a nationalism that can honestly unite across class and identity, that can make inroads into the right’s popularity, that can take charge of the global Brexit mood, and that can challenge the power of the corporation over the American citizenry.
If that does not happen, if the alienating and debilitating politics of otherness continues, well, Rorty nailed that, too. After the Trump victory, his prediction, made in 1998, of what happens without a positive national vision, went viral:
Members of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers—themselves desperately afraid of being downsized—are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.
At that point, something will crack. The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for—someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots. … Once such a strongman takes office, nobody can predict what will happen.1
Dissenting movements today are reminiscent of James Baldwin’s criticism of the stridency of the American protest novel: “a mirror of our confusion, dishonesty, panic, trapped and immobilized in the sunlit prison of the American dream.”2 Dark forces are ready to move on that prison if enlightened ones do not.
Screws have been turning on the American working class for well over a generation now. In fact, for the bottom quintile of the employed population, real wages peaked during the Nixon administration. Expectations are low and anger is high. Both the moral outrage in the streets and the technocratic neoliberalism in Democratic Party headquarters are traps. The way forward, the way to build a cross-class alliance that can include the working-class vote—a vote made up not only of white guys, but of a full mosaic of racial, gender, and cultural complexity—is to look toward a compelling progressive vision for the nation.
Reading as Inoculation
Nationalism is dangerous stuff in places with a history of settler colonialism and territorial expansion like the United States, but Lincoln pulled it off. So did Eugene Debs. And both Roosevelts, too. Obama returned to Osawatomie in 2011, as the nation continued to struggle with the financial meltdown, and tried to rekindle Teddy Roosevelt’s ghost. Expressing his “deep conviction that we’re greater together than we are on our own,” he declared that unity and sharing are “American values. And we have to reclaim them.” Since then, Bernie Sanders tried to put some policy meat on the bones, but his criticism of corporate power lacked the sense of national “rendezvous with destiny” so artfully invoked by both FDR and Ronald Reagan.
While the follow-through on Obama’s Osawatomie speech proved inadequate for a number of reasons, the idea was right. Until we find a social patriotism that works—a path to citizenship for immigrants, a model of economic citizenship for workers, an innovative form of environmental citizenship, an inclusive citizenship for all peoples of all types—then we’ll remain vulnerable to the sterile sense of purpose offered by neoliberal individualism or the barbarism of dangerously cartoonish strongmen who can divide but cannot lead.