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Chauvinism and idealism in American nationalism

By Anatol Lieven

When the Bush administration launched its campaign to gather US public support for the invasion of Iraq, I was especially struck by the way in which they managed to mobilise on the one hand chauvinist nationalist hostility to the outside world in general and Muslims in particular, and on the other hand a civic nationalist belief in America’s mission to spread democracy and freedom to those same Muslims. Often, meeting neoconservatives in particular, I would find a belief in the spread of democracy in the Middle East, and hatred and contempt for Arabs, strangely mixed in the very same people. I was also struck — and I have to say, horrified — by the way in which the promise of spreading democracy allowed the Bush administration, for a while at least, to co-opt a number of liberals whose other traditions and personal histories should have inclined strong opposition to the war.

America’s shared national ideology can act in certain circumstances to impose a kind of democratic, consensual suppression of independent and critical thought — a perception repeated by observers of the United States since Tocqueville. Louis Hartz (a great, almost forgotten analysts of American political culture) and others in the 1950s (including the great Richard Hofstadter) examined the McCarthyite phenomenon of chauvinist hysteria and repression in the name of democracy. These thinkers represent a great American intellectual and moral tradition.

Developments in the USA after 9/11 made me deeply committed to doing my best in a small way to revive it. I became fascinated by the relationship of the apparently incompatible elements of chauvinism and idealism in American political culture and their deep roots in American history. This exploration led to an analysis of the whole complex of features which goes to make up American nationalism and American national identity.

As I dug further, other elements also came to the fore: the importance of conservative religion in the United States, and the ways in which since the very origins of the English colonies, it has become linked to hostility both to godless foreigners and godless American elites; and the deep racial fears of the old core white population in the face of blacks, Native Americans, and alien immigrants. This in turn led to an examination of the way in which successive waves of immigrants have been integrated into the United States in part through formal adherence to US political values and institutions, but also through joining with the former core groups in hostility to racial minorities or other, later waves of immigration.

I found myself analysing how American attitudes to race have shifted in recent decades (a question I had been fascinated by ever since spending time as a student in small-town Alabama in 1979). I call this America’s transition from “Herrenvolk (master race) democracy” to what I call a “civilizational empire”, comparable to those of Rome and China. White middle-classes in America have become more accepting of people of other colour (at least in public), without by any means necessarily becoming more tolerant of people of other culture. Successful integration still requires assimilation to conservative middle class values, including nationalism and religion.

Tax Day Tea Party Rally in Wisconsin, 2011. Photo by WisPolitics.com. Creative Commons License.

Indeed, what surprised me about Barack Obama’s election as president was not that a black man was elected, but that he was not a retired US general or admiral; in other words someone who could convince the white middle classes of his complete adoption of their culture. The sometimes feral and irrational hatred of Obama among conservatives, while it certainly derives in part from old racial fears, seems above all to reflect a sense of cultural difference. This has led to the mobilisation against Obama of two other sentiments on the Right: on the one hand, the belief that he is a “Black radical” (he has even been accused, grotesquely, of sympathy for the Black Panthers) who will tax whites to favour blacks; on the other, that he is part of a “liberal elite” which despises the values of ordinary Americans. Finally, on the wilder shores of conservative religion there is the belief that he is the Antichrist.

America’s magnificent “self-correction mechanism”, the power of its democratic values and institutions has repeatedly brought the country back to democratic stability and tolerance after episode of chauvinist hysteria like McCarthyism. I express however two fears in this regard: that this self-correction mechanism could be wrecked either if the United States suffered another really shattering terrorist attack like 9/11, or if the social and economic decline of the white middle classes (already apparent in 2004) continued indefinitely.

The first threat has, thank God, not yet come about, and the fears expressed in this regard after 9/11 seem to have been exaggerated. The decline of the white middle classes has however not just continued but intensified drastically as a result of the economic recession beginning in 2008. And because this decline is largely rooted in what look like inexorable global economic shifts, it is likely to continue (albeit in slower form) even if the economy as a whole recovers — or that at least was the pattern of the generation before 2008.

I was not therefore surprised by the rise of the Tea Party movement in recent years, nor by the way in which Tea Party supporters have combined deeply irrational politics with a fanatical adherence to a Constitution rooted in the ideas of the Enlightenment. Albeit in this highly specific American way, the Tea Parties represent one facet of lower middle-class radical conservative politics with troubling echoes in the European past. To judge by the history of the past 40 years, even if the Tea Parties fail to seize control of the Republican Party as a whole, and if Mitt Romney is defeated in November, they will still — like US radical conservative movements since the 1970s – leave the party several notches to the Right from where they found it. Indeed, as has been remarked, Ronald Reagan’s Republican programme in the 1980 presidential elections would be regarded by Republicans of today as dangerously liberal — and is indeed close in spirit to Obama’s approach.

This tendency has helped polarise US politics, and combined with the complex system of checks and balances in the US Constitution to make it very difficult to push through desperately needed economic reforms. By the same token, the fanatical version of civic nationalism espoused by the Tea Party makes it inconceivable that the Republican Party would agree to even the kind of limited constitutional amendments of the past, so as to bring the 18th Century Constitution into line with 21st Century needs. I am deeply worried that as a result of the features I have mentioned, the United States may be entering an era of profound crisis, the outcome of which cannot be foreseen.

Anatol Lieven is a professor in the War Studies Department of King’s College London and a senior fellow of the New America Foundation in Washington DC. He is the author of America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism, recently published in its second edition. Anatol Lieven recently took part in a panel discussion on the 2012 US election and Asia at the Australian National University in Canberra (view footage of the event).

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Recent Comments

  1. Sage

    “an era of profound crisis”

    Well, here we are with the Trump so I guess its safe to say the authors fears came true.

Comments are closed.