Book Reviews

Who We Are

Jill Lepore has Schlesinger-like aspirations, albeit updated for the twenty-first century.

By Meg Jacobs

Tagged DemocracyHistorynationalismpatriotism

This America: The Case For The Nation By Jill Lepore • Liveright• 2019 • 160 pages • $16.95

In her latest book, Jill Lepore, a brilliant story teller, offers us the biggest story of all: who we are and how we came to be. She did that superbly in her one-volume history of the nation, These Truths (2018). But here the effort is more pointed; here, Lepore is telling the story of the past in order to fight the battles of today, and she is urging her fellow historians to join her in the campaign. By mapping out the past as a competition between liberal and illiberal nationalisms, the latter most recently reincarnated and promoted by the President of the United States, Lepore is directly entering into the political fray. Unless liberals embrace and reclaim the idea of American nationalism, they will surrender its meaning to Trump and his supporters. What’s needed, and what her history shows is possible, is a full throated defense of civic patriotism, celebrating a “dedication to equality, citizenship, and equal rights, as guaranteed by a nation of laws.” “A new Americanism,” she writes on her final pages, “would mean a devotion to equality and liberty, tolerance and inquiry.”

Jill Lepore is no Arthur Schlesinger Jr. And that’s a good thing. Lepore, a prize-winning historian turned essayist, grew up in the 1970s and ’80s, as the country lurched rightward, and, in 1999, one year before the Bush v. Gore decision, she named her child’s stuffed bear Elly, after Eleanor Roosevelt. Schlesinger, the prize-winning historian turned presidential adviser, was 15 when Franklin Roosevelt gave his first inaugural address, received a Pulitzer at age 28 for his work on Jacksonian democracy, and worked side by side with Eleanor to fight for liberalism in postwar America. Several generations of scholars have repudiated what many, somewhat unfairly, dismissed as Schlesinger’s heroic portrait of the progressive past, with liberalism always on the rise, often at the hands of visionary white male leaders like Andrew Jackson (now in ill repute for his slaveholding and Indian wars) and FDR, whose accommodation to the white supremacist South has left even the Great New Dealer with a tarnished reputation. For her part, Lepore has spent her career deeply immersed in the discovery of the nonwhite, non-male, non-mainstream actors and events that shaped our nation’s past.

And yet in This America, Lepore has Schlesinger-like aspirations, albeit updated for the twenty-first century. And that too is a good thing. In 1949, a young Schlesinger, then a Harvard historian like Lepore, published a mid-century defense of liberalism against the threat of totalitarianism, of either a fascist or Communist variety. For all the revisionist critiques of Schlesinger’s scholarship, The Vital Center was a serious effort to defend democracy at a moment of great fragility in the aftermath of World War II and the early years of the Cold War. Read again, it not only stands the test of time as a specimen for what a reviewer praised as its ambition to use history as advocacy but it also reminds us that there indeed have been moments when democracy has faced serious threats. Lepore, in this concise and convincing essay, tells us, with great urgency, that 2019 is such a moment. Written 70 years after The Vital Center, This America, at its core, is another brief for American liberalism and democracy. If democracy’s domestic enemies then were Communists, cloaked and hidden, lurking in collaborationist cells, as of late they have reared their ugly heads in broad daylight, often wearing hard-to-miss bright red MAGA caps and tee shirts. The threat to our democracy, says Lepore—what she labels a “reign of terror”—is indeed a serious one.

The times are different. Schlesinger was writing in the shadows of concentration camps, mass starvation, atomic war, and totalitarianism. For him, the center was not, as he later explained in response to Bill Clinton’s misappropriation of his term, to be found between two different political parties within American democracy, but rather between democracy and what he saw as the bureaucratized collectivism that led to death and destruction on a global scale. His was a wake-up call to American liberals, particularly the ones who had supported Henry Wallace’s third party candidacy in 1948, to be vigilant against the appeal of totalitarian rulers in the modern era when, as he put it, industrialism was driving the free individual to the wall. Having lived through the rise of Mussolini, Hitler, and Stalin, a young Schlesinger did not see the endurance of democracy as inevitable. Democracy had to be a “fighting faith,” a “process, not a conclusion.”

Lepore too writes with the same sense of urgency. Like Schlesinger, she’s assumed the mantel of a leading public intellectual of our time and has the books and magazine covers to prove it. And like Schlesinger, she’s using her prodigious writing skills and deep knowledge of history to make an argument. In short, Lepore argues it is vitally important that scholars take up—“celebrate” is perhaps too strong a word—the study of the nation as a totality to show the rich history of liberal nationalism that did so much to shape our contemporary world. If not, then they cede intellectual and moral ground to a version of what she calls “illiberal nationalism,” again, best embodied and articulated by Donald Trump, one defined, as she says, by hate and fear rather than love and courage. “When serious historians abandon the study of the nation,” she writes, “nationalism doesn’t die. Instead, it eats liberalism.”

These two nationalisms, one liberal and one illiberal, have competed throughout American history, writes Lepore. One has a trajectory that begins with Thomas Paine’s depiction of a new nation as an “asylum for mankind,” runs through the birth of Lepore’s father, named Amerigo by his immigrant parents in 1924, to whom she dedicates the book, and winds up with Barack Obama as President, using his personal biography to make the claim, as he did, “that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.” In contrast, and side by side, runs illiberal nationalism, which starts, not surprisingly, with slavery and the brutal removal of native peoples, continues through the ban on immigration that coincided with the birth of her father, and manifests itself in the recent Tree of Life Synagogue shootings in Pittsburgh.

Nationalism in this country is particularly subject to competing versions, argues Lepore, because it was an invention that came after the creation of the state. While the Federalists wanted a strong central government, the idea of nationhood was one yet to be established. As she points out, Noah Webster pushed his countrymen to adopt an original spelling in his new dictionary as a way of inventing a civic nationalism to hold a new country together. “It is useful to think of the United States not as a nation-state but instead as something stranger, a state-nation, a thing as rare as hens’ teeth.” The competition between liberal and illiberal nationalism reached a boiling point in the Civil War; and then, after the North’s win, liberalism was reborn in what Lepore calls a “second founding” with the ratification of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments.

To be sure, liberalism Lepore-style looks different than a Cold War celebration of innate American ideology. As the past half century of scholarship has shown, the liberal sense of belonging to a nation was forged in part by brutally excluding indigenous peoples, slaves who were regarded as property, Chinese, Mexicans, and many other nonwhites, and of course women, too. Even in the moment of its second founding after the Civil War, with its amendments that established birthright citizenship, the nation was busy restricting immigration, enacting Jim Crow practices, and denying indigenous peoples their own claims to nationhood. This form of illiberalism manifested itself in the resurgence of the KKK and, later, the insistence on isolationism as tyrants like Hitler entered the world stage. And yet liberal claims on the nation, made in the name of a more inclusive nationhood, are as much a part of America’s story, and indeed are the story. “This Fourth of July is yours, not mine,” Frederick Douglass said. But he also laid out an alternative vision of a “composite nationhood” where diversity, explains Lepore, was the nation’s strength, not its weakness. It is to this tradition that Lepore wants to direct her readers. “Frederick Douglass’s Americanism did not then prevail.” Nor did W.E.B. DuBois’s insistence on being “both a Negro and an American.” But “they’re still there, traditions waiting to be claimed, challenges waiting to be met.”

Today, she warns, illiberal nationalism is dangerously on the rise, given its endorsement from on high. Beginning with the birther movement and culminating with border closings and his efforts to add a citizenship question on the census, not to mention his baseless attacks on nonwhite sitting congresswomen as somehow not American, President Trump has used the full force of his office to legitimize and incite nativism and white supremacy. From his demeaning nicknaming of Elizabeth Warren as “Pocahontas,” even as he doubted her native ancestry, to his ban on Muslim immigrants to his desire to deport undocumented immigrants, Trump reinforces his view that only certain types of Americans count. As Lepore recalls, Trump’s meaning was crystal clear and may have even been the impetus behind this book after he said in a 2018 Texas rally, “We’re taking care of ourselves for a change, folks… You know what I am? I’m a nationalist, okay… Use that word!” The point of Lepore’s book is to show the multiple meanings and usages of that word. “Writing national history creates plenty of problems. But not writing national history creates more problems, and those problems are worse.”

Like The Vital Center, this is a book conceived in the trenches. If Schlesinger came of age as fascism was on the rise, so, too, did Lepore grow up seeing the rise of right-wing nationalists. Lepore adds Trump to the list that includes Putin, Erdogan, Orbán, and other brutal leaders. Whereas FDR was the young Schlesinger’s hero, facing down the world’s tyrants, now the American President is someone to be feared. Today, the greatest threat to democracy in America comes not from abroad but at home. To be sure, Schlesinger saw internal enemies, and he aimed much of his fire at the “doughfaces”—progressives who, as he said, saw Communists as merely liberals in a hurry. (Doughface was also the name given to Northern Democrats before the Civil War who sided with the South on slavery.) He made no apologies for what he saw as necessary loyalty checks for those who worked in sensitive national security positions, though, as is often forgotten, he was quite critical of the House Un-American Activities Committee. But if the danger then was potential subversives in the State Department, now it’s the President himself.

Indeed, as much as historians shy away from the term “unprecedented,” Trump’s disregard for the basic institutions of democracy is, to say the least, profound. The hallmark of a free society, Schlesinger explained, was the protection of liberties of conscience, expression, and political opposition, which makes Trump’s labeling of the press as “the enemy of the people” ominous indeed. This kind of illiberalism has deep roots, Lepore tells us. At a 1939 Nazi rally in Madison Square Garden, 20,000 showed up at what was billed as a “Mass Demonstration for True Americanism.” The rally included a moment when a protestor was dragged from the stage—which was draped with an enormous portrait of George Washington, American flags, and also swastikas—and was beaten up. Footage of this event, which was recently rediscovered and made into a documentary, went viral because of its contemporary resonance.

The only way to ensure that democracy prevails is by actively defending it. With the horrors of the Holocaust and Stalinist Russia fresh in his mind, Schlesinger wrote, “The preservation of freedom requires a positive and continuing commitment.” As he saw it, Americans’ strength was their ongoing dedication to democratic practices even after war and depression, at a time when citizens of other nations found it more tempting in trying times to follow tyrants. But nothing was guaranteed. Indeed, in 1997, in a new introduction to a reissued The Vital Center, he observed that Americans were “fearful about the future” as the shift from factory-based production to computer-based production would be even more dislocating in a shorter period of time than the shift from farm to factory had been. Presciently, he wondered: “Might the frustrations and fears that gave rise to the totalitarian movements return tomorrow in a different guise?”

Lepore offers up her book as a starting point in defending democracy against Trump-era illiberalism. How we tell our stories matters. Individual action matters. Protest matters. “The nation is often wrong,” she writes. “But so long as protest is possible, it can always be righted.” Schlesinger captured that very well:

Resistance requires essentially an independent base from which to operate. It requires privacy, funds, time, newsprint, gasoline, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom from fear; it requires resources to which its own access is secure and which remain relatively inaccessible to the ruling class. Resistance is possible, in short, only when the base is clearly separate from the state.

No doubt. But resistance, as Schlesinger knew, also requires organization and institution building. If the threats to democracy today are as big as, if not bigger than, they were in Schlesinger’s day—since, after all, their base of operations is the Oval Office—the liberal institutions needed to fight against them are substantially weaker. While waging an intellectual battle to reclaim nationalism is important to resistance, it is unlikely to do the job. Schlesinger knew that better than most and devoted himself not only to his scholarship but also to the cause. He was a founding member of the Americans for Democratic Action, a liberal advocacy organization, a stalwart supporter of industrial unionism, wrote speeches for Adlai Stevenson in 1952 and again in 1956, and went all in with the Kennedy Administration.

Perhaps Lepore will be recruited to write speeches in the next election cycle. No doubt that would elevate national discourse. But words alone won’t do the trick. In 2019, there is no liberal group with the power that Americans for Democratic Action had then, there is no robust union movement, and there is not even a strong, united Democratic party. Regardless of whether Trump wins or loses, his presidency has done much to fan the flames of illiberalism. Much of the inspiration for The Vital Center came from the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who wrote, “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.” The massacres at Charleston and Pittsburgh and the rioting at Charlottesville suggest the challenges of our time. And yet Lepore does not despair. She writes, “Americans are bound by our past, but even more powerfully, we are bound to one another.”

The virtue of This America is its hopeful retelling of our history, but as a master-class historian Lepore knows that that is not enough. To make a convincing case for liberal nationalism requires arguing for the revitalization of strong democratic institutions and organizations, including a powerful Democratic Party, each committed not only to the protection of political rights and civil liberties, but also to the advancement of economic security. In 1941, as the United States stood on the brink of war, Eleanor Roosevelt told the readers of her syndicated daily newspaper column, “America is a dream of greater justice and opportunity for the average man, and if we cannot obtain it, all our other achievements amount to nothing.” Today, in an era defined as much by growing inequality as by weakening democracy, greater justice and opportunity is a good motto for a twenty-first century liberal, one just as vital as it was decades ago, if not more so.

Arthur Schlesinger, for all his shortcomings, understood that political freedom had to be grounded in economic freedom, both advanced by what another mid-century liberal and ally, John Kenneth Galbraith, called “countervailing powers.” For her next undertaking, Lepore would do well to trace the rich history of economic progressivism as a necessary complement to this fine treatise on our civic nationalism. As ER put it, “Even to dream, one must have a basis of economic security, and the dream is worth little if it cannot provide that.” With the urgency of defeating fascism, she added, “Devotion to democracy, devotion to liberty, what we call patriotism, depends upon the realization of such conditions in our country as really give us the opportunity and hope for future dreams.”

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Meg Jacobs is a senior research scholar at Princeton University. She is an award-winning author of numerous books on American politics, including Panic at the Pump (Hill and Wang). She is currently working on a book on the New Deal and World War II.

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