Imagine you’re visiting a country that narrowly survived an armed coup attempt. The leader of that coup faces criminal prosecution for this and other crimes, but may avoid legal consequences because he’s running for president.

If he wins, he’s said, he’ll pardon convicted insurrectionists and round up his critics, whom he’s termed “vermin,” as the Nazis did of their targets. On national television, he’s said he will act as a dictator on Day One of his presidency. His allies are reportedly drafting plans to purge the civil service, intelligence services, justice ministry and officer corps, and to use the military to patrol city streets. Polls give him a break-even chance of winning. 

You’d say that country was in deep trouble.  

Now imagine that country is an awkward federation of regional cultures with a history of civil war. Some of those regions featured, in living memory, illiberal authoritarian subnational governments with formal racial apartheid systems backed up by death squads and extrajudicial killings. Most voters and senior elected officials in these regions support the coup plotter, but he’s unpopular most everywhere else.  

You might wonder if that country would be able to hold itself together. 

These are the stakes for the contemporary United States. A collapse of the republic and the federation – unthinkable to most people a mere decade ago – isn’t just possible, it could be imminent. It’s going to take a lot of things to keep us from the brink.


Since leaving the Press Herald a year ago, I’ve been leading an effort to close a critical gap in our civic fabric, maybe the most critical one of all: providing compelling answers to why we should stay together and for what purpose.

A mission statement, in other words, for the United States, tied back to – if you’ll pardon the religious allusions – the ideals of its most sacred text; the statement of our common purpose set forth at our founding 248 and a half years ago.  

* * * *

Maintaining a shared sense of nationhood has always been a special challenge for the United States. We’re arguably the world’s first civic nation, a polity defined not by organic ties but by a shared commitment to a set of ideals. The U.S. came into being not as a nation but as a contractual agreement, a means to an end for 13 disparate rebel colonies facing a common enemy in the 1770s. Its people lacked a shared history, religion or ethnicity. They didn’t speak a language uniquely their own. Most hadn’t occupied the continent long enough to imagine it as their mythic homeland. They had no shared story of who they were and what their purpose was. In short, they had none of the foundations of a nation-state. 

Making matters worse, for generations the colonies had been rivals – competing for land, settlers, trade and capital – and even enemies, taking opposing sides in the English Civil War and the American Revolution. After the war, the Founding Fathers argued for a strong union to avoid an otherwise inevitable “War between the States,” as Alexander Hamilton put it, in which the larger ones would overrun their neighbors in a “desultory and predatory” campaign of “plunder and devastation.”  

The underlying problem was that the Eastern Seaboard had been settled by rival colonial projects with distinct and often incompatible political cultures and ideologies, creating rifts between and within states that have never gone away. The Dutch-founded area around what is now New York City has never seen eye-to-eye with upstate New York, which was effectively colonized by Yankee New Englanders after the Dutch defeat in the 1670s.


The Scots-Irish-dominated uplands clashed – culturally, politically and economically – with lowland power structures that controlled state governments from Pennsylvania to South Carolina. The northernmost part of Delaware – colonized from the north by people from the Quaker-founded region around Delaware Bay – clashed with the rest of the state, whose southern colonizers brought with them the Tidewater system of genteel slave manors.

And, most polarizing of all, the Deep South and Chesapeake country weren’t just societies with slaves, like southern New York and northern New Jersey, but slave societies, where the entire economy and power structure was based on human bondage.  

By the 1830s, the federation’s identity crisis had reached a tipping point. The stopgap remedy – to celebrate the shared struggle of the American Revolution – lost its strength as the Founders’ generation passed from the scene, leaving a gaping void. Slavery, rather than withering as the founders had assumed, was ascendant, a frontal assault on the values that had been articulated in the declaration. Americans knew they needed a story of U.S. nationhood if their experiment were to survive. Instead, they wound up with two rival narratives. We’ve been fighting over them ever since. 

* * * * 

The first was a civic national vision – packaged and popularized by the 19th-century Massachusetts intellectual George Bancroft – that said America was devoted to the ideals set down in the preamble to the Declaration of Independence: equality, liberty, self-government and the natural rights of all people to these things. We may not have a shared history or ethnicity, it argued, but we share a devotion to those principles, and to be an American is to join in a covenant to strive toward them.

This vision, put forth in Bancroft’s wildly popular “History of the United States” and the orations and essays it inspired, found especially fertile ground in the Yankee northeast, New England, and the parts of the Great Lakes states and territories first colonized by New England settlement stream, where ideas of mission, covenant and utopia-building were lodged deep in the cultural DNA. It’s this national myth that was championed by Frederick Douglass, taken up by Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg and by Martin Luther King on the National Mall, and it became our consensus story of national purpose with the triumph of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.  


Those ideals in the declaration mean that, as Americans, we believe all humans are created with equal and unalienable rights to survive, to not be tyrannized, to pursue our happiness as we understand it and to access to the representative self-government that makes it all possible. And we’re in a covenant to protect one another’s innate (or God-given) rights to these things. That’s our shared identity, beyond all the other identities we all have as individuals.

That’s our purpose, the American Experiment, and the pledge we make to each of our fellow Americans, the American Promise. It’s what’s behind the moments in our history that we have the most pride in, and it’s what others respected about us through in our admittedly short history. 

But it has always been contested by forces drawing on older, uglier aspects of human nature. 

From the moment of its popularization in the mid-1830s, this civic national story met a vigorous challenge initiated by the political and intellectual leaders of the Deep South and Chesapeake Country, who had a narrower vision of who could be an American and what the federation’s purpose was to be.

People weren’t created equal, insisted William Gilmore Simms, the Antebellum South’s leading man of letters; rather, the continent and the promises in the declaration belonged to the allegedly superior Anglo-Saxon race. The U.S., he and others argued, was a federation of Anglo-Saxon ethnostates, and slavery was its foundation, just as it had been for the republics of Classical antiquity. Needless to say, this view found special favor in the plantation South it was created to defend, and indeed was used as the national narrative of the Confederate States of America during its brief existence.  

This vision of a herrenvolk democracy – a place where only a chosen subset of the native-born population is allowed the benefits of citizenship – was by no means a fringe idea. It was every bit the match of its civic national rival. Its adherents drove the nation into a cataclysmic civil war and, in its aftermath, snatched victory from the jaws of defeat by fighting a successful terrorist campaign to roll back the political emancipation of African Americans in the former Confederacy.


Their followers had sufficient power in Congress and the Supreme Court to effectively annul the 14th and 15th amendments that had been promulgated while Confederate southerners were absent from Congress. And in 1913, they captured the White House itself when majorities outside the Yankee Northeast elected the first Deep Southern president in our history, Woodrow Wilson. Wilson, son of a leading white supremacist thought leader and scion of the Confederate Presbyterian Church, was raised in Augusta, Georgia, during the Civil War and in Columbia, South Carolina, during the brief period when African Americans – nearly 60% of that state’s population at the time – controlled the Legislature. He did not like this. 

For a period in the 1910s through the 1930s, white Protestant supremacism prevailed across the federation, becoming the first dominant, nationwide consensus narrative in U.S. history. This effort saw Wilson’s segregation of the federal government, the triumph of Jim Crow in the South, the erection of most of the Confederate monuments we’re now tearing down, the passage of the 1924 Immigration Act (to protect the country’s “Anglo-Saxon character”) and the explosive success of the film that literally created Hollywood, ”The Birth of a Nation,” which celebrated the first Ku Klux Klan and inspired the creation of the second Klan, which extended its terrorism to also target Catholics, Jews, Orthodox Christian Slavs, Greeks and others deemed contagions on the national body. Supposedly undiluted Anglo-Saxons were celebrated as “pure Americans.”

This was not the best of times. 

* * * * 

This ethno-nationalist model was itself overthrown in the 1960s, when our civic nationalist conceptions returned to the fore, aided in no small part by the clarifying example of the Nazis’ horrifying ethnonationalist regime.

The formal racial caste system of the South was shattered by the Civil Rights Movement. The racial quotas and north European biases in the 1924 Immigration Act were replaced. Previously marginalized groups – women, Native Americans, Catholics, gays and lesbians, people with disabilities – demanded recognition, the rights promised in the declaration and a place in the American story. The United States had finally become, for the first time in its history, a liberal democracy as a political scientist would understand it.  


But an unfortunate thing happened during this long overdue reckoning. Recognizing it had been ignoring or excluding so many people, our national story was disassembled.

Scholars focused on unpacking the neglected parts: the long-suppressed stories, contributions and perspectives of social, cultural and ethnic groups. Our political leaders interpreted our victory in the Cold War not as the triumph of liberal democracy over one-party dictatorship but of capitalism over communism. Nation-states, they claimed, were on their way to extinction, to be replaced by capital flows, multinational corporations and technocratic trade regimes, so there was no need to bother maintaining the national stories they needed to bond their inhabitants together.

A coherent story of United States nationhood taking advantage of all the new and valuable scholarship was never reassembled. Post-Cold War America – and much of “the West” – had no story at all apart from a vague materialist argument about increasing the national GDP. A void opened up, and demagogues and charlatans stepped into the breach.

And in November 2016, a man espousing ethno-nationalism, “America First” and a return to an unspecified, less inclusive time of American greatness won an Electoral College majority, refashioned a major political party in his image, and embarked on a crude assault of our civic national ideals.  

But an ethnonationalist vision cannot hold this diverse federation together except through some form of authoritarianism. American civic nationalism has had its failings – arrogance, messianic hubris, a self-regard so bright as to blind one to shortcomings – but at its core, it is built on unifying, inspirational and genuinely good ideals that a supermajority of Americans can get behind, be they conservatives or liberals, Republicans or Democrats, or something in between.

Testing, perfecting and disseminating such a story of America is what we’re doing at Nationhood Lab, and I invite my fellow Mainers to take part.

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