November 2, 2023
NEWPORT, R.I — In a new essay published in the American Enterprise Institute’s The Social Breakdown series, Nationhood Lab director Colin Woodard argues that the United States is unlikely to survive if a supermajority of Americans can’t find broad agreement on the very big picture questions: For what purpose does our shared federation exist? What does it mean to be an American and who can be one? Where did our country come from and where are we trying to go to together?
In short, Woodard writes, we need a renewed, 21st century national narrative for the United States and based not on imagined bloodlines, the beliefs of any single religious denomination, or shared historical origins (because the American regions and colonies did not share such), but rather on a shared set of ideals found in the Declaration of Independence. And this civic nationalism must triumph over the resurgent ethnonational forces rallied to battle by former president Donald Trump.
“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 are 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,” Woodard writes in the piece, the latest article in the AEI series hosted by its new Center on Opportunity and Social Mobility, which focuses on issues related to social capital.
The United States was a state before it came up with an argument for also being a nation a fact that has always made it vulnerable to dissolution. An accidental alliance of stateless nations — the regional cultures described in Woodard’s 2011 book American Nations — it had to invent a national story to paper over the massive (and enduring) differences between its component sections (a story told in a sequel, Union.)
Woodard recently presented on these issues to the Democratic caucus of the U.S. Senate, at the University of South Carolina, and at AEI itself, where he joined Yuval Levin (author of “The Great Debate” and “The Fractured Republic” and Ryan Streeter (a former aide to George W. Bush and Indian Gov. Mike Pence. Last week he joined BYUradio’s “Top of Mind” program to discuss the need for an American founding story. He’s also written on the historical background of our national story for Smithsonian and Washington Monthly.
Nationhood Lab, a project of Salve Regina University’s Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy, focuses on counteracting the authoritarian threat to American democracy and the centrifugal forces threatening the federation’s stability. One pillar of the project seeks to develop, rigorously test, and disseminate articulate a renewed civic national narrative for the United States.
[This article was cross-posted from Nationhoodlab.org]