Nationalists versus activists: The return of the 1920s

But when Obama speaks of what is “not American,” countless citizens wonder: Who is he to judge what is “not American”? The United States is wracked by a spasm of anti-cosmopolitanism and fear of radical subversion. It is exemplified, for many Americans by the election and presidency of Obama himself: black, yet biracially cosmopolitan, urban, intellectual, raised partly in a Muslim country, and the abandoned son of a Kenyan activist and academic. Millions of conservatives still suspect him of being un-Christian and, literally, not a native-born American qualified to serve as president. That Obama’s election occurred simultaneously with the largest economic contraction since the Great Depression exacerbated these cultural tensions. The current conflict is a continuation of one over the past century in the United States between what the historian Gary Gerstle has called the racial nationalism of blood and ethnic supremacy and a more expansive civic nationalism which promises a common political project of equal rights and respect for all. America has seen expressions of both racial and civic nationalism in its history—both are quintessentially American articulations of political power and hierarchy. Yet these different national projects—one culturally and ethnically homogeneous, the other inclusive of differences, yet seeking to subsume them into a “Party of America”, in political theorist Rogers Smith’s words—both risk canceling out a third strain of American nationalism. They contend with a paradoxically de-nationalized pluralism of countless hyphenated Americans whose sub-communities do not cohere into a generous polity larger than the sum of its parts.

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There is no period of American history that so pervasively demonstrated the power of ethno-nationalism to suppress pluralist differences as that following the Russian Revolution, the end of the First World War, and then continuing through much of the 1920s. There are many broad parallels between this era and our own. In both historical moments, there is a rising racial nationalism that takes hold of a significant (and demographically similar) portion of the country. Following the 1920s, Franklin Roosevelt’s leadership during the Depression and a massive labor movement—which, at least, in its ideals (if often not its practice) extolled the social solidarity of Americans of all races, ethnicities, and religions—renewed civic nationalism. So, too, did the total mobilization on behalf of prosecuting the Second World War. But civic nationalism, too, was still flawed by institutional racism, and dependent upon extra-national enemies—first German and Japanese totalitarianism and then Soviet communism—to somewhat unify the American political culture. What might we expect to, first, culminate, and, then, follow, the moment of Trump?

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