Believing in the experiment of democracy, despite the setbacks

In her latest book, ‘This America: The Case for the Nation,’ historian Jill Lepore affirms and celebrates the country’s foundational values. 

Courtesy of Norton
‘This America: The Case for the Nation’ by Jill Lepore, Norton, 150 pp.

If the experiment of American liberal democracy has historically failed to live up to its ideals, why believe in its future? Harvard University historian Jill Lepore grapples with that question in This America: The Case for the Nation. Less than a year ago, Lepore explored the nation’s contradictions in “These Truths: A History of the United States,” an ambitious one-volume history. “This America,” at close to one-fifth the length, serves as somewhat of an epilogue. At a time of growing division and uncertainty, Lepore calls for a reckoning with the nation’s past and a patriotic embrace of its foundational values.

Much of the book deals with American nationalism, which Lepore argues is an un-American idea. She doesn’t take issue with loving one’s country – she argues for patriotism – but nationalism encompasses a belief that the world “ought to be divided into nations,” a view that she warns lends itself to hatred of others. Neither the Declaration of Independence nor the Constitution, she points out, referred to the United States as a “nation,” and nationalism’s very existence seems contradictory in a country founded as an asylum. “Patriotism is animated by love, nationalism by hatred,” she writes of the distinction.

In the late 20th century, American historians largely stopped studying national history, believing nationalism was ready to cede to a global future. Nationalism, however, never went away; its prevalence in contemporary immigration debates has made that clear. But even if nationalism is dangerous, the world is and likely will remain composed of nation-states for the foreseeable future. As a way forward, Lepore proposes recentering the nation upon “a new Americanism”: a patriotism crafted around not a set of common identities, but a love of the same civic ideals. At the nation’s core, Lepore reminds us, lies “the idea that all men are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights.” She writes, “Anyone who affirms these truths and believes that we should govern our common life together belongs in this country. That is America’s best idea.”

Yet, she observes, “a nation founded on ideals, universal truths, also opens itself to charges of hypocrisy at every turn.” While “These Truths” details the wealth of those contradictions much more extensively, “This America” spends most of its time discussing a history of immigration restrictions. Fittingly, Lepore dedicates the book to her father, “whose immigrant parents named him Amerigo in 1924, the year Congress passed a law banning immigrants like them.”

Borrowing from W.E.B. DuBois, Lepore interprets history as the nation’s struggle to make good on its promises, comprising its “hideous mistakes” and “frightful wrongs,” as well as “the great and beautiful things” that it can do. “The nation, as ever, is the fight,” she writes. It must take responsibility for its failures. 

Lepore also looks optimistically on the nation’s values that make change possible. She quotes Martin Luther King Jr.: “‘The great glory of American democracy is the right to protest for right.’” She notes that nearly all who have endeavored to achieve change – from Native rights activist William Apess to women’s suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton to labor unionist Eugene Debs – have advanced their causes through patriotic pleas.

“This America” isn’t the groundbreaking work that “These Truths” was, which Lepore acknowledges. It is unlikely to convince anyone who doesn’t already agree with her, and those who feel betrayed by the nation’s broken promises may wince at her invocation of patriotism. But Lepore, in sharp and earnest prose, provides a timely reminder that while the nation hasn’t achieved its egalitarian promise – and there’s no guarantee it ever will – the values at its core ensure the existence of a mechanism to fight for it.

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