Most of the new nationalism literature written from a progressive perspective is critical, focusing on the problems with nationalism and its dire threat to liberal values. Perhaps that is beginning to change, though. Yet even in this new book by Harvard historian and The New Yorker staff writer Jill Lepore, which looks like an attempt at addressing nationalism positively from a progressive perspective, attempting to harmonize it with liberal egalitarian values and chart future paths of progressive politics, one still senses great reservations and the overwhelming urge to critique it. The book is This America: The Case for the Nation (Penguin Random House).
“At a time of much despair over the future of liberal democracy, Harvard historian Jill Lepore makes a stirring case for the nation in This America. Since the end of the Cold War, Lepore writes, American historians have largely retreated from the idea of “the nation,” in part because postmodernism has corroded faith in grand narratives, and in part because the rise of political nationalism has rendered it suspect and unpalatable. Bucking this trend, however, Lepore argues forcefully that the nation demands scrutiny. Without an honest reckoning with America’s collective past, we will be at the mercy of unscrupulous demagogues who spin their own version of the national story for their own purposes. “When serious historians abandon the study of the nation,” Lepore tellingly writes, “nationalism doesn’t die. Instead, it eats liberalism.” A trenchant work of political philosophy as well as a reclamation of America’s national history, This America asks us to look our nation’s sovereign past square in the eye to reveal not only a history of contradictions, but a path of promise for the future.”