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The Idea of the Nation



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Some 30 years ago the eminent political scientist Samuel Beer wrote an article for the New Republic in which he questioned the implications for what he called the idea of the nation of then President Reagan’s declaration that “government” was the nation’s most pressing challenge. We now know the Reagan years ushered in a period of neo-liberal politics in which it has become common currency for elected leaders in the United States and Europe to argue that economic growth requires smaller government, diminished regulation of market actors and, in general, increased political support for the market and for investors and investment capital in society. If anything, as I have written recently, this predilection has only deepened in our society and politics since the Reagan presidency, with all of the current Republican Party presidential candidates adopting the neo-liberal stance as axiomatic.

Mitt Romney, for example, has advocated for $180 billion more in tax cuts for the wealthiest in society with accompanying sharp reductions in food stamp and Medicaid expenditures. Other proposed Romney reductions are targeted at—to use the GOP rhetoric of the moment—other “job killing” agencies and programs whose efforts are aimed at preventing environmental degradation, ensuring energy sustainability or assuring access to transportation for the poor and those of modest income. Romney has coupled calls for these efforts with perhaps the harshest stance of all the current candidates on immigration.

President Reagan, ever the pragmatist, who engineered tax increases when he judged them necessary, would likely be surprised at the vociferousness of this turn. At the outset of this era Beer predicted that Reagan’s rhetoric on federalism, and his desire to eliminate as much of the domestic federal role as possible, signaled an unheralded debate concerning the nation’s vision of itself. Were we to be the people envisioned by the Framers of a single vital and heterogeneous country, or were we instead to be balkanized around region and state and interested only in our own privatized welfare and uninterested in the common good claims of others in our midst? Were we to define as “other” even those from different states and economic circumstances, or to imagine that we shared a common identity and future as Americans, irrespective of our geographic location and personal economic circumstances?

Beer argued the idea of nation in so vast and diverse a country cannot simply be assumed, and its sinews, built as they are on shared symbolic aspirations and broad values, can surely be undermined. One consequence of continued and increasingly virulent rhetoric, from would-be leaders and elected officials alike, that the nation’s government (the only “real” symbol of the nation) represents its greatest and most negative challenge might well be the realization of Beer’s fear. That is, it no longer seems beyond the pale to be concerned that citizens could be persuaded to delegitimate their government as a social force to address the negative impacts and inequalities created by the market in favor of increasing reliance on capitalism as sole arbiter of both political and economic matters in society. To do so would weaken, if not break, democratic claims by definition, further fray the bonds among the nation’s disparate citizenry and empty the idea of a single united nation of all meaning. The result would likely be a still more vigorously individualistic, thoroughly privatized and less charitable population and country.

It seems unlikely this could occur over night, but we have witnessed decades of such rhetoric that goes far beyond a healthy democratic skepticism and we are now in the midst of the Tea Party Movement, whose adherents see government tyranny in efforts to secure energy sustainability and have branded global warming a myth of overweening national and international elites. It no longer appears farfetched not only to discuss the enervation of the idea of the nation, but to worry it will come the cropper amidst supposed efforts on behalf of individual liberty. It is difficult to see this continuing trend as anything but deeply concerning. The federal government is not an “other” to be repudiated or worse, but the only avenue available for the emergence and maintenance of national unity and action. The American nation is not a vast territory of assorted enclaves, rich and poor, ethnic and not, in competition with one another for the favors of market actors or a supposed unerring market. Instead, the United States is a single sovereign people at least potentially united by a shared devotion to freedom and democratic possibility.

Publication Date

February 5, 2012