For those who live, actually or spiritually, inside the Beltway of Washington, D.C., a political change of heart becomes the stuff of high drama, even when the protagonist is hardly known beyond the limits of the federal district. Thus it was, not too long ago, with Michael Lind. Still in his early thirties, Lind had risen to a position of some eminence within conservative circles, especially among conservative Washington insiders—circles within a circle, one might say—assuming the role of executive editor of The National Interest, a conservative journal highly influential among the sorts of people likely to be influenced by a journal.
Then, in the winter, 1995, issue of Dissent (apply here the description previously given of The National Interest, substituting “liberal” for “conservative”), Lind’s article “The Death of Intellectual Conservatism” announced to a small but excruciatingly attentive world the author’s denunciation of conservatism and many of its works. Conservatism, said Lind, is intellectually bankrupt. Within weeks Lind was enjoying a celebrity that promised to extend beyond the Beltway. Readers unlikely to encounter him in The National Interest or Dissent found Lind the object of excited attention in The New Republic, The New York Review of Books, Harper’s, The New Yorker— indeed, even The Village Voice.
That Lind seemed to be moving left when the elections of 1994 suggested to many that the country was moving right added piquancy to the story. Moreover, Lind proved an engagingly articulate defector. Not satisfied merely to abandon his conservative allegiances, he quickly went to work developing, more or less in public, a liberal alternative. The Next American Nation: The New Nationalism and the Fourth American Revolution is the culmination of that process, even if it is not the end of its author’s ideological odyssey.
Responses to the book from left, right, and center often treat it as a chapter in the story outlined above. The Washington Post calls Lind the apostate avenger. A headnote to a favorable review in the Boston Globe salutes the vision of a convert to liberalism. The conservative monthly Commentary assigns to a negative review the title “About Face.” Some express uncertainty as to the exact terms of Lind’s turnabout. For Ellen Willis, in the left-oriented The Nation, Lind remains an unreconstructed neoconservative. If readers are confused on this point, it is because neoconservatism as a movement has deconstructed; people have forgotten what a neoconservative formerly sounded like. Is it a symptom of clarity or of confusion that one reviewer hailed Lind as spokesman of the radical center? This emphasis may no doubt be justified, but it would be a pity if it blinded readers to the importance of the book as a valuable, if by no means flawless, contribution to America’s ever-evolving public philosophy.
The book makes a number of controversial claims, some of them regarding divisive issues of the time, but it is possible that none is more controversial than the hardly explosive assertion that America is indeed a nation, a concrete historical community whose members share a common language, common folkways, and a common vernacular culture. In making this claim, Lind opposes the multiculturalists, for whom there is no single American culture, and the democratic universalists, for whom America is the embodiment of an ideal. Both these positions, by the way, are more than adequately represented among Lind’s reviewers.
Lind further distinguishes his position, which he calls liberal nationalism, from nativism, which requires some sort of racial or religious test for membership in the nation. He establishes historical roots for his position in the strong-state nationalism of George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Daniel Webster, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt, in the New Deal liberalism of Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Lyndon Johnson, and in the color-blind racial integrationism of Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, Jr. Liberal nationalism, he argues, offers a new understanding of the American past, based on a realistic analysis of the three republics that have shaped American history.
The first of these, Anglo-America, was in existence before 1789 and lasted until 1861. In this America, the national community was identified with the Anglo-Saxon or Anglo-German element of the population. This America had its civic religion, Protestant Christianity, and its political creed, federal republicanism.
After the Civil War, a second republic, Euro-America, was born. In this republic the national community expanded to include all Americans of European descent, thus enabling the absorption of the waves of immigration late in the nineteenth century. This republic, too, had its civic religion, a Christianity no longer specifically Protestant. The political...
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