Following her impressive one-volume history of the United States, These Truths (2018), the acclaimed historian delivers a sharp, short history of nationalism, which she describes as “a contrivance, an artifice, a fiction.”
As New Yorker staff writer Lepore (American History/Harvard Univ.) notes, the term wasn’t even used until the 19th century. In 1830s America, it was called sectionalism, and its adherents included those who favored slavery and native tribes who didn’t recognize the government. By the 1880s, nationalism was fed by Jim Crow laws, the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Dawes Act, and the Supreme Court ruling that Native Americans had no birthright to citizenship. The author clearly shows that, while patriotism is characterized by love of your home and people, nationalism features hatred of other countries and immigrants as well as those who are different at home. “Immigration policy is a topic for political debate; reasonable people disagree,” writes Lepore. “But hating immigrants, as if they were lesser humans, is a form of nationalism that has nothing to do with patriotism and much to do with racism.” Furthermore, she writes, “confusing nationalism and patriotism is not always innocent.” The author also takes her fellow historians to task for missing the resurgence of nationalism following World War II. Though there was a comparatively brief lull in the 1930s, with the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, the nation fell apart. Churches were bombed, civil rights leaders were harassed and even killed, and the Ku Klux Klan reappeared. Hopes rose with the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Immigration Act, and the Voting Rights Act, and in the 1980s, nationalism in the U.S. was all but dead. However, it continued to thrive in Bosnia and Rwanda and has carried over to Russia, Turkey, Poland, Hungary, and the Philippines. Lepore writes that while global trade, immigration reform, and the internet were supposed to end divisions, nationalism has surged; now we have politics of identity rather than nationality.
A frank, well-written look at the dangers we face. We ignore them at our peril.