Hannah Arendt: America is Not a Nation



Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” –Emma Lazarus, New Colossus (Engraved on a plaque inside the Statue of Liberty)

“My father gave his life, making this country what it is. Murdered by the British with all of his men on the twenty fifth of July, anno domini, 1814. Do you think I’m going to help you befoul his legacy, by giving this country over to them, what’s had no hand in the fighting for it? Why, because they come off a boat crawling with lice and begging you for soup.” –Bill the Butcher, Gangs of New York

Speaking to an audience gathered for the Fourth Congress of the Indonesian Diaspora in Jakarta on July 1, 2017, former U.S. President Barack Obama warned against “a rise in an aggressive kind of nationalism” throughout the world. It entails “an increased resentment about minority groups and the bad treatment of people who don’t look like us or practice the same faith as us.”

If we don’t stand up for pluralism, tolerance, and respect for others, Mr. Obama cautioned, “What we will see is more and more people arguing against democracy, we will see more and more people who are looking to restrict freedom of the press, and we’ll see more intolerance, more tribal divisions, more ethnic divisions, and religious divisions and more violence,”

News of this ‘aggressive kind of nationalism’ will come as no surprise to anyone paying even minimal attention to politics over the past few years. In Europe alone we’ve seen the rise in popularity Marine LePen’s lightly rebrandedFront National, Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom, Poland’s Law and Order party, Austria’s Freedom party, the Golden Dawn in Greece, the Alternative for Germany, the white supremacist Sweden Democrats, the Jobbik party in Hungary, and Fidesz under Orbán, and because the Jobbiks and Fidesz just aren’t hateful enough, the new Force and Determination party. That’s not even close to a complete list by the way. I could go on.

Here in the United States–if we’re going to describe this aggressive kind of nationalism in terms of political parties–we have the Republican Party. Surely you’ve heard of it. America is only ever allowed to have two viable political parties and this has been one of them for more than 150 years. It’s the party of Abraham Lincoln. Remember him? Tall guy? Stovepipe hat? Put an end to the institution of slavery? Yeah, that guy. America’s exemplar of gravitas and moral character.

Well obviously the Republican party has changed a lot since Lincoln’s day. Today it’s headed up by a petty and small-minded white nationalist billionaire. I’m referring of course to the birther president, Donald Trump. He wants to put America First and Make America Great Again by persecuting immigrants and Muslims.

Remarking on Donald Trump’s campaign slogan Make America Great Again, MIT economist Peter Temin aptly notes in the introduction to his recent book The Vanishing Middle Class that “‘Great’ is a euphemism for ‘White’.”

In light of Mr. Obama’s warning and Mr. Trump’s rise to power I thought that now would be a great time to revisit an important but little known observation made by Hannah Arendt in 1973: America is not a nation.

Allow that to sink in for a moment. America is not a nation.

Some American defenders of the new nationalism (neo-nationalism) would have you believe that they’re patriots defending America against whatever “other” they believe poses the greatest threat. But if Arendt is correct, if America is not a nation, then this doesn’t quite ring true. While it may still be feasible to present nationalism in the respectable dress of patriotism in Europe (the birthplace of nationalism), we should afford Americans no such refuge. American neo-nationalism is not a form of patriotism. American neo-nationalism is simply that “aggressive form of nationalism” Barack Obama just warned us about. American neo-nationalism is racism, intolerance, and bigotry.

Hannah Arendt: America is Not a Nation

As a German Jew, intellectual, and political activist, Hannah Arendt was fortunate (and very smart) to have escaped Hitler’s Germany with her life. In 1933, only a year after publishing her doctoral dissertation in philosophy, Arendt was actually arrested and very briefly jailed by the Gestapo. You can listen to Arendt’s own account of the story in this interview (starting at the 12:00 mark). After this close call she fled to France where she lived until the Vichy regime began expelling Jews to internment camps. In 1941 she sought political asylum in the United States and became a naturalized citizen (by consenting to the Constitution) in 1950.

Hannah Arendt’s takes on America and American politics were always very interesting. As an historian of politics (she rejected the label ‘philosopher’ to embrace politics) she not only had an incredibly deep understanding of politics but was also a serious student of the American Constitution. As a German-born naturalized American citizen she offered the kind of insightful outsider’s perspective that is simply inaccessible to native born American citizens.

In 1973 Arendt was interviewed in New York City for French television by Roger Errera. Her comments were thus impromptu and informal, and yet characteristically thoughtful and thought provoking. Errara began by asking Arendt for her dominant impression of America. Arendt offered the following rather remarkable reply:

“See, this is not a nation-state. America is not a nation-state, and Europeans have a hell of a time to understand this simple fact which, after all, they could know theoretically. It is…this country is united neither by heritage, nor by memory, nor by soil, nor by language, nor by origin from the same…by nat…there are no natives here. The natives were the Indians. Everything else are citizens, and these citizens are united only by one thing–and that is a lot. That is, you become a citizen of the United States by simple consent to the Constitution.”

…these citizens are united only by one thing–and that is a lot. That is, you become a citizen of the United States by simple consent to the Constitution.” -Hannah Arendt

It’s important to emphasize that this isn’t just a casual, passing observation. This is Hannah Arendt’s dominant impression of America after living in the country as a scholar of politics for more than 30 years. What impressed her most was the idea that citizens of a very large republic are a collection of individuals united by little more than their mutual consent to a social contract. She speaks with enthusiastic wonder at the fact that Americans believe that a human being is free to make choices prior to and independent of his or her ethnicity, nationality, culture, and “tribe”. Americans are not Americans by historically determined factors out of their control. Americans are Americans because they have chosen to be so. This makes the American republic an institution of human freedom.

This is, we should note, the antithesis of the romantic European myth of nationalism. If Europeans can understand this “theoretically”, as Arendt notes, it’s because these ideals–classical liberal individualism, the social contract, and constitutional republicanism–are ideals of the European Enlightenment. For Americans, however, these ideals are not simply theoretical.

American Civil Religion

If this union of freely contracting individuals is more than simply ‘theoretical’ to Americans, a critical observer will also note that it’s not entirely ‘real’ either. For instance, like the vast majority of Americans, I am a citizen by birthright. No one ever asked me to consent to the Constitution (for the record I would if asked). And as evidenced by our history of slavery, Arendt’s mention of a “lack of natives,” and the struggle for women’s suffrage, freely contracted citizenship rights were initially limited to white men–all points that American racists with romantic nationalist aspirations are only too happy to exploit.

These points notwithstanding, however, the ideals that traditionally unite Americans as Americans are not nationalist. If Americans sometimes refer to the United States as a nation, this likely has more to do with linguistic convention, what British historian Eric Hobsbawm has described as “the semantic illusion which today turns all states officially into nations.” Similarly, while the United States ranks consistently as one of the most patriotic countries in the world, American patriotism isn’t nationalist in origin either. In his book, Nations and Nationalism Since 1780, Eric Hobsbawm makes this point very clear.

“The original, revolutionary-popular, idea of patriotism was state-based rather than nationalist,” Hobsbawm wrote, “since it related to the sovereign people itself, i.e., to the state exercising power in its name. Ethnicity or other elements of historic continuity were irrelevant […].” This idea of patriotism, Hobsbawm claimed, was “pioneered by Americans.” “[T]he patrie to which their loyalty lay,” he added, “was the opposite of an existential, pre-existing unit, but a nation created by the political choice of its members…”

The original, revolutionary-popular, idea of patriotism was state-based rather than nationalist.” -Eric Hobsbawm

Patriotism of this sort is closer to civil religion than a manifestation of nationalism. It’s not as overtly theological as the civil religion proposed by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in The Social Contract, but is rather a kind of American identity premised upon a shared oath to honor a set of political ideals loosely based what has come to be known as the American Creed. In her interview with Roger Errera it’s pretty clear that Hannah Arendt more or less concurs with this characterization.

“The constitution,” Arendt remarked, “that is a scrap of paper according to French and well as German common opinion, and you can change it. No, here it is a sacred document. It is the constant remembrance of one sacred act and that is the act of foundation. The act of foundation and the foundation is to make a union out of wholly disparate ethnic minorities and regions and still: have a union and do not assimilate or level down these differences.”


The Horrific Modern History of Nationalism

It is understandable that those of a conservative mindset who are driven by inclination to defend tradition might be drawn to nationalism as a means of coping with the rapid changes to human life our increasingly globalized world presents us with. What is perhaps less clear to such people is that nationalism itself is not “traditional”. Nationalism is actually quite modern. The movements and developments that transformed regional dialects into homogeneous national languages, empires into nation-states, and peasants into Frenchmen date roughly to the beginning of the 19th century.

The American republic, which was established just prior to the popularity of this European nationalist fad, was afforded none of the illusions of Europe’s nationalist seducements and trappings. There is no American nation in any ethnic, racial, religious, or linguistic sense of the term. Current attempts to manifest an ethno-nationalist form of American patriotism and to transform the children of immigrants into American nativists not only run contrary to the very spirit of America (the spirit of 1776). They also amount to an attempt to fabricate something that simply doesn’t exist. It’s hard to imagine how such efforts will lead anywhere than to ugly places: racism, white nationalism, religious bigotry, intolerance, and ‘ethnic cleansing’ (by political means and by violent means).

If we want a glimpse of where such movements are likely to lead, we need merely look at the history of Europe in the 20th century. After artfully fabricating territorial nation-states idealized as contiguous, ethnically, religiously, linguistically, and racially homogeneous ‘nations’ in the 19th century, Europe spent a better part of the 20th century turning this ideal into a reality via the horrors and brutality of forced mass migrations, genocidal mass-murder, and perpetual war. This is no legacy for Americans to aspire to. And if the globalizing forces of the 21st Century are beginning to undo this 20th Century legacy of horror, we shouldn’t simply assume that it’s a bad thing, despite how anxious it might make us feel.

American Neo-nationalism and the Alt-Right

This brings us finally to neo-nationalist movements in America. Whether they do so willingly or unintentionally (American racists speak in ‘dog whistles’ and codes, so it’s not always clear), the program of horror I described in the section above is the program American neo-nationalists would ask you to ‘get on board with’.

I’m more than willing to grant the possibility that among some American neo-nationalists the racism is unintentional, although there is plenty of room to be skeptical. This possibility is suggested by the ‘branding riff’ described in a recent New Yorker Article that’s presumably torn the “alt-right” in two (aka ‘alt-right’ v. ‘alt-light’). This rift became clear as dueling groups of conservatives showed up at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington on Sunday, June 25th, 2017 for a Rally for Free Speech. The ‘alt-light’ set, apparently much to their horror, quickly found themselves in midst of seig heiling nazis and fans of anti-semitic white nationalist Richard Spencer rambling about how “the founding fathers objectively founded this country for white people.”

They care about the white race. We care about Western values.” -Gavin McInnes, Proud Boys founder

In the New Yorker article I just referenced, Gavin McInnes, one of the founders of the “alt-light’ organization Proud Boys, is careful to distinguish his group from the “alt-right” thusly: “They care about the white race. We care about Western values.” Somehow, however, I doubt that the Western values he’s talking about are the universal moral principles of the Enlightenment. It leads me to wonder what Western values he could possibly be talking about, which in turn leads me to suspect dog whistling.

American White Nationalism

Rather than second guessing the intentions of aspiring American neo-nationalists, I’ll simply close with some rather interesting insights from a survey of voters in the 2016 Presidential election. In December 2016 the Democracy Fund VOTER Survey developed a typology of Trump voters from data from 8,000 respondents. The study revealed that Trump voters are by no means a homogenous bloc. I also want to make it very clear that “Trump voter” is not synonymous with “American neo-nationalist”. Quite to the contrary, as this survey makes clear, most Trump voters are not neo-nationalists. Instead, researchers identified five voting clusters based on varying preferences towards policies and issues. Those clusters are as follows: 31% were Staunch Conservatives (i.e., mainstream Republicans), 25% were Free Marketers (i.e., Libertarians), 20% were American Preservationists (well get to them in a minute), 19% were Anti-Elites (almost indistinguishable from Bernie Bros), and 5% were The Disengaged (i.e., the clueless).

The American Preservationists are particularly worthy of note. Whereas Staunch Conservatives represent the traditional Republican voting bloc, the American Preservationists represent Trumps core constituency–the people who carried him through the primaries to win the Republican nomination.

American Preservationists aren’t as fiscally conservative as Staunch Conservatives (traditional Republicans) and Free Marketers (Libertarians). However, they’re the cluster who most strongly believes that the political and economic system is rigged against them. They’re also the cluster with the greatest nativist, ethno-nationalist sense of American identity, the strongest opposition to immigration (both legal and illegal), and the coldest feelings towards Muslims and Latinos. For what it’s worth, they also tend to smoke and watch a lot of TV.

In short, the American Preservationists are your core American neo-nationalists. A significant majority of them believe that to be truly American you have to have been born in America, you have to have lived in America most of your life, and you have to be Christian (as a matter of cultural identity, as most of them don’t actually go to church).

It’s interesting to note that by this criteria most African Americans qualify as truly American. However, nearly half (47%) of American Preservationists also believe that to be truly American you also must be of European descent. In other words (and in case it wasn’t already obvious), nearly half of them are white nationalist racists. 67% of them–a far greater percentage than any other cluster of Trump voters–consider race to be an important part of their identity.

I rest my case…for now. Note that this is the second of a series of posts I’ve written on the subject of American patriotism. You can find the first installment here.

Following the 2016 presidential election, people seemed to be saying these words repetitively — “clearly, we’re living in dark times.” indarktimes.com