AuthorWoodard, Colin

That the bonds holding the United States have been weakening has been obvious for more than a decade. We're divided into red states and blue states and split into geographic blocks that track back to those of the Civil War, whose representatives might as well come from different planets with regard to ideas about the proper role of government, the relationship between church and state, and the connection between individual liberty and the common good. Congress went from being incapable of reliably raising the debt ceiling to being unable to agree that foreign interference in our elections is bad.

Over the past year, the country's fractures have only widened. An absence of federal leadership on the pandemic left states divided on largely regional grounds on how to respond. Revelations of continued police brutality against Black Americans led to mass multiracial demonstrations, and then counter-demonstrations by white people carrying Confederate flags. President Donald Trump's post-election rants against the results of a free and fair election raised the specter of an attempted coup while garnering wide support from many voters and elected officials in his party. All these developments underscored how far we've drifted from the fundamental ideals that have managed to hold our awkward federation together for 244 years, the ones in the Declaration of Independence: the inherent equality of humans and their rights to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and representative self-government. A union Abraham Lincoln called "the last best hope of Earth" is in danger of collapse.

Joe Biden's victory in November has bought us time. It's essential that we make good use of it. Much needs to be done, from defeating COVID-19 to rebuilding overseas alliances to reestablishing the independence of the Department of Justice. But none of it will matter if we are not also able to restore our lost sense of shared belonging and common purpose.

Intellectuals from Jill Lepore and Michael Lind to David Brooks and Ross Douthat have pointed to the need for a new national story, or possibly a renewed one, in order to provide a communal identity incorporating an understanding of our national origins, purpose, and possible future. People need such a story and, as Lepore has put it, "they can get it from scholars or they can get it from demagogues, but get it they will." A society without a credible story, the historian William McNeill wrote 38 years ago, "soon finds itself in deep trouble, for in the absence of believable myths, coherent public action becomes very difficult to improvise or sustain."

We stand at a crossroads, as we did in the 1870s, with two paths before us, two American stories. One is ethnic and exclusionary; the other is civic and, in principle, universal, though falling far short of that in practice. They each have their own heroes, iconography, and present-day standard-bearers: Jefferson Davis, the Confederate battle flag, Steve Bannon, and Donald Trump on one hand; Abraham Lincoln, the preamble to the Declaration of Independence, and the Black Lives Matter movement on the other. Each of these traditions, these explanations for why and for whom the United States exists, grew out of a separate regional culture and yet succeeded in becoming the dominant, consensus view across the federation for decades. Now neither holds sway. Instead, they have been literally clashing with one another in the streets.

If the United States is to survive as a unified democracy, we need to rediscover, reinvigorate, and adapt our lost civic national story for 21st-century life and finally put the ethnonational one in the trash bin of history. Given that more than 70 million citizens recently failed to condemn the exclusionary narrative at the polls, this will be challenging. But there are grounds for hope that our better angels might prevail. Trump spent four years demonizing nonwhite immigrants as hut dwellers, rapists, and murderers, and deploying federal agents against those protesting the murder of Black people by law enforcement. Yet over the course of his administration, public support for taking in immigrants reached record highs, and white support for the Black Lives Matter movement increased from 40 percent in the summer of 2016 to 45 percent in September. The country remains bitterly divided. But if support for inclusion increases in the face of hate, then we have a chance, and we must take it.

Maintaining a shared sense of nationhood has always been a special challenge for the United States, arguably the world's first civic nation--one defined not by organic ties, but by a shared commitment to a set of ideals. It came into being as a contractual agreement, a means to an end for 13 disparate colonies facing a common enemy. Its people lacked a shared history, religion, or ethnicity. (Pennsylvania, for example, had a German plurality in 1776, while South Carolina had an African majority.) There was no common language, and most of the country's residents hadn't occupied the continent long enough to imagine it as their mythic homeland. Its component states had been founded by completely different groups of settlers--Puritans in New England, Dutch in what is now the New York City metropolitan area, Scots-Irish in the Appalachian backcountry, slave lords from the English West Indies in the lowlands of the Deep South, and so on--with often incompatible political, economic, ethnographic, and religious characteristics.

By the 1830s, the federation's identity crisis had reached a tipping point. It had weathered Appalachian and New England secession movements in the 1790s and 1810s, the former in resistance to the machinations of self-interested financiers, the latter fueled by regional opposition to the War of 1812. The stopgap remedy--to celebrate the shared struggle of the American Revolution--had lost its strength as the Founders' generation passed from the scene, leaving a gaping void. Americans knew...

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