Jill Lepore on the American Nation

We talk to historian Jill Lepore about the idea of nationalism in America, from the birth of the Republic through to Trump. What defines the nation? Why does the illiberal version keep getting the upper hand?  Are there any politicians in America who can rescue the idea of liberal nationalism? Plus we ask Jill what she thinks of Johnson, Brexit and nationalism in the UK.


The Union won the American Civil War, but the South won the peace.

  • The South won the peace by persuading the North both to undo the terms of Reconstruction and to remember the war as being about something different than it actually was.
  • The Confederacy was founded on the premise of racial hierarchy.
  • Reconstruction began as essentially a military occupation of the South to reinforce the new amendments to the Constitution guaranteeing equality for all people
  • But it was ended prematurely and the federal government wound up conceding the constitutionality of the Jim Crow laws that reenforced racial hierarchy.


When did cities stop being a part of “the nation?”

  • To some on the right, there’s no such thing as a liberal nationalism or liberal patriotism. 
  • Trump sets the nation against the government.
  • Historically, the term “globalist” is code for antisemitism. 
  • The environmentalists may have replaced the old “internationalists.”


The classic error on the left is to speak to either subgroups or the world.

  • Looking at the Democratic presidential candidates, you don’t really see anyone talking about what the nation is.
  • The concept of the “nation” is now one of the things that divides generations.
  • Obama did talk about the nation a lot—this is part of what made him so powerful rhetorically.


There are competing notions of nationalism. On the one hand, you have an enlightened, liberal nationalism, which is about guaranteeing equal rights to citizens. On the other, there is illiberal nationalism, which is premised on exclusion. 

  • Right now, illiberal nationalism seems to have the upper hand.


Further Learning: 


And as ever, recommended reading curated by our friends at the LRB can be found here: lrb.co.uk/talking

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