Sarah Palin brought us here, to this crossroads in our long national journey, where fervent nationalism is our traveling companion, and the next destination is difficult to see.
Maybe it makes more sense to say: at the start of the journey was Sarah Palin. We made many wrong turns along the way.
What I mean is this: way back in 2008 — now dimly remembered by many of us — Sarah Palin stepped on to the national stage, as our moose-slaying, lipstick-on-a-pitbull, frontier-town Margaret Thatcher. She promised to turn the clock back on the transformation of America, halting our progress toward a multi-cultural, Spanglish-speaking nation. Promising to build a sea-wall to defend us from the tidal wave of immigration.
She could see the rest of the planet from her home on top of the world, and she didn’t like what she saw. And millions of frustrated, disoriented Americans, feeling left behind by the progress of history, embraced her.
Spoiler: then Donald Trump came along. But let’s go back to that moment in 2008. Because I believe we can only understand our present situation by examining an unexpected parallel between Palin and Thatcher.
The two women couldn’t, by many measures, be more different. Thatcher had a long career in politics, culminating in her nearly twelve years as the first woman to be Britain’s Prime Minister. She was a chemist and a barrister, a thoughtful conservative, proper in manners and composure. Palin has a degree in communications, and worked for a time as a local sports broadcaster, becoming mayor of her small town, and eventually Governor of Alaska, resigning before her term was completed. She ran alongside John McCain, of course, aiming to become the first woman to be Vice President. But she lost, settling in, after some time, as a reality show host and, now and then, a bit of noise on the right wing fringe.
But the two women offered hope, in their respective and very different ways, for aging white men, who were nostalgic for a vision of their nations as titans, astride the world, shaping events, before the rise of the global south and the wars and disorder that followed, and before immigration and history transformed their homelands into messy multi-cultural democracies.
All nations are constructed social-cultural-political collectivities. Origins, language, ethnicity and race might have something to do with how the boundaries of nations are drawn, but the accumulated work on nations and nationalism points to an inescapable truth: nations aren’t kinship groups, vast families sharing common biological origins. We talk about them that way, but it is a myth. Nations don’t spring up from the soil, they’re manufactured — with deliberate effort, out of need and turmoil and significant events — by states, elites, marginalized ethnic groups, all kinds of people in all types of settings.
In my view, the one essential step in forming a nation is the construction of a compelling story, an enveloping myth about why this group of people — as opposed to some other grouping — belongs together, and why the members of this group owe their loyalty to the collectivity.
I don’t use the word myth to suggest these stories are fictional or made up. A myth is a story with deep emotional resonance, one that captures important elements of collective experience, but employs a symbolically meaningful narrative, not historical facts, to tell the tale.
In other words, the sense of ourselves we get from national myths isn’t necessarily wrong, it is only engineered. Out of all the possible ways to think about ourselves and our connections to others, national myths give us one possible formulation. And the most powerful myths are multi-vocal and elastic, employing symbols that are emotionally resonant with different people for different reasons.
It is this resonance that is central. One of the oldest scholarly statements on nationalism comes from Ernest Renan. He dismissed all of the things that were imagined to be the origins of nations: languages, race, religion. He believed these collectivities were held together by something from the head and the heart:
A nation is a soul, a spiritual principle. Two things, which in truth are but one, constitute this soul or spiritual principle. One lies in the past, one in the present. One is the possession in common of a rich legacy of memories; the other is present-day consent, the desire to live together, the will to perpetuate the value of the heritage that one has received in an undivided form.
Contemporary scholars largely agree with Renan: something more than language and religion and culture join us together. Benedict Anderson, whose work remains foundational to the body of academic theory on nations, refers to these unions as “imagined communities,” and that seems about right. Nations are vast narrative projects, convincing millions of people that they share a destiny with millions of others they have never met.
What matters, I think, is the role of the state. States perform a primary function, from place to place, all around the globe: they build orderliness out of the messiness of human struggle and interplay and enterprise. They reproduce the means of production, build infrastructure so industry can move resources and goods, provide schools to deliver civic and technical education, recruit and arm the military and form local police forces, to defend the nation and enforce law.
And at the dawn of the age of nationalism, as Ernest Gellner saw it, it was the state that reengineered the pulsing mass of society, when history and industrialization required it, to redefine our connections to one another, to prioritize the anonymous ties of culture and language and historical fate, rather than face-to-face familiarity. We trust people we would have never trusted before, people we have never met, people whose lives don’t resemble ours, people wealthier than us, who owe their fortunes to our exploitation. The state built schools and remapped our loyalties to make this new type of solidarity possible.
In both Britain and the United States, this nation-building occurred when the complexion and composition of each society was different. Sure, there were Jews and Muslims, Asians and Blacks, a diversity of origins and faiths, but these communities — these minorities — were pushed to the margins, ignored, and largely invisible in the national narrative.
Important in the national myths of each nation is the idea that we are strong and resolute people, shaping the world around us, fashioners of fate. England, a small island on the edge of a vast North Sea, built an unconquerable navy, and subjugated much of the world. America, once imperiled, a loose confederation of uncertainly joined colonies on the edge of a vast frontier, rose up to tame the wilderness, to spread across the vast continent, and eventually emerge as a global superpower.
But as the twentieth century drew to a close, and a new century arrived, each nation looked around and saw their narrative assumptions challenged by history. Britain, following a dismantling of her empire and years of economic decline, began to awaken to a stark reality: rather than shaping the world around it, Britain was being left behind. Economic decline was followed by a precipitous decline in the nation’s global influence, and the gnawing realization that the nation’s glories had passed.
One key to understanding where we are, for me, can be found in the work of Paul Gilroy, who has written about how race and national identity were at play during the grim years of Britain’s economic decline and the cultural crisis of the nineteen-seventies and eighties.
Thatcher represented something to Britons unsettled by the country’s long slide. She was stiff, resolute, traditional, a product of the generation that fought World War II, in tin helmets, with gritty resolve. And as a woman, interestingly I think, she represented the home front, where, in that character-defining war, while German bombs rained down, brave and unyielding housewives and mothers looked skyward from their air raid shelters, emerging defiantly to sweep up the dust and the mess the invader’s bombs left.
Thatcher promised to clean up the mess created by Britain’s most recent invaders, who had arrived from the West Indies and Africa and South Asia in the years after the war. She promised a return to the proud, proper, empire-building England of the past. With her, some Brits could be reassured that history had never delivered its cruel blows, that England was still a rich, resolute society and the master of the seas (take that Argentina!). The horizon, for as far as anyone could see, was clear and bright and promised smooth sailing.
This was all a lie, of course, but the crueler lie was the idea that England had not changed, that people of color, flowing north from the fading empire’s southern stations, from the Indian subcontinent, from Africa, and from Jamaica, weren’t British.
Britons huddled together on the deck of their sinking nation wanted to cast aside these late-comers, to define (or perhaps redefine) national identity more narrowly. They wanted to reserve the life boats for their kind. A crisis of the type the Brits faced in the nineteen-seventies (and we face now) Gilroy argues, causes a nation to ask: “What kind of people are we?”
This effort at self-examination, forced on a society by failure and decline, seldom leads to honest self-evaluation. What you get instead, is a reassuring reassessment of one’s myths. In our moment of doubt, we want to be reminded how magnificent our achievements were and how great our nation is.
Yet if we are everything we imagined ourselves to be — and aren’t those beliefs confirmed by our proud history? — then our failure must be explained by something else.
For England, the answer was immigration. Immigrants had contaminated England, with their backwardness and criminality, with their tropical cultures and foreign religions.
Think about how disturbing it seemed. England had once ventured forth from its small island, to spread commerce and civilization to the world. As it lost its empire and returned home, all of the people England had conquered followed the Royal Navy home, ruining the island with their “bestial manners, stupidity and vices,” to quote Edward Long, a colonial administrator and author of The History of Jamaica, a noxiously racist account of the English dominion over the small sugar-growing territory.
Two-hundred years after Long put quill to paper, the colonial territories had their revenge, pumping thousands of immigrants into the streets of Britian’s cities. And, so, Thatcher and skin-heads and soccer hooligans set about the work of reclaiming Britain for the Brits.
The United States has encountered its own reckoning. The sole remaining superpower, poised to impose its will on the world, found, instead, other nations ready to manufacture goods for less cost, and non-state actors prepared to defy our vast arsenals to target our homeland with improvised attacks of devastating lethality. American decline hasn’t been absolute — we are still the wealthiest, most powerful nation on earth. But we have lost our swagger and we see, in the not too distant future, that others will sweep past us.
In this context, the election of Barack Obama, America’s first African American President — a triumph of the historical process of opening the American dream to all — brought to the surface a narrower, more time-worn tradition, and less noble sentiments, as some Americans dug in their heels to say: He is not like us and he cannot be trusted with running our national affairs.
Standing at the barricade, to prevent this historical wrong-turn, was Sarah Palin. Palin, in her way, was as perfectly cast to play this role as Thatcher had been to play hers. Like Thatcher, it is meaningful that Palin was a woman. In Palin’s case, emphasizing a mother’s concern for our children. During the campaign, when reflecting on what was at stake if Obama won, Palin said this:
The lessons I believe we have taught our kids would start to erode. Those lessons about work ethic, hard work being rewarded and productivity being rewarded.
Because, for the fraction of the American public Palin was speaking to, African Americans were viewed as unassimilated, and unassimilable, foreign to “our” culture, lazily living off welfare rather than working, like the rest of us do. We don’t want, in Palin’s phrasing, “our kids” to start living like they do.
At the center of the idea of nationalism is this: the state is entrusted with the work of defending the nation and with the responsibility of advancing its interests and preserving it in perpetuity. So to have someone not of the nation in command of the state was an alarming prospect for some. In the words of theorist Ernest Gellner:
If the rulers of the political unit belong to a nation other than that of the majority ruled, this, for nationalists, constitutes a quite intolerable breech of political propriety.
For a portion of the country, those who found Palin as their champion, this is what was at stake. Barack Obama was offending their sensibilities by seeking the presidency. Across a vast swath of America, Obama didn’t possess the qualifications to be President, because he wasn’t one of us.
This narrower view of who we are imagines America as a land settled, long ago, by Europeans. According to this view, this group, first to risk building something in the new world, and still the majority, should, properly and without apology, be at the levers of our governmental systems. And our state, our schools, our national identity, should all reflect this majority’s culture and morality.
For progressives, it was shocking to find how widespread this narrow view was. It is almost as if the long unfolding of American history — in particular, emancipation and the victory of all of those who marched for civil rights — never happened. Now, a decade later, with the rise of Trump, and the parallel solidification of the white nationalist movement, it may not seem as shocking. We see it for what it is: the backlash.
The important thing here is this: America, like any other nation, is imagined as both a broad horizontal union, reaching out across the full dimensions of the country, and an eternal community, spanning across time, reaching back to our ancestors and forward through our children into the future. The nation’s perpetuation guarantees that our (and our ancestors) sacrifices weren’t in vain. But for this to be true — for America to go on and on — our children need to be indoctrinated, and become familiar with our culture, learn our narrative, become Americans.
And this, a decade ago, was where Palin planted her flag. Her job, as she saw it, was to protect America’s children from contamination by foreign concepts and multi-culturalism. She lost her race, but mobilized a segment of the American electorate. Trump has been able to benefit from that mobilization.
Like Thatcher’s era, this is a politics built on a sense of what has been lost, and a nostalgia for a past that, while it may have never existed, seems real to followers. And, one might worry, like Thatcherism, which lives on in a mutated form in Brexit, this movement will last years, and shape our politics for a generation.
But, for many others, this isn’t how it should be in America. Theorist Michael Walzer provides a glimpse into what many have believed about American culture: we are a nation organized around a set of inclusive principles, a community of distinct groups, retaining their customs and faiths, yet combined, joined in a shared destiny.
According to Walzer, our political culture — our system of laws, the assumptions behind them, our form of government — was established by the earliest settlers and, as a result, was “English and Protestant.” Yet other aspects of Anglo Saxon culture were never firmly established, and subsequent groups weren’t “assimilated entirely into the dominate culture.” These groups resisted assimilation, preserving their separate cultures. All these groups, living intermixed and dispersed across the broad landscape of the country, occupied a “common political space,” and shared a common concern to use politics (and the state) to advance their common safety and well-being.
Thus, this mix of ethnic, religious, and cultural groups finds their collective and separate fates joined. Each group plays a role in shaping the nation’s direction and history, and hence takes a part in our narrative. America became what Walzer calls “a nation of nationalities.” It may not always be pretty, but, Walzer (and the liberal political order) believe this works. Groups, perhaps previously invisible, perhaps bullied into fearful silence, perhaps uninterested in previous political issues, but now awakened by an issue that has salience and meaning for them, find a voice and articulate their views. Groups can demand a new, more justly reengineered national union, incorporating them into the political process. What follows is a period of negotiation and a new, more inclusive rewriting of the political contract. This is how the circle of inclusion and citizenship was widened over the nation’s long history.
In my view, this description of American identity misses one entire aspect of who we are.
Casting his gaze toward Europe, Waltzer talks about nations composed of “anciently established majorities.” He points to Poland as an example, where language, culture, and religion combine, to capture such a sizeable part of the population, that the character of the nation is defined by these markers of social identity, and they naturally become encoded in “the rituals and ceremonies of public life” and the “education provided in the public schools.” Walzer goes on to observe that “Immigration is a genuine problem in countries with ancient minorities.” Countries like this — nations like this — “will favor immigrants who resemble themselves and seem likely to blend into the established culture.”
What if Walzer is fundamentally wrong about the United States, and it is more like Poland, a nation dominated by an “ancient majority”? Wouldn’t this majority favor immigrants who resemble themselves, and wouldn’t they demand that all who seek to join the nation disappear into the established culture? Wouldn’t the visible markers of difference, then, trouble this ancient majority? And won’t the “tumultuous” process of negotiation between groups anger this ancient majority, who expect new groups (or even old groups who have lived quietly alongside the dominate culture) to blend in?
Or maybe, and this seems to more accurately reflect our history, we are both of these things: a nation that embraces evolving multi-culturalism and a nation that embraces single culture homogeneity.
America began in a creole uprising — led by settlers, indistinguishable from those who ruled them from Europe, sharing, in Anderson’s words, “a common language and common descent with those against whom they fought.” And the years that followed saw the nation draw the circle of citizenship very narrowly — excluding slaves and the emancipated, immigrants, Chinese laborers, and women. We continued to fight wars against the original inhabitants of the continent, so the nation could expand and claim their lands. A strong tradition emerged locating the nation’s strength and its identity in its Anglo-Saxon heritage.
Yet, inevitably, over the centuries, by starts and stops, the circle of inclusion has been enlarged, adding additional citizens through Constitutional amendments, legislation, court decisions, and cultural evolution. However, some shadow of the original practice of defining citizenship on the basis of ethnocultural tradition remained, and surfaced time and time again, in the Naturalization Act of 1790 (which allowed only “free whites” to become naturalized citizens), in the draft riots during the Civil War, in the rise of the Klan, in the Chinese Exclusion Act, in the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, and in the fight against desegregation in the South. The tension between ethnocultural Americanism and the idealistic liberalism embodied in the nation’s founding documents and given shape in our historical expansion of citizenship is part of who we are.
If the nation can be thought of as an organism, these two traditions, one narrow and regrettable, celebrating “whiteness”, the other generous, inclusive, and integrative, have been part of our DNA from the beginning.
One way to imagine this is to employ an example from reproductive biology, admittedly a subject I know nothing about. I apologize to geneticists for what I am about to get wrong. Over the past decade we find a major political party reaching down to the genetic level to reengineer the processes that have governed the reproduction of our coding, tinkering to ensure that only the ugly, exclusionary tendencies are reproduced and legitimized, while multiculturalism, and those who embrace it, are reimagined as the enemy.
Montesquieu was right: civic education is required to reproduce the nation. In the U.S., through much of our history, and across much of the nation, schools have taught the value of democracy, of inclusion, of multiculturalism, of the immigrant experience. And elsewhere, throughout the broad sweep of the nation, citizens are educated by the work they do within their associations, clubs, churches, parochial organizations, all alongside others who are different from themselves. Within these associations they learn to cooperate, to negotiate, and to expect others to cooperate. This is what Alexis de Tocqueville saw: American democracy was deepened, enhanced, made resilient and real by our “gift” for association.
What Trumpism, and much of the Republican Party, and the entire establishment of the right, aim to do, in the name of the ancient American Anglo-Saxon majority, is to dismantle this sweeping system of civic education. And at the beginning of this, was Sarah Palin, the frontier mother, who worried about the education and upbringing of “our” children.
 Ernest Renan, “What is a Nation?”, from Eley, Geoff and Suny, Ronald Grigor, eds., Becoming National (Oxford & New York, Oxford University Press, 1996), pp. 42–56.
 Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities (London & New York, Verso, 2006).
 Ernest Gellner, Nations and Nationalism (Oxford, Blackwell, 2006).
 Paul Gilroy, There Ain’t Black in the Union Jack (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1991), and Paul Gilroy, “One Nation Under a Groove: the Cultural Politics of “Race” and Racism in Britain,” from Eley, Geoff and Suny, Ronald Grigor, eds., Becoming National (Oxford & New York, Oxford University Press, 1996), pp. 352–370.
 Edward Long, The History of Jamaica (Seattle, Amazon Digital Services, 2012; originally published 1774).
 From a 2008 campaign rally in Des Moines, Iowa. Cited in Mark Nusbaum, Sarah Palin Rendezvous with Liberty (Maitland, FL., Xulon Press, 2009).
 Gellner, p. 1.
 Michael Walzer, What it Means to be an American (New York, Marsilio, 1992).
 Anderson, p. 47.
 Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws (New York, Prometheus Books, 2002).
 Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2000).