Damon Linker has an interesting take on American history.
“There are many ways to understand the tendency roiling liberal-democratic politics in recent years, from the outcome of the Brexit vote and the presidency of Donald Trump to the surge in support for antiliberal politicians and parties across Europe, Asia, and the Americas. It’s been variously described as an explosion of right-wing populism, a resurgence of nationalism, a renewed flowering of xenophobia and racism, even a rebirth of fascism. But what all of these theories are striving to explain is a pervasive collapse of faith in multiculturalism as an organizing principle of free societies.
That feels like a new problem for many of us, but it’s really an old one that goes back to the very beginnings of the liberal era. In seeking to come to terms with the challenge of multiculturalism, an obscure but important German philosopher of the 18th century, Johann Gottfried Herder, provides surprising insight.
Yet America’s civil religion is under strain today. The right, preferring a tribal view of the nation, no longer wants to affirm a universal vision of a humanity. Emphasizing a view of the country closer to the young Herder’s exclusionary nationalism, populist conservatives prefer homogeneity to diversity, and they mock the pretense of a patriotism rooted in openness to the world and ideas that transcend particulars of time and place. The left, meanwhile, is obsessed with the hypocrisies and shortcomings of the country’s civil religion, believing that fulfilling its promise in the future requires a reckoning with past failures so severe that it leaves little place for national pride. Though “woke” progressives respect and valorize cultural diversity for minority groups, they denigrate patriotic sentments as “white supremacy” when they are uttered by white Americans who express admiration for central figures of the country’s past. …”
In my understanding of American history, Johann Gottfried Herder’s theories and multiculturalism didn’t have much to do with the formation of American national identity.
From the time of the Founding Fathers until the post-World War II era, American national identity was based on four pillars: race (whiteness), culture (Anglo-Saxon), religion (Protestant) and ideology (liberal republican). This wasn’t even really contested during the War Between the States. The Union and Confederacy were divided over slavery and the nature of the constitutional republic and whether it was founded by the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. Americans still argued over things like whether Catholics were fully American until JFK was elected president in 1960.
The cultural pluralist tradition which Damon Linker identifies with America’s civil religion can be traced back to the Liberal Progressives around the turn of the 20th century. It begins with the pragmatists like William James and John Dewey, the social worker Jane Addams and the cultural anthropologist Franz Boas. It was taken up and popularized by the Young Intellectuals like Randolph Bourne who broke with the Wilson administration and the Progressive movement over World War I. These people became America’s liberal intelligentsia in the 1920s. The origins of social liberalism can be traced back to their embrace of modernism in these years. It runs from them to the New York Intellectuals of the 1930s and 1940s who added cosmopolitanism. American liberalism embraced antiracism in the late 1930s and early 1940s in the context of the global showdown with Hitler’s Germany. Until the 1930s, American history textbooks reflected this traditional conception of national identity and only turned cosmopolitan afterwards. The elite postwar consensus – progressive liberalism, modernism, cosmopolitanism and antiracism – was in place by 1945. This had only been constructed over the previous twenty years though.
It wasn’t until the 1960s and 1970s that these ideas trickled down from American elites and hit a critical mass with the Boomers who were exposed to these ideas through the mass media and higher education. Multiculturalism, which grew out of modernism and the cultural pluralist tradition, only emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It was never broadly accepted and the culture war dates back to this period. Modernists are social liberals who reject the traditional view of American national identity as racist, bigoted, backward, oppressive, etc. Populists are people who reject modernism and who cling to the traditional view on the importance of race, culture, religion and republicanism to national identity. The populists are merely reasserting the older tradition of American national identity.
Note: The “far right domestic extremists” are people who cling to very old fashioned ideas which were dominant in the 18th and 19th centuries. The “mainstream” are people whose ideas can usually be traced back less than a century and which were usually imported from Europe as trendy intellectual fashions like modernism or socialism or anarchism or postmodernism.