Monday, September 14, 2009

...and we're back

A friend of the blog reminded me how long its been since I posted anything new this morning. Yeah, sorry about that. A combination of three straight weekends of being out of town, other more pressing things to do, and a bit of blogging ennui kept me behind.

I really wish I had stayed home Saturday to check out the teabagger march on Washington. Anything would have been preferable to watching the UVa football team stink it up yet again, but I'm really curious to see what two million people jamming into the city looked like. What, it wasn't two million? More like the attendance of the Ravens game? Rats.

Seriously, I would have liked to have gotten a personal flavor for the crowd (much of the one I was in left at halftime). Fortunately, Daily Kos did a nice job linking to a bunch of different photostreams. I've been holding my powder on most of this movement so here are my impressions, second-hand as they are for this weekend at least.

* I agree with Nate Silver that Democrats/progressives mock these protests at our own peril. Yes, they represent a coalition of hard-Right groups that are outside the mainstream of American politics (get rid of the Federal Reserve? Seriously?) Some wear funny hats and jeans shorts and can't tell the ideological difference between genocidal dictators. But they employ a wide array of potent symbols and phrases that are central to American national identity with aplomb. I think that, if asked, every person at Saturday's rally would agree with the Palinesque assertion that they represented the "real" America and "real Americans." And they know the currency of patriotic symbolism well. Their invocation of Revolutionary War-era symbols -- the Don't Tread On Me flags, the Boston Tea Party, the Declaration of Independence -- might be historically nonsensical, if not merely corny; but they are familiar and easily digestible messages that may peel off millions more voters to their side of the debate. All they have to do is give the feeling of authenticity as a grassroots movement and address many Americans' gut feeling that something is amiss for the nation. That their conflation of Hamiltonian and Jeffersonian meanings of the word "Liberty" would give Herbert Croly a migrane is not important.

Which is why I loved the last 10 minutes of President Obama's speech to Congress last week -- the Why We are Liberals part. The American narrative of living up to the Better Angels of ourselves is just as potent as "Don't Tread on Me." Given how the untrammeled greed of our time threatens most of our well being its power should be even greater.

* How much the idea of American exceptionalism shapes the Right is one of the most under-appreciated aspects of American political life. Take this comment reported by Politico from one of the marchers: “I see our nation changing into something the roots of us don’t want,” said Jim Bryant, an aviation consultant from Trenton, Georgia. “Why turn the greatest nation in the entire history of mankind into something else?” Conservative Americans have believed in this principle since the 1920s. They interpret the chaos, belligerence, and horror of other nations' experiences in modern history to be the result of their embrace of "isms." The American nation's capacity to rise above this history is the result of its unique political and governmental traditions and institutions. Hence, the fixation upon the Constitution (to be a true believer in Americanism, you need a pocket-sized copy for extra portability.)

The argument that America has escaped the gravity of history and therefore must never change is the antimatter to liberalism's matter.

* The American exceptionalist narrative at the center of these protests makes it impossible to separate out its political critique from its racism. This narrative comfortably asserts that the particular genius of white, Protestant American men led the nation to its historical greatness. Obama's blackness upsets this narrative quite obviously. But there's more to it. Just as this form of American exceptionalism insists the nation must reject foreign "isms," it also demands that immigrants to its shores be utterly transformed and accept the ideological standards of American politics. It is not just that Obama's father was from Kenya for these people, or that he spent part of his childhood overseas: it is the combination of what they perceive to be his personal foreignness and the alien nature of his ideas (from the Orwellian socialist wastelands of Canada and the United Kingdom) that exacerbates their reactionary ways. The Right's assertion that "he is not one of us," made in so many ways during the campaign and now during Obama's presidency is more complicated than mere white supremacy - but it's still racist.

If you are struggling to understand some of the more conspiratorial elements of this movement, ask yourself, how would I perceive the world if I believed what the guy quoted in Politico was absolutely true?

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Louisville welcomes you

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano spoke at the American Legion's national convention yesterday. Given the flack she drew from the Legion over the DHS's report on right-wing extremism -- a report that, of course, turned out to be accurate-- she probably just wanted to get out of there as quickly as she could.

[forgive me a quick historical aside. In it's open letter to DHS the Legion cites its condemnation in 1923 of "white supremacist and anti-government groups," alluding directly to the Ku Klux Klan. The Legion did NOT condemn the Klan, as National Commander Rehbein implies, in his letter. That convention, in fact, witnessed an ugly floor fight over whether or not to explicitly condemn the Klan by name. The effort split the convention and nearly caused a riot and was defeated because the Legion and Klan shared many members in the Midwest. Continue.]

Napolitano mentioned briefly again in her speech that she regretted the decision to release the hastily-prepared report. Since the behavior of the fringe right this summer suggests the report made sound evaluations of potential veteran "lone wolf" threats, such kowtowing is unnecessary.

But the greater (and blog-related) issue here is I think Napolitano, former New Mexico Girls State attendee, missed a great opportunity for the Administration to frame itself as a champion of Americanism. Legion national conventions provide a unique backdrop. The Legion, like the VFW, considers itself one of the wellsprings of patriotism in American life because of the special citizenship status of its members. They claim they can speak for what "American values" should represent because veterans fought for them. Political figures can drag the image of patriotism and national strength the Legion provides in directions of their choosing. Witness Donald Rumsfeld's disgusting attempt to equate critics of the war in Iraq as Nazi-cuddling appeasers in Salt Lake City in 2006.

Rather than give a speech that sounded like a something from a Rotary Club meeting, counting the number of veterans DHS has on the payroll, Napolitano should have challenged the Legion to accept a clear declaration of principles. The grumblings about the legitimacy of the Obama Administration are unacceptable and the threat of politically-motivated violence is real. A portion of that threat may come from veterans, but rather than take that as an indictment of veterans' patriotism (an image of which the Legion has carefully cultivated since its founding) the Legion should join with the government in upholding democratic rule of law. Furthermore, true patriots accept the legitimacy of differing political ideas and initiatives, even when they disagree with them. Some of the men in the convention hall fought actual Nazis. The Administration could have at least asked them to remind us what that term meant. It would have been more gutsy but more useful than asking them to help out with swine flu.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Senator Kennedy and a nation of immigrants

As the tributes to Ted Kennedy's remarkable life and career continue let me reflect on just one of his legacies -- his role in leading the floor fight in the Senate during the passage of the 1965 Immigration Act. For generations before, entrance into the nation was tied to quotas based on so-called "national origins." Only European nations, however, received quotas -- Asians and Africans were clumped together no matter their nation of origin and their quotas were pathetically small. The reason for this was simply, racism. Even within the national quota system, preferences grounded in scientific racism favored Northern and Western Europeans over those from the south and east of the continent. Arch-anticommunists and racists in Congress during the early 1950s liked this system just fine and made minor revisions to it as the United States took leadership during the Cold War.

As Kennedy noted in an NPR interview several years ago, the historical memory of his own Irish ancestors' struggles against racial prejudice inspired him to take on the racial quota system during the Civil Rights era. While Kennedy and other immigration reform supporters did not foresee the profound increase in immigration that followed, particularly from Asia, Latin America, and Africa, they essentially created the profoundly and increasingly diverse America we live in today -- and has the son of one of those immigrants as its president.

Immigration reform and Civil Rights in the 1960s were linked by both their supporters and detractors. Kennedy stood by that link by insisting that immigration policy not give undue or exclusive preference to those with specialized skills that necessitated higher education. Kennedy's vision of an American future was one in which anyone, no matter their race or family background, would be welcomed as a citizen and considered the equal of all others. It's a beautiful vision of our nation.

a question

I wanted to get something down quickly this morning before taking a walk up to the Capitol in a little while. I really don't have anything interesting to say about Ted Kennedy at the moment other than I'm heartbroken he didn't get to see health care reform passed (and I still think it will). If there's anything interesting to report going on up on the Hill I'll let you know.

Thomas Frank more or less was like "What Nehls said" in the WSJ this morning on the parameters of the health care debate as a conversation about government. Nobody's delved into the disconnect between corporate power and suspicion of government in the conservative mind better than Frank (who, I may add, also has a degree from UVa and a history PhD). I've been thinking a lot about his What's the Matter with Kansas? and about Populism recently. The question Frank poses about his home state in the book is why, in a place with a rich political history of suspicion of corporate power, the fire has gone out and cultural issues reign supreme.

I think Frank has some more affection for the Populists than I do. Like the birthers or the deathers of today, they had their own nutty and offensive conspiracy theories - like Jews controlled the global economy or capitalists and African-Americans were conspiring to squeeze lower-class whites. But at least these outlandish theories were grounded in an economic sensibility-- that the democracy faced a serious threat in the Gilded Age from the power of big business. More sensible Populists called for greater governmental power to level the field for the people (this was, after all the People's Party). They wanted the government to nationalize companies like railroads and for the state to seize components of the agricultural economy like grain elevators. They wanted new monetary policy for the credit system to work better for the rhythms of their business, not Wall Street.

You would think in an era in which limited concentrations of corporate greed nearly drove the entire economy into the abyss that some of this sentiment would bubble back up. I've been waiting for evidence of a neo-Populist critique of big business as an affront to rights and liberties of ordinary citizens. Short of some grumblings about free trade in the Democratic presidential primary season and a few small protests in front of the New York Stock Exchange when the market crashed it really hasn't happened. Instead, we've had the same old song and dance this summer about the Orwellian nightmare of health reform and the existential threat to our liberty that the government's market-based reform through the "public option" represents. This fear of the hypothetical power of government seems totally out of line with the very real, quite entrenched, and demonstrably deadly power that corporations have over the lives of American citizens. Death panels exist -- in the accounting departments of insurance companies.

So the question I've been kicking around is why are Americans continually fixated with governmental concentrations of power and not economic ones? Have we had a period in American history when the average citizen has been more out of touch with his or her own place within the economic system? Is there a populist outrage that's flying under the radar (or until Michael Moore makes a movie) or have most Americans ceased to think of their citizenship as being connected to the economy (beyond maybe the tax rates they pay)? Or have they just thrown their hands up and decided not to struggle against the economic currents of power?

I'm hoping my more economic history-oriented friends can help me out with this one.

And yes, Senator Kennedy would have a strong opinion here.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

A History of Violence

I applaud E.J. Dionne's column this morning in the Post for saying enough with the gun-toting posturing occurring at presidential town halls and other political events. There clearly is an element of intimidation in these kinds of displays, although I take it to be more juvenile and jackbooted -- like the puffed-up security guard impressed with his own faux sense of authority.

Dionne invokes the history of other moments of political violence, including lynching, to good effect. But his argument that "violence and the threat of violence have always been used by those who wanted to bypass democratic procedures and the rule of law" simply isn't true. Our history of political violence is, in fact, much deeper than the night riders of Reconstruction or the lynch mob. Violence was used by American citizens in support of the rule of law and with the consent of government. Vigilantism, historians of the concept argue, was actually an extension of state power that governments allowed to make up for the limits of their own policing abilities. Many Americans have seen preserving a conservative definition of "law and order" as part of their duties as good citizens. They perpetrated heinous acts of violence either in cooperation with state authorities or with their tacit approval.

During World War I Americans used a variety of forms of physical intimidation to control the terms of wartime political discourse. While the most notorious of these instances -- the lynching of German-American Robert Prager for what his Illinois neighbors perceived to be his disloyalty -- was rejected by President Wilson explicitly, the idea that Americans should compel their fellows into being loyal was not. Theodore Roosevelt ran around the country suggesting disloyalists be dealt with forcefully before the United States even entered the war. After war was declared citizens made others to kiss the flag to prove their loyalty and paraded suspected German sympathizers through the streets for public derision and a good egging.

Governments and corporations allowed citizens to help quell strikes, particularly after the Bolshevik Revolution cast labor organizing in a new light. Veterans in the American Legion thought it their patriotic duty to clobber striking steel mill employees and auto workers. Ford's private security branch recruited groups with fascist aspirations -- real Nazis, not those Obama supports -- to do the same during the Depression.

Between the wars conservative citizens used violence to disrupt speeches and mass rallies they found objectionable, often as the police looked on. Merely denouncing militarism or claiming union membership was consistent with the principles of the Declaration of Independence was enough to get one whisked away, thrown in a car, and driven to the dusty edge of town for a long walk back to civilization.

Of course, during the Civil Rights Movement white terror groups like the Klan used bombings and assassination to intimidate and silence anti-segregation activism. Mississippi operated more or less as a police state, one in which citizens happily turned in others for being suspected members of the NAACP.

I raise this history to make the point that things have been way worse in our fairly recent past and we should not feed a few Ron Paul supporters' sense of self-satisfaction so easily. Democracy will endure. It didn't happen here.

I am much more afraid of those people who are not showing up at Tea Bagger rallies or town halls. It isn't worth it to them even to make a gun-spangled spectacle of themselves. Those people have given up on politics, on democracy, on this country entirely. Those kinds of attitudes are the dark heart of a fascist. And they wear their "Tree of Liberty" t-shirts only after their bombs have gone off. That's why the people mugging for the cameras that Dionne is talking about need to knock it off.

Some Perspective

Some random thoughts of historical perspective for you this morning. If this guy...

had brought that sign to a political rally from 1919 to the early 1930s and was a member of a labor union or left-wing political party he'd be facing years of jail time in 34 of 48 states under criminal syndicalist laws. Not the gun he also brought -- just the sign would land him in jail.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

A Third Way?

A shift in rhetorical tactics in the health care reform debate is coming from the White House. Hailing the bi-partisan nature of the effort and focusing on the nuts-and-bolts macroeconomic benefits of reform got the Administration lost in the weeds of its own details. This approach looked all the more languid given the emotional over-reaction to reform from the Right. So Obama is turning his rhetorical battleship around toward his own emotional approach. He cited his grandmother's recent death in swatting down "death panel" rumors. I wouldn't be surprised to hear more soon about his mother's experiences with cancer, which he used readily on the campaign trail but seems to have shelved for some reason this summer.

This question of arguing from head or heart is as old as liberalism. Obama seems most comfortable in the Walter Lippmann mode, who thought it the job of experts to mold public opinion among a populace that may not know what it really wants or what's best for it. This is a bit ironic for someone who, to paraphrase Hillary Clinton, campaigned in poetry and not prose.

Let me suggest another track: look to the connection made during the New Deal between citizenship and economic rights. As Gary Gerstle charted in his book American Crucible, Labor leaders during the Depression connected their fight against corporate power to the American tradition of individual rights. Seizing on this political ideal, the Roosevelt Administration began to champion more muscularly the rights of citizens to enjoy a decent standard of living as part of what it meant be American. Through the protection and positive social policies the government could provide, the people could push back against concentrations of wealth and corporate avarice and reassert the American traditions of equality and fair play. In this spirit FDR secured the passage of Social Security and the Wagner Act, reforms much more redistributive in nature than anything Democrats are now proposing.

The Wagner Act is an usual but useful comp here for this iteration of health reform. (This is kind of a rough comp, but stay with me) It made an implicit demand of citizens -- join a union -- in exchange for the state taking on a greater role in preserving individual rights. This health care initiative also asks citizens to do something -- buy health insurance. (Ok, it compels them to buy health insurance.) Participation empowers the state to look after the interests of the little guy against corporate power in ways the little guy couldn't do on his or her own. But the people have to be active in asserting themselves. This spirit of "we're all in it together" spurred union growth and could raise the popularity of health care reform.

At the least it would change the conversation about reform's impact on the rights of citizens, which at this point is being dominated by those who are arguing that reform would represent a government seizure of rights. (let's not even touch Dick Armey's argument that Medicare takes away people's rights). This argument is meaningless because those rights have already been taken away by insurance companies.

I know conservatives have done well for two generations now in swatting down the old New Deal connection between the people's rights, an active government, and the nation's democratic ideals. But this time, how about trying a full frontal assault on that argument. The last eight years certainly opened up enough holes in it to make it worth a try, and those shouting it the loudest are pretty easy to push aside.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Town Halls and democracy - what is participation?

The idea of a town hall usually conjures this image in my mind:

Which is sort of what a "town hall" with a member of Congress is designed to be. Except such town halls are clearly political events produced by the Congressional office for its own purposes - not, in other words, for the public to debate a local civic issue. That's fine. By holding town halls elected officials invite a specific kind of democratic participation from their constituents. There's the opportunity to ask a question to power in some kind of managed way and chance for a bit of a dialogue between office holder and constituent. I'd put this rather low on the level of quality democratic discourse, but it registers.

I think the USA Today/Gallup poll that came out yesterday asked a really interesting question about the confrontational turn at recent town halls. Its final question asked whether opponents angrily arguing against the health care bill, booing members of Congress they didn't agree with, or shouting down bill supporters represented "democracy in action," or the "abuse of democracy." Rather than recreate the chart of results, check it out for yourself.

How citizens understand their responsibilities to be little-"d" democrats cuts to the core of this question. Those polled probably unanimously agreed that doing something like the figure in the Norman Rockwell "Freedom of Speech" painting is an example of a citizen fulfilling one such responsibility: freely offering an opinion at a public debate. That guy, we'd probably all agree, is a good citizen. So are those carefully listening to what he has to say. The people at the back of the painting we don't see booing his point or yelling "Just Say NO!" are something else. They've shown up, but they are not being deliberative or civil.

This is a very 20th-century way of thinking about civic participation. Before that, Americans thought behaving as a partisan was the central expression of citizenship-- that the right to vote itself was the embodiment of citizenship. So they joined parties, made those identities a core of their identity, and had a jolly good time telling the world they were a Federalist or a Whig or a Democrat. In between elections they spread the most outrageous lies about their opponents in partisan newspapers. There was an occasional duel back in the day.

Progressives threw water on all of this at the turn of the 20th century. Political issues were becoming too complicated an too important to leave to partisanship and people, progressives thought, should stop with the nonsense of torchlight parades and straight-ticket ballots and actually think things out for a change. The duty of citizens, they argued, wasn't merely to participate on election day or at the party rally, but to become informed and deliberative individuals capable of seeing what the best course for the community or the nation was and voting accordingly. They started to get people together to talk out some of the burning political issues of the day. In other words, they tied the responsibilities of being a citizen to gathering impartial information, being a rational actor, and valuing a debate based on facts.

How boring! Progressives stamped their values on what we think "democracy in action" should mean in terms of rational debate, but we still like to yell at one another and exaggerate and lie about what will happen if the other side wins. Most of us know that's not the same as the pure civic model offered by the guy standing up to make his measured and respectful point in the Norman Rockwell. The closer the town hall protesters get to making an argument in this poll the closer to a majority of "democracy in action" they get. Booing is at the crossroads of argument (I'd agree with that having booed many a sports referee and a few UVa offensive coordinators in my day).

Shouting down a rational argument is bad to most of those polled. But I take issue with the idea that it's an "abuse of democracy." An abuse of a Progressive-inspired debate between rational actors? Yes. But democracy in action can still contain spectacle, no? Citizens can be good -- by that, I mean actively participate in politics in ways they think will benefit the greater society -- in ways that are not deliberative, discursive, or respectful. I don't think those people disrupting town halls are right, or even that what they are saying makes one iota of sense. But they're not abusing democracy. They are abusing a particular forum to which members of Congress have become increasingly enamored and will now probably reconsider using in the future. Many are actually trying to be the guy in the Norman Rockwell painting from the what I've seen but either don't know how or let their emotions carry them away. Those doing the chanting are obnoxious but what they're doing isn't "un-American."

The throngs outside these town halls holding the signs that compare Obama to Hitler or Stalin or whoever are not bad citizens or democracy abusers, either. Their participation adds nothing to a reasoned debate but it represents the peaceful expression of a political preference. Doing so is an obligation of citizenship as such folks rightfully understand it, even if we'd feel better if they left the swastika posters at home.

Random off-topic question of the day

In reading the Post's profile of Dick Cheney in retirement, nothing really struck me as surprising about the inner workings of the man. But the profile noted he's a voracious reader of history. So, whose books does Dick Cheney read, especially given his wife's views of the historical profession? I'm sure he ain't reading ours, historian friends, but has Michael Beschloss written that many books?

Maybe the scarier thought is what is Cheney reading that validates his worldview?

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

random thoughts from the archives

Coincidentally, I am researching the American Legion's anticommunist and nationalist record in the 1940s and 50s this week for a new chapter to my manuscript. Especially at the national leadership level the Legion was a dyed-in-the-wool McCarthyite organization. Every month the organization's magazine outlined a new sinister threat from the Communist conspiracy, often penned by the star witnesses of the HUAC and McCarthy hearings. The culprits are who you'd expect -- the press, Hollywood, universities, weak-willed liberals elsewhere.

There are not a lot of similarities, really, between the McCarthy period and either the Birthers or Tea Baggers. Nobody's been fired for liking national health care reform or for being a card-carrying member of the Democratic Party.

One thing that has struck me as I read these sources, though, is a similar sense of self-empowerment and self-righteousness among the Legionnaires and conservative activists today.

Ed Kilgore actually raised a similar idea in the New Republic today in comparing conservative activists to the rejection of welfare in the Reagan years, that "endowed some pretty ugly emotions with self-righteousness, and even a sense of victimization, for people who felt they were being punished for being productive. It seems clear that many of Obama's right-wing critics are motivated as much by moral judgments about the beneficiaries of his polices as by their alleged impact on the economy or the health care system."

Putting the issue of who "deserves" the fruits of health care reform aside for a moment, let me poke at this from a different direction. The relatively democratic nature of our political culture allows self-designated groups to claim special status as "real" Americans, as the quintessential citizens who uphold the ideals and values of the nation through their participation in public life. Such self-empowerment is derived from some kind of tacit approval from the larger society. In the case of my Legionnaires, it's generated from Americans' acceptance of the special citizenship status of veterans (which, of course, the Legion was careful to cultivate). The folks on the right today get their green light from the radically conservative drift of the GOP.

It's hard work to be such a special class of citizens, especially when so many people do not understand the fundamentals of the American democratic system the way you and your compatriots do. Special classes have to assert the power of their own example, or, conversely, cry out against the wrong-headedness of those driving politics in the opposite ideological direction. The real problem, though, is that most Americans really don't care one way or another, magnifying the power of the elites on the other side to drag the nation away from its core principles. Such apathy is incredibly frustrating and leads these self-empowered groups to hunker down even more. Convinced they alone understand Americanism and permitted in a democratic society to assert themselves they turn on their fellow citizens for being such failures. Criticism of such efforts by those who do not agree with their politics exacerbates the situation into one of self-victimization. (To read anticommunists claim that they are the real victims of McCarthyism because "Communists" say mean things about them challenges one's ability not to chortle in front of the microfilm reader. Kind of like hearing someone demanding government keep its hands of Medicare.)

So, to me, cries of "I want my country back," or "wake up, people," or "this is not the America I know," resonate with the past not out of some analogous political agenda but through this more fundamental sense of self-defined privilege in one's citizenship.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Specter town hall

Conveniently enough for me, as I was setting up this blog MSNBC was broadcasting a live feed from an Arlen Specter town hall meeting. I'm going to write much more about what's been happening at these events later, but one thing jumped out at me just from what I watched. The crowd seemed to be about 90-percent anti-reform/tea party activists and the Specter folks had handed out numbered cards in advance that allowed people to ask questions with some semblance of order. One of these questioners, a self-identified 25-year-old conservative, started calmly but quickly - and a few feet away from Specter - became emotional. Instead of a question or any real point about the health care bills she lumped the stimulus plan, TARP, and health reform into one single socialistic initiative and declared that she didn't want the United States to turn into a socialist country like Russia.

Russia hasn't been a socialist country for most of this woman's lifetime, so the Cold War-era ring to this line is really striking. So much of the rhetoric from the right erupting at these events seem to me to be so old-fashioned, like something unearthed from a 1950s time capsule. It's easy to dismiss these arguments as such -- especially when they're directed at someone like Arlen Specter, who's been a Democrat for all of 25 minutes. But these kinds of rants, that America's turning into the Soviet Union (or Nazi Germany, if you're Sarah Palin) reflect a stunning persistence in a Cold War form of American exceptionalism. Systemic social reform is unacceptable because it makes us look like an enemy long since destroyed.

I'm not sure how much of this stuff is about Obama, as most commentary suggests, rather than the calcified remains of a Cold War nationalism that still shapes much of the right. My friend Jonathan Riehl rightly invoked the John Birch Society when discussing the Birthers in Politico recently, connecting the conspiracy-minded element of Cold War conservatism with this modern iteration. The idea that health care reform -- the fundamentals of which are still almost entirely market based -- is destroying the Constitution or turning us into Russia suggests to me that these folks are more than Birchers 2.0, vigilantes, astroturf campaign stooges, or the undereducated underbelly of the shrinking GOP (they can be all of that too, of course). They are the people whose ideas of what the nation represents and of what their relationship to their state should be have not changed in 50 or even 80 years.

The trans-generational perpetuation of such ideas is striking. I could expect the Russia line from someone raised in the anticommunist fervor of the 1940s or 50s-- but to hear it out of a 25-year-old is an argument for persistence over change.

*Correction: turns out I mis-heard and that woman was 35, not 25. But still.

What this blog is about and why it exists

I've created this blog as a place to explore how ideas about the meaning of American national identity and the nature of citizenship shape contemporary politics. The meaning of what it is to be an American and what American nationality represents are constantly in flux, in part because ours is perhaps the most "imagined community" of them all. Almost all Americans agree that we are bound together as a nation by our ideals rather than a common ethnicity like other nations (supposedly) are. But what are those ideals? What kinds of political ideologies and initiatives are consistent with them? Who gets to decide where the limits of those ideals are? What responsibilities as citizens do we share in living up to those ideals? These questions have been central to the historical development not just of American national identity and citizenship but to the history of American politics as well. These questions have been shaped, too, by notions of race, ethnicity, and gender - and of course still are. These types of issues are still integral to modern political life, even if they are subsumed within particular political debate. It is the mission of this blog to bring these underlying issues about American citizenship and national identity to the fore.

My interest in this task derives from my academic interest in the history of American nationalism and citizenship. I completed a dissertation on how these ideas shaped American political culture during the first half of the 20th century at the University of Virginia. I'm currently revising that work as a book manuscript for Penn Press (shameless plug). The book won't be out for a long while -- and it's a rather narrow historical monograph. This blog is an attempt to be part of a larger conversation about politics and ideas in the here and now, drawing from time to time upon historical similarities or historians' scholarship for illumination.

I hadn't really though about blogging in this exact way until I was watching the founding editors of Politico on Charlie Rose. While they were talking about owning the conversation or driving the conversation as a way to capture market share, I still like the idea of blogging to point a dialogue in new directions. I think that examinations of fundamental ideas like national identity and citizenship are missing from much of our contemporary conversation about politics. So consider this blog my (very modest) attempt to nudge an understanding about contemporary politics in a different direction and to give it a bit of historical depth.

In this way, this blog will not be straight political commentary but more along the lines of analysis-- it'll be more interesting I think as such. It'll be easy to figure out where my political leanings fall, but I want to be analytical rather than proscriptive here.