Joe Biden, in the early stages of the Democratic nominating contest, looked like a man out of time.
It wasn’t just the cringe-worthy moments — telling parents, at one point, that they should “have the record player on at night” to build their kids’ vocabulary.
It was the naivete.
Biden was pledging “a battle for the soul of the nation.” Fealty to the “idea” of America. Unity, comity, bipartisanship.
And it all felt a little ridiculous.
President Obama’s encomiums to red and blue state America had done nothing to win over Mitch McConnell. Then Donald Trump’s election, and everything that came after, suggested we were shattered beyond repair.
Biden’s ode to the American story felt hopelessly out of step. A treacly sideshow to the country’s brutal power struggle.
But in the last few weeks, something has shifted. As the election draws near, Biden’s appeal to first principles feels more vital. More moving.
Not just because it speaks, in some elemental way, to the differences between the last two candidates standing for the most powerful office on earth. But because it speaks, in some larger way, to what comes next.
For the last four years, we’ve been caught up in the daily anxieties of the Trump presidency. In the online and offline grotesqueries. Now, for the first time, we can see beyond them. We can contemplate where we’ll be when it’s all over. How we’ll think about ourselves. What will become of the American story.
Yes, story may be used to eye-rolling effect in campaign season. But it is story, at bottom, that wins elections. That marches us into war. That puts kids in cages or puts them through college.
Biden was right. Story is critical. And getting most of the country behind a generous one could change the course of history.
But whether the Democratic nominee, or anyone in American politics, can do that anytime soon — well, that’s another question.
“THE TRUTH OF the matter is there’s not been one America, but several Americas,” says Colin Woodard, author of the recently published book “Union: The Struggle to Forge the Story of United States Nationhood.” “We’re essentially a federation of separate, rival nations — rival regional cultures — with different characteristics that date all the way back to the colonial period.”
We are the Puritan-founded areas of New England, he says, the Dutch-settled region around New York City, the Scots-Irish-dominated back country, and the Barbados slave lords who settled Charleston and moved into the Deep South.
We came together, at the start, around a common foe. But as the Revolutionary War generation died off in the 1820s and 1830s, we needed a national mythology to paper over our differences.
Instead, Woodard says, we got two.
The first was embodied by George Bancroft, a son of Massachusetts. He was Harvard-educated. A statesman. A celebrated historian. Author of the magisterial “History of the United States.”
His was the story of a nation of destiny — chosen by God to spread the ideas of the Declaration of Independence. Liberty and equality.
So zealous was Bancroft about this divine mission that he overlooked all manner of contradictions. In the Puritans' intolerant project he saw “undying principles of democratic liberty.” And in Virginia, ruled by a slaveholding aristocracy, he saw “a nursery of freemen.”
It would take figures like Frederick Douglass and, later, the leaders of the civil rights movement, to point out all the contradictions. To refine what Woodard calls a “civic nationalism” rooted in the ideals of our founding documents. This is the idea that Biden called upon when he said, in his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, that “in America, everyone, and I mean everyone, should be given the opportunity to go as far as their dreams and God-given ability will take them.”
Bancroft’s friend and rival William Gilmore Simms, the Charleston, S.C.-born poet, novelist, and historian of the Old South, offered up the counter-narrative. The other American idea.
Jefferson, he insisted, had it wrong. All men are not created equal. The nation should emulate the republics of ancient Rome and Greece, where a small elite practiced democracy. Where servitude was the natural order of things.
“He said, no, what holds the young United States together — the different sovereign nations, as he saw it, of the United States — is . . . [that they were] the homelands of the allegedly superior Anglo-Saxon race,” Woodard says.
This was ethno-nationalism. White supremacy. And it was a dominant force in American life for a century. It plunged the country into civil war. It brought a quick end to Reconstruction. It was Woodrow Wilson screening “Birth of a Nation” in the White House in 1915 and it was the explicit racism of the Immigration Act of 1924.
America’s victory in World War II helped move civic nationalism to the fore.
“You have the complete vindication of the United States as a military conqueror," says Ted Widmer, a historian at Macaulay Honors College in New York. “But embedded in the victory are the values of the United States, as expressed by Franklin Roosevelt, which are very inclusive.”
The president’s “four freedoms” included freedom from fear and freedom from want, alongside more traditional appeals to freedom of speech and freedom of worship.
And because the struggle against the tyranny of Nazi Germany and, later, the Soviet Union, exposed the hypocrisies of a freedom-loving country that kept so many of its own unfree, it paved the way for civic nationalism’s apotheosis — the civil rights movement.
“When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence," Martin Luther King Jr. declared in his most famous speech, "they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.”
For more than a half-century, this note was the official currency of the United States. The official American idea. Vindicated in the election of the first Black president in 2008.
But of course, the other American idea — the ethno-nationalist idea, the idea that only certain people are truly worthy of the American experience, that Black protesters aren’t patriots and Mexican immigrants are criminals and rapists — had never gone away.
It had adherents in every corner of the country. But it was especially prevalent in certain geographies — geographies that mapped back to some of those early colonial-era divides.
These were the places that drove Trump’s election in 2016. It’s not that all his voters fervently believed in the ethno-nationalist story. But they found at least something appealing in it, or weren’t bothered by it. They had some level of resentment for those who pushed the civic nationalist idea, or didn’t think the case for it was being made in a compelling way.
However we split, Trump’s victory reminded us that even as the dominant stories in American life wax and wane — even as we can appear united, and occasionally, in the face of a fearful external threat, really do unite — division is the constant.
Division is the DNA.
Richard Kreitner makes that case in another new book, “Break It Up: Secession, Division, and the Secret History of America’s Imperfect Union,” that traces our thirst for fracture from a New England movement to break from the union after the Louisiana Purchase, through the Civil War, to contemporary secessionists in Texas and California.
And if race figures in his book, so does religion and class and economic interest. We are splintered along all sorts of lines. And Kreitner is deeply skeptical of the prospects for unity now.
“What strikes me about Biden’s language is that it is the national rhetorical tradition of American politics — saying that . . . beneath all this discontent and disagreement, we are united still and we can be again," he says. "To me that’s not at all the case. And what the 2016 election really shows is that insisting that it is the case, as Hillary Clinton had done throughout her political career, as Barack Obama had done throughout his political career, actually blinds you to the divisions that exist in American life and makes it more surprising than it should be . . . when it all goes to pieces.”
We are not so blind this time around. But if Biden prevails, Kreitner says, we are in for another kind of letdown. We are going to be “massively disappointed, to say the least, when January comes around, or next year comes around, and he’s not able to unite the country.”
KREITNER IS ALMOST certainly right about that.
But if history teaches that unity is a mirage, it also says that majority is real.
Civic nationalism was a more potent force than ethno-nationalism in the 1960s. And that allowed for bipartisan passage of major civil rights legislation.
The project, then, is to build a clear, new civic nationalist majority. And that will take time.
Whatever the outcome of this election, we are still too closely and too bitterly divided for anyone to build a consensus. But if Joe Biden can’t deliver us, he has illuminated the challenge like no one else.
In his campaign announcement video, he went straight at it — invoking Charlottesville, Va., “home to the author of one of the great documents in human history,” and quoting from that document’s most famous line: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal . . . endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.”
“We haven’t always lived up to these ideals,” he said, “Jefferson himself didn’t. But we have never before walked away from them.” This was civic nationalism.
Then Biden moved to the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville in 2017. Torches, “crazed faces,” and a president who said there were “very fine people on both sides.” This was ethno-nationalism. Biden was too quick to dismiss it as a relic; if Trump only serves one term, he said, history would consider it an “aberrant” moment in the American journey. But he had identified the problem. He had set the course. And there is reason to think we’ll navigate it.
The country is changing. Younger Americans have soured on ethno-nationalism in large numbers. And we are growing more racially diverse. That won’t mean an end to our darker impulses. But it is the stuff of a new civic-nationalist majority.
The story that majority tells won’t look exactly like Biden’s version. It will be contested. It will be reshaped. But it will matter. Story always matters.