A New Nationalism

by The New Republic | January 27, 1979

In recent years American politics has been distracted by a new and destructive pluralism. This new pluralism disorganizes public policy and sets group against group. Its paralyzing and disorienting effects challenge citizens, leaders and above all the president to elicit and affirm a new nationalism that will again put us in mind of what makes us a people and again give direction to our public affairs.

The problem is not the conflict of classes. Indeed, we may look back with nostalgia to the class struggle of New Deal days, which did much to make sense of politics and policies then. But class is less and less relevant to the issues of the present and to the behavior of voters. Our problem is pluralism, not polarization. Our hope should be for a new public philosophy that will again fuse the democratic idea with the national idea.

Franklin Roosevelt's first inaugural address on March 4, 1933, could have been entitled "the new nationalism" as fittingly as any utterance of his cousin Theodore, who first gave currency to the expression. None of the main points in that famous speech can be summarized without reference to the nation. No other thematic term faintly rivals it in emphasis. Next to "nation" the term given most prominence is, not strangely, "leadership." God received the obligatory reference at the end. But there was no effort to seek spiritual guidance in biblical quotation. On the contrary, Roosevelt insisted that "our common difficulties" concerned "only material things."

Franklin Roosevelt's nationalism was, first, a doctrine of federal centralization. The principle of federal activism, which some have seen as the principal dividing line in American politics since the 1930s, was introduced by the New Deal. But Roosevelt called not only for the centralization of government, but also for the nationalization of politics. And in the party realignment of those years, the old rustic and sectional politics yielded to a new urban and class politics.

In its third and most important sense, Roosevelt's nationalism was an imperative of integration. A new specification of the democratic idea gave the New Deal that bias toward "the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid" to whose elevation Roosevelt had pledged himself during the campaign. Unlike socialist and social democratic ideologies in other countries, however, the egalitarianism of the New Deal sought not a redistribution of income, but a redistribution of power. A major example of the New Deal's tactic of "countervailing power," which John Kenneth Galbraith identified later as the unifying principle of the main achievements of the 1930s, was the Wagner Labor Relations Act of 1935. In spite of bitter and sometimes bloody resistance, this act, which sought to redress "the inequality of bargaining power" between employees and employers, changed not only the practices of industry, but also the attitudes of society. In power and status, the position of the ordinary working stiff was never the same again.

In such ways, then, a new public philosophy was formulated, embodied in legislation and espoused by a political coalition that dominated American politics from the 1930s to the 1960s. This political force did not have the field all to itself. Its assertions called forth counter-assertions. But the conflict had a certain coherence: one side said "yes," the other said "no," but both were responding to the same questions.

That old political system was not a system of consensus politics (which in my opinion rarely accomplishes much). Neither was it the politics of pluralism, which some observers see in contemporary societies where warring groups, emptied of any vision of the social whole and guided only by the residuum of their private concerns, quarrel over the spoils.


In his inaugural address of January 20, 1977, President Carter's nationalism was as pronounced as Roosevelt's. His overwhelming concern was national integration on the basis of a new affirmation of equality. He proposed to advance "human rights" and "equality of opportunity" so that in the future it could be said that while he was president, "our nation … had torn down the barriers that separated those of different race and region and religion and where there had been mistrust, built unity, with respect for diversity."

But as President Carter's inaugural rhetoric suggests, his problem is very different from Roosevelt's. President Carter's problem and his opportunity--for the situation harbors promise as well as peril--derive from the dual revolution of the 1960s. I have characterized this dual revolution, in what may be father lurid language, as "the technocratic take-over" and "the romantic revolt." Each has contributed to the present fragmentation of polity and society.

In the 1960s a new professionalism emerged in the public service. Founded on the expertise produced by the enormous advances in the natural and social sciences during the postwar years, it gave to technically and scientifically trained people in government a growing influence on public policy. The new professionalism displayed its influence most strikingly in the fields of defense and space policy. But in the diverse fields of domestic policy--health, housing, urban renewal, highways, welfare, education, poverty, environment--the new programs of the 1960s and after drew heavily on specialized and technical knowledge in and around the federal bureaucracy.

These technocratic trends are centralizing, but also create new fragmenting effects. Common disciplines and subdisciplines promote cooperation within vertical hierarchies running from central program chiefs to local providers of services. These bureaucratic enclaves in turn establish cordial relations with legislative subcommittees and with the groups of consumers who benefit from their services. Professionals may cooperate within the same program, but their dispersion in many different vertical hierarchies gives them little opportunity or incentive for concerted action toward national priorities and problems. Policymakers are separated from one another and so are beneficiary groups and the providers of services. The outcome of the technocratic takeover is to centralize the making of policy, but at the same time to weaken the ability of the political actors to function as a national public. This sort of fragmentation is familiar to anyone in Washington.

The romantic revolt, otherwise known as the counterculture of the 1960s, has provided intellectual and moral premises for the other strain of the new pluralism. As an artistic and literary movement, it has been an influence on, and an expression of, the new and more permissive lifestyles of our time. Its affinity with the romantic movements of earlier days is obvious. Its message is a message of liberation from conventional morality, authority and society in the name of spontaneous feeling and freely rendered mutuality and love. It speaks not only to the individual but also to the group. The basis of group life is found not in economic need or universal values, but in a common culture, a distinctive way of feeling and acting.

This new regard for the cultural basis of group life powerfully served to justify the resurgent ethnicity of the 1960s. It increased appreciation for the distinctive cultural endowments of ethnic groups and the way these cultural endowments help such groups to take advantage of the opportunities of American society. Perhaps in no other respect is the break from the New Deal sharper than in this recognition of the importance of cultural in contrast with economic factors. The new egalitarianism of the Great Society explicitly recognized the rights of groups and, moreover, perceived groups as constituted by their distinctive cultures and lifestyles. In spite of this recognition of separate group identities, however, this new egalitarianism was national through and through, rejecting separatism in favor of a full integration of disadvantaged groups--most critically, blacks--into the national community.

Yet the attitudes that supported this new and constructive recognition of cultural groups as objects of public policy also have fragmenting effects. In the late 1960s a wave of ethnic feeling surged over the country and through the cities. The earlier celebration or diversity gave way to disharmony and tension is groups resisted preferential treatment for others or sought it for themselves.

Descending from the dual revolution of the 1960s, the new pluralism takes these two forms: a pluralism of consumer groups enjoying benefits from social programs directed by central technocrats allied with local providers, and a pluralism of cultural groups protecting or claiming advantages for their members in relation to government or other groups. Within this vast array of groups one cannot locate a coalition sharing a public philosophy. Nor is it easy to see how such an integrating outlook could arise.

We need a new nationalism to reconcile and give direction to the fragments of this new pluralism. I would not attempt to suggest its substance. In American political history writers, teachers and people of that sort rarely have been able to perform such a service. Judging by the past, we should look rather to men actively engaged in political life and above all to the president of the United States to identify and elicit that new sense of direction. Given my diagnosis of the problem. President Carter is singularly well equipped to meet this need.

Jimmy Carter is both a romantic and a technocrat. By upbringing he is a southern Baptist, who, although given to quoting Reinhold Niebuhr, professes a faith in the goodness of human nature that is Wordsworthian in its innocence. On the other hand, he is by education a naval officer and, as he likes to emphasize, a "nuclear engineer," a problem solver who gives numbers to the reasons for and against a decision and then adopts the side with the larger total. I profess to see this duality even in his appearance: the mouth that smiles too easily, the eyes that smile not at all.

Yet in this duality he is representative of this country at this time. To an unprecedented degree, Americans today want to be terribly nice and terribly efficient Jimmy Carter resonates to those impulses. If anyone can reconcile them, it is he. It is uncanny that the people should have picked so representative a man as their leader. His strength is that he embodies our contradictions.

Samuel H. Beer is Eaton Professor of the Science of Government at Harvard.

By Samuel H. Beer

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