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Racial contestation and the emergence of populist nationalism in the United States

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Much of the discussion surrounding nationalism still revolves around the ethnic versus civic nation divide. For purposes of this paper it is more useful to view the United States from the tri-modal perspective offered by Anderson, in which the United States is a creole (or settler) nation. All of Anderson's types can be seen as variants of ethnic nationalism. Kaufmann argues that the US evolved from ethnic to civic nationalism by the 1960s. This argument overlooks the importance of phenotype-based racism in the evolution of creole, or white settler colonial nationalism. We want to argue that US nationalism evolved from ethnic, to white racial nationalism in the interwar years. Since the 1920s, the political establishment has opted for civic nationalism that is based upon 'white assimilationism'. This civic nationalism has been challenged by multiculturalism since the 1960s. In the context of a democratic political culture, the content of American nationalism has become 'populist' in the sense that it has come under popular contestation from the assimilationist right and the multiculturalist left. This populist nationalism includes aspects of ethnic and civic nationalism. Racial formation theory will be used to show that national identity may remain under 'relatively permanent political contestation' with racial cleavage as a major fault line in that contest. The issues of immigration and the treatment of Muslims since 9/11 will be addressed in order to make the case.
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Keywords: hegemony; nationalism; populism; race

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 1: Department of Political Science, Western Washington University, Bellingham, USA 2: Department of Political Science, Hastings College, Hastings, USA

Publication date: September 1, 2009

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