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Diacritics 29.4 (1999) 116-127

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Authority, Solidarity, and the Political Economy of Identity: The Case of the United States

David A. Hollinger

Theorists of nationalism tend to circle around the United States like boy scouts who have spotted a clump of poison oak. The nationalism of the United States has figured small in the robust and wide-ranging discourse about nationalism that has involved sociologists, historians, political scientists, philosophers, and literary scholars during the past two decades. Although there are significant exceptions to this pattern of avoidance--David Miller and Liah Greenfeld are convenient examples--several prominent cases illustrate the pattern. The United States is mentioned in only a single footnote in Ernest Gellner's Nations and Nationalism. The United States is given short shrift in three of the most important collections of the 1990s: Homi Bhabha's Nation and Narration, John Hutchinson and Anthony D. Smith's Nationalism, and Geoff Eley and Ronald G. Suny's Becoming National. Montserrat Guibernau mentions the United States only twice, and in passing, in her Nationalisms: The Nation-State and Nationalism in the Twentieth Century. The United States gets less attention than Canada and the Ukraine in John A. Hall's rich, state-of-the-art collection of 1998, The State of the Nation. Ronald Beiner's Theorizing Nationalism has much more to tell us about Quebec than about the United States, which is alluded to even in passing by only half the contributors to this valuable anthology of 1999. That "nationalism is unknown" in the United States is claimed by Elie Kedouri, even in the fourth edition of his classic text Nationalism [143]. But the most interesting case of all is that of nationalism's most creative and influential theorist, Benedict Anderson.

Anderson provides only episodic treatment of the United States while discussing "creole nationalism" in his influential book Imagined Communities. To be sure, Anderson's demonstration of the similarities between a large number of similarly situated, comparably developing national projects among creole populations in the New World is no cause for complaint. It is a signal contribution, and still insufficiently absorbed by a persistently Europe-centered discourse about nationalism. Anderson's recent book, The Spectre of Comparisons, also deals episodically with the United States, which Anderson now tells us explicitly has proved "too sui generis for ready-to-hand" [336] comparisons with other national projects in the Western Hemisphere. Most of Spectre of Comparisons is about Southeast Asia, just as the preponderance of Imagined Communities is about Latin America. Fair enough. [End Page 116]

My point is not to find fault with Anderson for being an Area Studies specialist in so many areas of the world outside the United States. Nor do I have any significant quarrel with what little Anderson does say about the United States. What is worth remarking upon is simply that even the least Eurocentric of our era's leading theorists of nationalism in general has emerged not from the study of the United States, but from the study of Southeast Asia and Latin America. This is less a comment about Anderson than about the class of theorists of which he is a member. The scholars whose careers focus on the United States are "area studies specialists" of a kind, but few of them have intervened tellingly in the cross-disciplinary discussion of nationalism. One who did was the historian David Potter, whose still-powerful article "Historian's Use of Nationalism and Vice Versa" was published nearly forty years ago but is rarely cited today.

The poison oak effect among theorists of nationalism would not be worthy of notice were it not for one fact that might be expected to attract rather than repel these theorists: the United States is the most successful nationalist project in all of modern history. What makes it "successful" is its longevity, its absorption of a variety of peoples, and its sheer power. Two-and-one-quarter centuries after its founding and 135 years after its Civil War, it is by far the most powerful nation-state...