A New National Narrative

Capitol Rotunda; Credit: Colin Woodard

Increasingly, Americans have been asking what still holds us together as a nation and wonder if we no longer have a commitment to shared values and ideals. Intellectuals from Jill Lepore and Michael Lind to David Brooks and Ross Douthat have pointed to the need for a new national story, or possibly a renewed one, to provide a communal identity incorporating an understanding of our national origins, purpose and possible future. People need such a story and, as Lepore has put it, “they can get it from scholars or they can get it from demagogues, but get it they will.” A society without a credible story, historian William McNeill wrote 35 years ago, “soon finds itself in deep trouble, for in the absence of believable myths, coherent public action becomes very difficult to improvise or sustain.”

Unfortunately, in the aftermath of the Cold War, the U.S. dropped its devotion to its civic national story in favor of a neo-liberal globalization narrative, in which the free movement of capital, supply chains and goods would create widespread prosperity and cause nation states to become obsolete. Instead, the catastrophic failure of that model in 2008 discredited American leadership in the world and American leaders at home, ushering in a global resurgence of authoritarian ethnonationalism that has challenged liberal democracies everywhere. By 1989, the received civic national story — a version shorn of its warts and failures — had also been discredited in many quarters for having concealed the myriad betrayals, exclusions, and injustices in how the U.S. had operated in practice. In many popular versions of the country’s story, the existence of the rival ethnonational narrative was never mentioned, better yet that it triumphed across the federation for a time in the first half of the 20th century.

This is why Nationhood Lab is developing and testing a revised U.S. national narrative for the 21st century that reflects who we are as a people, recognizes and incorporates our past failures and furthers the liberal democratic and civic nationalist ideas at the core of the American experiment. With our partners we have developed a comprehensive plan to test and perfect a strategic messaging package around this vision of American purpose and, in late March 2024, we commenced the testing process. In the summer of 2024 we intend to deliver results to the public, partner organizations, and stakeholders working on the commemoration of the 250th anniversary of the Declaration in 2026.

In April 2024 we completed a national baseline poll to gauge where Americans are at in the choice between defining the country around the civic ideals in the Declaration or via ancestry, heritage, history or character. The results, which we shared here at the Nationhood Lab site, were encouraging. Roughly six in ten Americans preferred the civic, ideals-based definition of the country, including clear majorities in nearly every demographic category including men, women, whites, Blacks, Latinos, people with and without college educations, and across all generations and regional cultures. The major exceptions were Republicans and people who voted for Donald Trump in the 2020 election.

Throughout the development and testing process, the Lab has also been actively analyzing and discussing the need for a national narrative, the historical contestation over its content, and the need to promote a civic national version tied to those fundamental ideals.

Project director Colin Woodard laid out the fundamental challenge, background, stakes, and consequences in this essay for Washington Monthly, which was written just weeks before the 1/6 coup attempt and published only days afterward.

While at the Pell Center he has has written on key historical aspects of the ongoing struggle over the creation of a common U.S. identity including:

This feature story in Smithsonian magazine on the powerful — and ultimately unhelpful — influence of historian Frederick Jackson Turner’s Frontier Thesis and his subsequent efforts to convince Americans to instead consider regional differences as the key phenomenon in U.S. history.

Woodard engaged in the intellectual conversation over the narrative in two reviews for the Washington Monthly. The first cast doubt on the thesis of constitutional law professor Joel Richard Paul’s new book that Antebellum senator and presidential aspirant Daniel Webster is the person who successfully provided the U.S. with a working civic national narrative. The second, published in April 2024, sought to improve on an analytical framework of our national myths put forth in Richard Slotkin’s new book A Great Disorder.

This essay for the American Enterprise Institute’s The Social Breakdown series on why the U.S needs a rebooted national narrative if it is to survive in the 21st century.

This OpEd for the Maine Sunday Telegram — that state’s largest paper — on the stakes facing the U.S. and the key role of a renewed national story in helping keep us from catastrophe.

He has also recently presented on this issue at the U.S. Senate Democratic caucus, the University of South Carolina, Tennessee’s trans-partisan Sycamore Institute, and at AEI and in a special episode of BYU Radio’s “Top of Mind” program.

Nationhood Lab will continue to share the results of its testing work at this page. Please join us for this journey.