OpEd: Nationhood Lab director on the autocratic threat to the U.S. and the need for a new national story

Writing in Maine’s largest newspaper, the Pell Center’s Colin Woodard makes the case for a rebooted U.S. national narrative to pull the country back from the brink

Nationhood Lab Director Colin Woodard argued that the U.S. is standing perilously close to a collapse into autocracy in an essay in a recent Sunday edition of Maine’s largest newspaper, the Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram. Devising a rebooted national story of what the purpose of the U.S. is — and isn’t — is a vital missing tool in defending the republic from authoritarians like former president Donald Trump, he argued.

“Post-Cold War America – and much of ‘the West’ – had no story at all apart from a vague materialist argument about increasing the national GDP,” Woodard wrote in the essay published Dec. 17. ” A void opened up, and demagogues and charlatans stepped into the breach.”

The U.S. is particularly vulnerable to authoritarian ethnonationalism, the dominant ideological force in the federation in the 1910s and 1920s and in lowland southern regions from colonization until at least the end of the 1960s. The civic national story — that the U.S. is defined by fealty to the set of natural rights ideals set forth in the Declaration of Independence — has only been dominant federation-wide for a little over half a century and has been neglected since the U.S. triumph in the Cold War.

“American civic nationalism has had its failings – arrogance, messianic hubris, a self-regard so bright as to blind one to shortcomings,” Woodard wrote, “but at its core, it is built on unifying, inspirational and genuinely good ideals that a supermajority of Americans can get behind, be they conservatives or liberals, Republicans or Democrats, or something in between.”

Nationhood Lab, a project of Salve Regina University’s Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy, focuses on counteracting the authoritarian threat to American democracy and the centrifugal forces threatening the federation’s stability. One pillar of the project seeks to develop, rigorously test, and disseminate articulate a renewed civic national narrative for the United States.