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Liberal Citizenship and American National Identity

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 April 1999

University of Tulsa


I will discuss Civic Ideals in three contexts. The first is external to Smith's book: I propose a framework for a counternarrative, one that uses Smith's three-part classification of liberalism, republicanism, and ascriptive values, but in order to carry a very different story. This counternarrative stresses the decisive role played by the “ascriptive values” of common law, religion, and nationalism in infusing both substance and power into the “thin” liberal and “thick” republican principles constituting the distinct political regimes of our political history. The second context is internal: here I explore the way Smith's argument is premised on the assumption that civic ideals are equated with national identity, making his argument and this book a “partisan” struggle for the soul of America. This is the case even though his method of analysis privileges (slightly thickened) national liberal civic ideals above more locally based republicanism as political democracy and above any and all ascriptive claims. In Smith's view, liberalism exists on a plane of rationality and truth that places it above the battle even though it must compete with traditions that have great power to elicit powerful political and moral loyalties. I extend this critique from theory to history by showing that Smith's legal-theoretical mode of analysis “works” as a plausible historical explanation only because it replicates a particular (that is, “partisan”) tradition of political discourse in America, namely the national republicanism of “reform liberalism.” Smith's “party” today is that of liberal perfectionism, a term currently in use to distinguish liberalism as a positive set of values from liberalism as a set of neutral procedures and principles. This replication is paradoxical, however, because that mode of discourse, exemplified in the rhetorical form of the jeremiad, was always part of a national political theology – “Americanist to the core” – institutionally anchored in an informal national intellectual-cultural-religious reform establishment that claimed nevertheless to embody universal or world-historical philosophical, moral, and religious values.

Research Article
1999 Cambridge University Press

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