Are we a nation?” The question was raised, in an address of that title, by Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts after the Civil War. At the end of the twentieth century, the question of whether America is a nation has arisen again. Unlike Sumner, the great champion of Union and racial integration, proponents of the leading schools of thought about American national identity today— multiculturalism and democratic universalism— tend to answer the question in the negative.
Are we a nation? No, say the multiculturalists, who are found predominantly though not exclusively on the left. The United States, they say, is not a nation-state. Rather, it is a nation of nations, a federation of nationalities or cultures sharing little or nothing but a common government: a miniature UN. How the cultures that compose the multinational American citizenry are to be defined is the subject of dispute among those who think of America in this way. Contemporary multiculturalists usually identify the nations or cultures of the United States with five races defined by descent: white, black or African-American, Hispanic, Asian/Pacific Islander, and American Indian/Inuit. In contrast, a small but eloquent band of old-fashioned ...
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