Liberal democracies are under siege throughout the western world. This form of government – also called Western democracy – combines representative democracy (with free, fair and widely participatory elections) and the equal protection of the civil liberties of individuals – including minorities of all sorts, political and otherwise – under the principles of classical liberalism. The United States was arguably the first nation to establish such a system – 18th century Britain being a liberal autocracy – but during the 19th and 20th centuries it was adopted by much of the industrialized world, including most European states, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, India, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, Chile and Brazil. In the early 21st century, however, many liberal democracies have been challenged by domestic forces that are either illiberal (in that they seek to deny civil liberties and human rights protections to some citizens based on their ethnicity, race, religion, gender or politics) or authoritarian (dismissive of the rule of law or the need to hold properly democratic elections) or both. The United States is unfortunately among those countries facing such a crisis of its liberal democratic institutions.
The Nationhood Lab at the Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy aims to have an immediate and enduring impact, benefiting the American people through sound analysis, better governance and greater awareness of the issues facing the country. By assisting in the effort to shore up the country’s liberal democratic system, it will further the effort to maintain and extend an ethical, rules-based international order based on shared values, commitment to human rights, and just and enduring peace.
Nationhood Lab advances the resolution and public understanding of an existential suite of public policy and U.S. sociological problems – the essential structural weaknesses of the United States, where they came from and how they affect the past, present and our potential futures; the need to articulate an effective narrative of national purpose and self-definition to counteract the centrifugal forces threatening the federation’s long-term stability; and the long legacy of American ethno-nationalism and the ways it can be counteracted. The project enhances understanding of the big questions that have always bedeviled American nationhood: Who are we as a nation? Where did our nation come from? For what reasons do our states and regional cultures remain together as a nation? These questions are again central to the future of our federation and for the prospects for the American dream and the equality of opportunity promised in our founding documents.
Nationhood Lab focuses on the creation and dissemination of intriguing new ideas, research and analysis through media and media partners, though it creates books and peer-reviewed literature as well. It is built upon three mutually supportive initiatives: (a) promoting and defending American democracy via the development, testing and deployment of a renewed national narrative of the United States, a story of U.S. national purpose and identity that can counter and defeat the burgeoning authoritarian ethno-nationalist threat; (b) explaining the Balkanized nature of the U.S. federation, which will inform public debate, policy deployment and political strategy by analyzing various phenomenon at this website and; (c) articulating the political balance and associated policies required to preserve liberal democracies generally and ours in particular.
It leverages and builds on the body of work by Colin Woodard, the project’s director. American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America (Viking, 2011) explains our past and present political cleavages through a more accurate understanding of the boundaries and characteristics of our underlying regional cultures. It demonstrates why the country is politically stalemated, and why it is likely to remain so until one or another political formation articulates a set of ideas that can reestablish a new federal supermajority. American Character: The History of the Epic Struggle Between Individual Liberty and the Common Good (Viking, 2016) identifies that set of ideals, surveys our history to locate the balance point between these two vital and competing aspects of freedom, either of which can lead to tyranny when carried to excess. Woodard’s most recent book Union: The Struggle to Forge the Story of United States Nationhood (Viking, 2020) shows how, when and by whom the competing narratives of U.S. nationhood were created, revealing the deep roots of both our civic nationalist and ethno-nationalist traditions, and why the latter is so destructive to the American experiment.
Nationhood Lab is helping build an informal coalition of organizations, scholars, and practitioners working to protect and advance the American liberal democratic experiment. Our data journalism work receives technical support from Motivf, a location-intelligence driven geospatial consultancy based in Alexandria, Virginia. In 2023 we engaged in research collaborations with More in Common, Cornell University’s Institute of Politics and Government, and public health researchers from the University of Illinois-Chicago and the HealthPartners Institute in Minneapolis.
Nationhood Lab, based at Salve Regina University, is supported by family foundations and individual donors, Democrats, Republicans and independents among them. We gratefully accept donations from members of the public who find our work and mission valuable. We are a project of the university, a tax exempt 501c3 institution.