Nationhood Lab director addresses Jan. 6 vigil in Newport

Courtesy: Office of Rep. Seth Magaziner

January 13, 2023

NEWPORT, R.I.  –  The director of Salve Regina University’s Nationhood Lab delivered keynote remarks at a vigil commemorating the Jan. 6 coup attempt in which he warned of the imminent threat of an autocratic takeover.

“Far too many Americans are asleep,” Colin Woodard said. “They don’t realize the threat we face. They haven’t been presented with a clear alternative vision of what this country should be. And they don’t realize just how fragile our nation really is.”

Woodard was speaking at public vigil organized by the League of Women Voters – Newport County and held in the main chamber of the 1741 Colony House, the National Historic Landmark in downtown Newport, Rhode Island. US Senator Jack Reed, Second District US Rep. Seth Magaziner, Rhode Island Secretary of State Greg Amore, and Newport Mayor Xay Khamsyvoravong were also in attendance and gave remarks.

Woodard noted the United States is really a federation of regional cultures, most of which have their origins in one of the rival 17th and 18th-century colonial projects, from the Puritans in New England and the Dutch settled area around what is now New York City to the Chesapeake Tidewater country and the Spanish settled southwest. This accounts for the enormous and persistent political and ideological differences between these sections throughout our history as a single political entity. It also makes having a credible national story critically important to the country’s stability, he said.

Much of U.S. history has been a struggle over two contesting national narratives: a civic national one that holds we exist to further the ideals set forth in the Declaration of Independence and an ethnonational one that denies human equality and holds that the country belongs to a certain subset of the population who have the right bloodlines, he explained. The fight between these two visions dominated the Antebellum, Civil War and Reconstruction periods until, in the 1910s and 1920s, the ethnonationalists effectivekly won and governned the country for decades. The civic national vision didn’t become our federation-wide consensus story until the 1960s — not the 1860s.

“That’s when we became a liberal democracy,” he said. “In living memory. It’s not inevitable, it’s an incredible gift that had to be fought for and continues to be fought for.”

He noted that while today’s authoritarian ethnonationalists “have their story all worked out,” Americans no longer knew how to talk about the civic national vision. This is the key work of Nationhood Lab, he explained.

“We’ll be perfecting that story, a story of pride and reckoning, of an effort to create a society where all people can be meaningfully free,” Woodard said. “And we’ll be helping deploy it.”

Nationhood Lab, based at the Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy at Salve Regina University, is an interdisciplinary research, writing, testing and dissemination project focused on counteracting the authoritarian threat to American democracy and the centrifugal forces threatening the federation’s stability. The project delivers more effective tools with which to describe and defend the American liberal democratic tradition and better understand the forces undermining it.