Illiberal America: A History (Hardcover)

Illiberal America: A History By Steven Hahn Cover Image
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If your reaction to the January 6, 2021, insurrection at the Capitol was to think, 'That’s not us,' think again: in Illiberal America, a Pulitzer Prize–winning historian uncovers a powerful illiberalism as deep-seated in the American past as the founding ideals.

A storm of illiberalism, building in the United States for years, unleashed its destructive force in the Capitol insurrection of January 6, 2021. The attack on American democracy and images of mob violence led many to recoil, thinking “That’s not us.” But now we must think again, for Steven Hahn shows in his startling new history that illiberalism has deep roots in our past. To those who believe that the ideals announced in the Declaration of Independence set us apart as a nation, Hahn shows that Americans have long been animated by competing values, equally deep-seated, in which the illiberal will of the community overrides individual rights, and often protects itself by excluding perceived threats, whether on grounds of race, religion, gender, economic status, or ideology.

Driven by popular movements and implemented through courts and legislation, illiberalism is part of the American bedrock. The United States was born a republic of loosely connected states and localities that demanded control of their domestic institutions, including slavery. As white settlement expanded west and immigration exploded in eastern cities, the democracy of the 1830s fueled expulsions of Blacks, Native Americans, Catholics, Mormons, and abolitionists. After the Civil War, southern states denied new constitutional guarantees of civil rights and enforced racial exclusions in everyday life. Illiberalism was modernized during the Progressive movement through advocates of eugenics who aimed to reduce the numbers of racial and ethnic minorities as well as the poor. The turmoil of the 1960s enabled George Wallace to tap local fears of unrest and build support outside the South, a politics adopted by Richard Nixon in 1968. Today, with illiberalism shaping elections and policy debates over guns, education, and abortion, it is urgent to understand its long history, and how that history bears on the present crisis.

About the Author

Steven Hahn is a Pulitzer Prize–winning historian who studies American political and social movements. His acclaimed works include A Nation Under Our Feet and A Nation Without Borders. He teaches at New York University and lives in New York City and Southold, on Long Island.

Praise For…

[Hahn’s] book makes an important case for vigilance in the face of extremism and warns against telling the history of the United States as one of inevitable progress.
— David Leonhardt - New York Times Book Review

Hahn’s endeavor, undertaken with remarkable subtlety, breadth of historical detail and electrifying prose, is not so much to critique the failings of liberalism, as many historians (and activists) have profitably done, but to displace and diminish liberalism’s despotic status in our historical imagination.
— Sam Adler-Bell - Washington Post

Hahn’s achievement is connecting this sort of dimly remembered revanchism to more infamous episodes—Jim Crow, McCarthyism, South Boston’s violent revolt against school integration—and revealing a larger and more influential illiberalism than our popular history has allowed.
— David Scharfenberg - Boston Globe

Steven Hahn has written the definitive history of the illiberalism that informs our 'troubles.' Read this book carefully. Understand what we are up against and find the resources in our traditions to fight for the America we want. An indispensable book for these dark days!

— Eddie S. Glaude, Jr., author of Begin Again

An instant classic.… Steven Hahn transforms our understanding of the multiple traditions embedded in the American past, including a deeply rooted disdain for the ideals of democracy and equality. If you want to understand the historical origins of our present condition, this is the place to start.
— Eric Foner, author of The Second Founding

Steven Hahn takes full measure of this nation’s entrenched histories of exclusion, inequality, and violence. This is an outstanding book, essential for understanding our own moment.
— Kate Masur, author of Until Justice Be Done

In a tour de force, Steven Hahn makes a very powerful argument that illiberalism—and not conservatism, much less fascism—is the best way to think of this country’s long history of opposition to political equality. In the glut of books hoping to make sense of the current crisis, Hahn’s Illiberal America stands out as the most nuanced, elegant, and convincing.

— Greg Grandin, author of The End of the Myth

Brilliant and timely.… Steven Hahn reveals the pervasive entanglement of liberal visions and illiberal restraints throughout American history. No recent invention or fundamental heresy, illiberalism has been as American as cherry pie.
— Alan Taylor, author of American Civil Wars

Steven Hahn’s Illiberal America is a brilliantly conceived reframing of our national past and how it has shaped the present. Hahn’s prodigious research and insightful analysis illustrate how illiberalism has always been a powerful, sometimes even central, feature of American society. In so doing, he allows us to imagine a history beyond American exceptionalism. Essential reading.

— Peniel E. Joseph, author of The Sword and the Shield

Clear-eyed and beautifully written…a remarkable reinterpretation of the country’s past.
— Kim Phillips-Fein, author of Fear City

Steven Hahn persuasively dismantles the idea that the recent and terrifying threats to liberal democracy represent an alarming departure from the American tradition. Instead, this revelatory book reminds us, such threats have been a constant, recurring theme—and knowing that should make us more optimistic that we can overcome them once again.
— Nicholas Lemann, author of Transaction Man
Product Details
ISBN: 9780393635928
ISBN-10: 0393635929
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
Publication Date: March 19th, 2024
Pages: 464
Language: English