Pascal Ory is a historian, professor of contemporary history at the University of Paris I, specialist in cultural history and political history. He has just published, with Gallimard editions,: What is a nation? A global story. It is precisely this notion of “world history” that interests us particularly today.
Joe Biden and Donald Trump, at the end of an eventful campaign and poll, each announced their victory, and since November 7 at 5:24 pm, the United States now has its 46th president, Joe Biden will settle in the White House on January 20. Donald Trump continues to deny the facts. The President of the United States denounces the fraud, the supporters of Joe Biden dispute. America seems deeply divided. How can the nation rebuild itself under these conditions?
Thomas Snégaroff: Pascal Ory, when you look at this period, do you tell yourself that the American nation is struggling to rebuild itself?
Pascal Ory : I am not sure that it is deconstructing itself. In any case, at present, the American nation is not deconstructing itself. As some Europeans, who know nothing about how the United States works, claim. I believe that we have to do with a confrontation which, for the moment, remains within a liberal democracy. A democracy where the rules of the game are very different from the French rules. Are the French rules standard? I’m not sure of it.
The American experience, which arose from the revolution of the eighteenth century, is a deeply democratic experience but one that distrusts the central power. Hence the complication of this election, which frightened the French. After all, the French are spontaneously unitary and centralist. It is debatable, eh.
So what we have just seen, according to you, is revealing of the American situation?
Always, but these great clashes, especially when they are at the top, make us forget that we are electing judges, representatives, senators etc. And that is really the American dimension. But when we are at the top, it is obvious that we crystallize around two personalities. It’s a bit like in France where the French system, for different reasons, means that in the second round of the presidential election there are only two candidates. After all, one might wonder why we don’t allow a third or a fourth. For different reasons, there is a bipolarization and an individualization at the top, it’s a little dramaturgical. But democracy happens on another level, too.
Yes and it is happening, that’s what I read in your book, at the level of the debate. And there, for once, we have the feeling that in the United States, perhaps also soon in France or in Europe, the debate is more and more difficult?
In the confrontation between these two candidates, between these two parties which are more separated than ever before, because there was a tradition of compromise which is disappearing, we can see that there are two cultures, two societies. We have seen it in terms of votes. We can see that we are stripping urban votes. So there is a more urban society and a more rural society, a religious society and a less religious society. And that all this stiffens the oppositions.
The equivalents could be found in other countries. The question is: how do institutions cope with this? For the moment, American institutions are supporting the situation. We in France have consumed a dozen constitutions. Americans have always had the same thing for a day, which incidentally happened in Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, in 1787.
And is it not a little paradoxical to consider that populism deconstructs the nation while it unites it around a leader?
It is contradictory, insofar as it is no longer a question of nationalism but of national feeling. Nationalism is a fairly recent invention, 150 years old, which consisted in making the left / right debate migrate within the different nations from the reference to the nation. It was new, because the nation comes from the left: popular sovereignty.
The United States in the 18th century was practicing a deeply democratic revolution. I insist on this. They also practiced true decolonization. The first successful decolonization is the United States. There is therefore an approach that can be qualified as a “leftist approach”. Except that, gradually, integration within a national whole causes new cleavages and a reinvestment of a popular right which understood that, to see the arrival of new voters, it was necessary to resort to the national reference to cleave to inside. And it is clear that Donald Trump has played a lot on protectionism, on national identity and on immigration. On “Great Again”.