America’s remaining territories in the Caribbean and Pacific represent a quieter legacy of structural dualism, subject to American power but lacking the full benefits of America’s democracy. How should we understand these sites, and what do you consider a just response to their situation?
I’ll start with my own political takeaway, which is that the various territories that don’t currently enjoy statehood are dependent colonies. The local communities are best understood as imperial subjects who are denied the basic conditions of free citizenship and self-rule. The territories are thus present-day embodiments of the structural duality–between internal liberty and external control–that defined settler institutions. This means that if you take seriously principles of equal freedom and self-determination, the colonial status of all these territories must end. Then the question becomes how to ensure self-determination, and does that mean statehood or independence? I think the answer really has to follow how movements on the ground view meaningful autonomy. What do those movements see as the appropriate way to achieve it?
At the same time, a key part of my argument is that empire should not be reduced just to a question of whether the country is formally conquering new territory. At the turn of the twentieth century, with the closing of the frontier and the rise of industrialization, settler society faced real crisis. Society became increasingly regimented and hierarchical with extreme forms of class inequality. For a new generation of imperialists like Teddy Roosevelt, one way to overcome the crisis was to recommit to settler conquest, but now on the global stage. That was the thought that led to the annexation after the Spanish-American War of the Philippines and Puerto Rico.
But what happened almost immediately, especially in the Philippines, was that American elites found themselves facing an intense guerrilla uprising. This reality over time transformed how American elites came to see the purpose of American global power. It de-emphasized the focus on actual territorial possession and instead centered around the idea of the US as a kind of backstop to a particular global order. Americans would intervene and reconstruct state and economic institutions whenever local practices fell out of line with US interests, but they wouldn’t actually hold territory. It meant that the territorial acquisition of places like Puerto Rico and the Philippines became an artifact of that earlier moment.
I go through all of this to say that we need to end territorial status, but also to recognize that American empire has never just been about holding possessions that aren’t treated as official states. The states in the union may have been formally equal, but the overall project was still imperial. This is because that formal equality of territory belied both a rejection of Indigenous sovereignty and an underlying structural dichotomy dividing settler insiders from colonized outsiders, wherever they may reside.
As for today, American imperium is primarily asserted through overarching global primacy, in which the U.S. claims a continuous interventionist right everywhere and exercises this right in ways that limit the self-determination of local peoples. This assault on self-determination occurs whether or not the US, as with Puerto Rico or Guam, actually wields direct political control in a country like Iraq or Afghanistan. So grappling with the status of the territories means ending, finally, all the versions of American imperial politics. It entails nothing less than refusing to treat any community, at home or abroad, as simply a means to the projection of American power.
For today’s politics, marked by both Trump and the return of a self-assertive left, what do you see as the implications of your specific settler reading of US history?
Commentators and historians have tended to say that what I’ve been describing is the bad old days of hundreds of years ago, and the story of the twentieth century is really the overcoming of that settler past. It’s a move to a civic present marked by universal inclusion and the end of open and explicit racial discrimination. My basic view is that the settler past and the civic present can’t be so easily disentangled. They don’t mark two distinct periods of time; they really fold into one another. This is because Jim Crow segregation may have been legally overturned during the twentieth century, but much of the underlying structure of settler society (how economic and political power was organized) did not fundamentally shift.
I think the rise of Trump illustrates this point. He embodies one destructive side of the long American history: the persistent tendency to base status and prosperity for insiders on the subordination of outsiders. Like Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and George Wallace more recently, Trump too combines—broadly speaking—a politics of white nationalism with the rhetoric of anti-elitism and of economic populism. This combination was not only deeply embedded in settlerism, but it has been perhaps the dominant American political ideology for most of the country’s past. Yet Trump and his forebears do not define all of the historical record, or indeed all of what populism itself has necessarily meant in the United States. Radicals during Reconstruction, the Populist movement, the New Deal, and the long Black freedom struggle all attempted to forge a society that preserved that rich internal account of self-rule but sought to make it achievable for a broader range of people. In a sense, the social uprisings of the last decade—especially embodied by immigrant rights activism, Occupy Wall Street, and the Movement for Black Lives—highlight how the United States has never truly been a democracy in which the many rule. But these efforts also speak to the irruptive politics at the margins that for generations has fought to extend equal and effective freedom. In a sense, the great struggle of American life has always been whether that radical democratic possibility—tied historically to the systematic subordination of oppressed peoples—can actually be made universal. It remains the struggle of the present.