Comparing State-Level Nationalisms – Print Project Draft

Nationalism is not a political orientation, but a tool that can be used to create a shared identity for “insiders” to engage with socially and politically. Since nationalism is such a nebulous practice/framework rather than political orientation, however, it doesn’t have to only be applied on the level of a nation-state. This project is a case study of how nationalist assertion of borders, insider/outsider traits and differences, and a shared and timeless history manifests on a state level in the United States, using Texas and California State of the State addresses between 1980 and 2023. This was done using Voyant Tools to go through the California and Texas addresses as separate corpuses, and together as one corpus that includes all of them. After using Voyant to see what trends appeared in each corpus, I selected 13 words that appeared relatively frequently in both sets of documents and seemed likely to lead to identity- and community-constructing passages. This included discussions of what the people of each state are like, the challenges they face and overcome, important historical moments, and their role within the United States and the world.

The main thirteen terms I used were the following – community, protect, America, border, challenge, crime, past, states, nation, local, world, better, and future. This search also included any variants, like protects, protected, and protection. A bar graph showing the relative frequency of each of these terms between the two states is below.

The frequency rates of the 13 search terms and their variants between the California speeches (left) and the Texas speeches (right)

Using these results, the “Context” tool on Voyant pointed me in the direction of passages that could be used for close reading to compare how each state viewed itself and its identity both as an independent entity and as a sub-identity within the national identity of American. While some of these terms, like “community” and “local,” yielded surprisingly few helpful passages, others pointed out several shared and divergent trends of identity construction between the two states. I will share briefly about some of them below.

Leaders and Challengers of the Nation

One of the most common threads in both sets of speeches was how they framed their own state as a leading force in the the United States, either leading the federal and all other state governments in the direction of progress, following the path their state has already laid out, or as essentially an independent nation-state in all but name, leading the world separate from any connection to the United States. While this trend can be seen in both states, a trend that also emerged more uniquely in Texas was also how the state is a leader in their opposition to practices and policies of the federal government. In this context, the identity being formed is as rebels who do what’s right despite interference from distant, bureaucrat outsiders. This places the rebel identity in a unique position, because it must be to some degree from an underdog position that is by nature beneath the US in a literal hierarchy of power, but is also strong enough to resist and act independently when power is being wrongly asserted over them.

Situating within American Identity and History

Another common thread is the use of aspects of the equally constructed American national identity in conjunction with state-level identification. Several different times, both Texas and California governors explicitly state something is an American ideal or trait, and then immediately follow it up with a comparative, often even more positive version that is true for citizens of their state. This counters the appearance of independence that is emphasized in the previous trend by associating in the most direct way possible with American identity. There is a ceiling on how independent states can make themselves appear given the reality of their position as a government functioning underneath the federal government, plus people can move much more easily between state borders than national borders, so there are many more state newcomers that still have to be included in the state identity without actually identifying with it much in practice. By asserting their shared American identity, newcomers from other states can still feel more included in the state identity construction.

Pretending to Have Unique Traits

The most important common trend between the two states is that they each assert specific traits and actions as uniquely Californian or Texan, but what they are actually claiming as unique are incredibly general, with plenty of overlap between the two states and countless other identity groups. Things like determination, creativity, and energy are claimed as uniquely related to being a Californian, and Texan, and American. On one level, this is definitely just funny to see. In another way, it draws attention to how fake nationalist-style identity is. Creating hard, non-porous borders between “us” and “them” is pretty much the central tenet of nationalist identity-building—if a nation fails at that, it fails at being a nation on a fundamental level. Yet here these governors are, claiming the same incredibly vague adjectives as exclusively theirs. How real and important can this identity be if they can’t even prove a real, fundamental difference between Californians and Texans?

Different Historical References

The major difference between the methods and content of identity-construction between the two states is how the governors refer to their states’ own history. One of the keys of nationalist construction is calling on shared history (real or not) and essentially frame the “insiders” as people whose obligation is to carry on that positive legacy. Since this is so key to the construction process and the two states were constructing identities that are meant to be distinct from each other, they each call on specific instances in history—especially state history and sometimes personal history—that are uniquely centered on California and Texas (and Californians and Texans) respectively. In particular, California often calls on the Gold Rush, World War II, and the Cold War to point out a spirit of hard work and innovation that is supposed to be particularly Californian. Texas, on the other hand, emphasizes its period as an independent republic between being Mexican and American territory, drawing attention to their supposedly unique independent and rebellious nature. While the two states do call on unique historical moments, however, are still being used to reinforce the shared traits they both claim as “ours” and not “theirs.” So, while on one level it’s important and interesting to see how these historical moments are cherrypicked and sanitized to create this shared identity and history, it still ultimately points towards the ultimate contradiction of nationalist identities: they’re all basically the same, but that is the one thing they can’t be.

Hopefully this summed up my paper decently well! If you’d like to read more about the specific quotes and connections these conclusions have stemmed from, see more information on my methods and general findings, or possible future directions for this project, the full draft is accessible below! Give it a read!

3 Replies to “Comparing State-Level Nationalisms – Print Project Draft”

  1. Corinne, we talked about it before but one of my own field’s of interest is nationalism and its many peculiarities, so I was particularly eager to see where you landed with your project! I think what you have done with Voyant is fascinating. It took a single glance at each state’s Voyant page that you linked to see your point: despite their endless claims otherwise, these individual states and their individual people and nationalisms are not unique. They hit the same key words and phrases, and they are using the same tactics of rhetoric and propaganda.
    I do think that it sort of speaks to the power of the type of propaganda and rhetoric that is used in nationalist speeches and the like that it still works despite how clear it is, once delved into, that the uniqueness espoused in these nationalist speeches are not so unique at all. I think that that is a big reason why the kind of work you are doing with this project is important and significant, because it unmasks nationalism, which is often seen as either a positive thing or merely innocuous by a lot of the general public.

  2. Very much enjoyed digging into your paper! I think you are onto something really interesting in all of this. Overall, you have done a great job on this. Once you finish writing out the conclusion section of the paper, you will have something in hand that more than meets the requirements for the project for the course. The paper is well written and easy to follow. So congrats on that!

    Your decision to focus in on Texas and California as your two states makes a lot of sense. As huge states that have differing core political narratives they make for a compelling contrast. Interestingly that makes them much less representative of the rest of the individual states, but I think you make a good case for why their centrality to culture and politics make them good targets for this study.

    All the themes you drew out, from the different historical moments that the states refer to, to the way they each frame how their state is leading the nation in some area, were fascinating and well articulated. In particular, the “border” and “world” differences are really interesting! It’s particularly interesting that both Texas and California share borders with Mexico but they have pretty fundamentally different approaches to thinking about the border.

    For the relative frequencies chart of Texas vs. California. If you can figure out how to do it, it would be great if you could show each term for each state side by side in the chart. That way readers could visually draw more direct comparisons. No worries if you can’t sort out a way to do that.

    If you do keep working with this piece beyond the semester, I would offer a few suggestions/considerations. First off, I’m curious if there is any significant change over time that occurs throughout the speeches. Do they diverge more over time? Do they collectively take on different themes over time? Or are there other changes? Right now it feels like the themes you have drawn out are more or less consistent over time throughout the corpus but it seems like there could/should be some interesting changes that develop over time in this period.

    The other question I had in doing this is if there is anything else that you can draw out computationally from the texts. It’s great that you got the term frequency to work for them, but if you were to keep working on this, it would be interesting to try and get other computational points on them. Like are there different adjectives or verbs that show up in them? Or when a term like liberty or freedom comes up in the texts, what other terms show up in the same sentence, or around it? No need to get into that for the class project but it’s just to say that your paper sparks a lot of other potential questions.

  3. I found this paper quite fascinating! I think that your analysis about the similarity of nationalist identities between California and Texas to be surprising. It would seem that they would have more disparate ideas over their uniqueness but this could be a a result of both being from the same country. I wonder how the medium of “State of the State” speeches influences this type of rhetoric. The speeches are often highly idealized and, like you say, “cherry-picking” and “sanitizing” their relevant histories. The recent trend of Californians moving to Texas would be another aspect of the relationship that you could further discuss. What about Texas is alluring to Californians and why are they moving out of the state? All together, I think you picked a great topic and look forward to seeing the final results!

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