Nationalism is in the air!
Between the rise of Donald Trump in the United States and the gains far-right parties have made in Europe, we’ve seen the word “nationalism” tossed around a lot in the past few years. The connotation is almost invariably negative; indeed, few words seem to trigger a sharper fear response in the collective amygdalas of bien pensant political observers. This is of course understandable; the memory of the First and Second World Wars, along with that of relatively recent disasters like that in Kosovo in the nineties, have colored our perception of the term to a significant degree, and not without reason. The far-right upsurge that is currently roiling the West has only reinforced the perception that nationalism is something necessarily atavistic and rooted in ethnic grievance.
But is it? Here we near the event horizon of a semantic black hole. Like “fascism,” which Orwell famously declared “has no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable,’” “nationalism” is a slippery word. (Ironically, Orwell himself attempted to define “nationalism,” and his definition ended up nearly as wide-reaching as his quippy characterization of fascism.) When we use the term, we’re usually referring to a sort of tribal chauvinism, and to the hyper-conformist stress on “devotion” to one’s country that sounds so profoundly creepy to American ears. In the traditional formulation, “patriotism” is the word for sensible appreciation of your nation, while “nationalism” is like patriotism but somehow “bad,” something lizard-brained and more extreme — patriotism’s evil twin, if you will.
This is not necessarily true. The difference between patriotism and nationalism, as we’ll consider it, is a difference between belief in your nation’s values and ideals (patriotism) and a love for and stress on your nation’s culture and sense of cohesion (nationalism). This is, I think, a fair way to define nationalism without defining it away. It can take on explicitly xenophobic or militaristic manifestations, but these qualities aren’t essential to the idea. In fact, American nationalism actually has a built-in tendency toward restraint, which, if effectively harnessed, can in fact strengthen our democratic institutions. We’re long overdue for a revival of a sensible version of this concept.
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But before we can even begin to dive into the patriotism/nationalism debate, we first have to consider what the point of having a “nation” is at all. For the increasingly numerous group of people we’ll call the “post-nationalists,” there in fact isn’t one; on both the left and the libertarian right, there’s a growing aversion to the idea that citizens should stress their connection to and duty toward the people of any one country. Their logic is rooted in a wide-reaching form of Enlightenment universalism: people in Ethiopia aren’t any less human than Americans in, say, Cincinnati, so there’s no justification for prioritizing the welfare of Cincinnatians over that of Ethiopians. The self-determining nation-state is something to be transcended, a holdover from a more compromised time that “progress” will, sooner or later, get us past. National sovereignty, if all goes according to plan, will be conceded to supranational bodies that will be able to weigh the needs of all people equally and equitably.
Most of this worldview’s subscribers are probably a bit cagey about expressing it in such bald terms, but the rise of concepts like a “citizen of the world” — 43% of Americans say they consider themselves “global citizens” more than citizens of their home country — points to the increasing popularity of ideas like this, if perhaps more in a teleological form than as a desired plan of action for the present. And it makes some sense. In theory, the logic is seductively simple: all people are equal, so policy should be decided weighing all people equally, regardless of nationality. We should, however, note that ideologies with beautifully simple, seemingly universalist premises don’t always turn out so beautiful in practice; see: communism. This seems to be the case with post-nationalism.
The reason isn’t metaphysical. The problem with rejecting the idea of a self-interested and self-determining nation-state is simply that there is nothing preferable to take its place. Politics gets exceedingly difficult as you move to larger and larger scales, and the supra-national scale is about as large as you can get. At a sufficiently macroscopic level, locales have little-to-nothing in common, in terms of their political goals (or otherwise). So what can be accomplished in a supranational democracy? The answer is very little. A small city-state can run as a pure democracy; enormous polities — i.e., imperial systems of government — have a proneness to rule-by-edict, assuming their rulers would like to rule at all.
You could make the milder argument that nations need not be abolished but rather should start practicing politics without “self interest” in mind, instead weighing citizens’ and foreigners’ welfare equally when making decisions. But, taken to where its logic leads it, this position quickly collapses upon itself, too: why, for example, should the U.S. spend any more money on healthcare for its own citizens when children are dying in Ethiopia? On its own self-defense if there’s a group being threatened… anywhere else? Democracy isn’t sustainable if its participants can’t use it for their own good. The whole system is built on the principle of self-determination; unless hundreds of millions of human beings determine that they want to practice ascetic self-denial out of duty to the common good (ha!), there isn’t really a way the United States can get to this point while remaining republican.
Of course, the United States does cooperate with and work for the betterment of the rest of the globe; the U.S. likes to work through multinational organizations like the U.N. and NATO, we give away tens of billions of dollars a year in foreign aid, we try to make as many allies as possible and generally try not to aggravate them. Part of the reason why is that it’s in our self interest to do so — a more peaceful and cooperative world is often one more conducive to national safety and prosperity. The other motive is likely nationalist-patriotism. That we feel weirdly inclined to ship off half a billion dollars to Tanzania next year is probably not 100% due to how we perceive our “self interest.” This is where concepts like “American exceptionalism” come in. The idea that the United States is somehow an “exceptional” nation is both nationalist in that it’s a semi-mythological shared narrative, and patriotic in that it holds us to the “exceptional” standards of our ideals. Such faith in our own capacity for good can breed arrogance — lest we forget Iraq — but it often just means that we’re more willing to exercise our capacity for good: hence the foreign aid. Therefore, at least in the case of the United States, it’s not a rejection of loyalty to our nation that causes us to want to reach out to the world, but rather a healthy, properly understood embrace of it.
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So, if we are to maintain the idea of an American “nation,” how should its citizens view their place in it? One option would be to advocate for the “blood and soil” variety of nationalism. In its most benign permutation (relatively speaking), this ideology entails devotion to the U.S. as your homeland, sans devotion to its principles — basically, “my country, right or wrong.” This position was elucidated somewhat more obliquely and less noxiously in President Trump’s inaugural address: “We will seek friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world — but we do so with the understanding that it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first. We do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone, but rather to let it shine as an example for everyone to follow.” His speech contained little in the way of talk about American ideals; rather, it seemed to imply that our people have nothing more than one “way of life” among other, more-or-less equal paths that other nations have staked out. His inaugural address was explicitly pan-ethnic, but one of the few unifying themes in his political career, from his birther campaign on, has been a stress on birth on American soil as grounds for legitimacy as an American and participation in this “way of life” we share.
The most obviously concerning issue with this worldview is that it has a natural tendency not to stay “benign.” A stress on “blood” lends itself well to explicitly white nationalism, white blood (if such a thing can be said to exist) being the historically dominant kind in American history and therefore the natural contender for compatibility with American “soil.” Indeed, the very term “blood and soil” comes from the German “Blut und Boden,” a concept idealizing the relationship between people of Germanic-Nordic ancestry and their supposedly natural homeland, which was a key tenet of Nazism. The circle of people this ideology attracts today — most prominent blood and soil devotees are white supremacists and neo-Nazis — bears witness to the fact that an exclusively “homeland”-based allegiance is more often than not just rhetorically gussied-up racism.
That being said, blood and soil nationalism remains problematic even in its less malevolent form, when entirely dissociated from ethnicity. The issue is that focusing solely on the American “way of life” is, well, not reflective of the American “way of life”; our notion of “American culture” is that it’s not strictly particularist. Our self-conception has been largely defined by belief in the United States as a “nation founded on a creed,” a country with a “civil religion” whose liberal-universalist doctrines — e.g., “all men are created equal” — are enshrined in its founding documents. It’s an understatement to say that American history hasn’t always borne this out, but our national narrative has traditionally been one of a people dedicated to axiomatic, universal principles: a nation of immigrants united not by blood but by a shared allegiance to the same ideals, a “shining city upon a hill” dedicated to “freedom” and the like. How clichéd these expressions are confirms the fact that they’ve been absorbed into our collective sense of (universalist, pan-ethnic) identity. Theoretically, tribalism doesn’t really jibe with our tribe.
This outlook resembles that of the group of Americans who consider their loyalty to the United States to be a form of “patriotism.” The patriots would be correct in considering this self-conception as in line with what’s considered properly “American.” But the way they would frame their position would sound something like, “I love my country because I love its principles,” with the implication being that these “principles” stand in contrast to a more “nationalist” force like “culture.” They would be incorrect in believing this.
The thing is, our common culture and our shared principles are codependent. Our shared memory and national narrative (culture) are largely rooted in what we take to be our ideals, and these ideals depend on the sense of national cohesion that this memory builds to stay upkept and hence survive. The phrase “tribalism doesn’t really jibe with our tribe” is incoherent; this dedication to the universalist propositions on which the United States was founded, in a way, is tribal — it’s part of the glue that keeps the American “tribe” together. In this sense there is no clear distinction between American patriotism and American nationalism; the nationalist impulse, if it’s to conform to the spirit of what is considered “American” culture, is as much rooted in ideals as patriotism is. The patriots have been speaking the language of a sort of soft nationalism all along.
Stepping back a bit, we should further clarify what this “culture” upon which American nationalism rests consists of. “Culture” is all that Americans share, and can rally around, that is a bit more concrete than pure ideas — even if some of that “culture” is intimately tied up with the “ideas.” It’s more particularist. Culture would be, for example, celebrating Thanksgiving and being able to share with your fellow citizens the common narrative of the Pilgrims’ arrival in the New World… as opposed to, say, reading political theory in a textbook and coolly appreciating the abstractions of “religious freedom” and “self government,” these being the ideas that these more particular traditions allude to. Or take the American flag. When you make sure to “respect” the flag, are you thinking, “I have to be careful around this piece of cloth because of my deep affinity for Lockean principles”? No, probably not; something about the flag hits most people on a more primordial level. You feel respect for the flag because it’s your own, although it still does, in a sense, “stand for” these principles. Our shared culture, then, is not the perpetuation of some primitive ethnic inheritance, but rather is a sort of link between the American people on the ground and loftier ideals; American nationalism is the bridge we’ve formed between the natural human tendency toward tribalism and the aridity of pure cerebral abstraction.
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The reason I’m working through all this thought-experiment hypothesizing is that the future of nationalism is pressingly important to the future of this country. It’s stating the obvious at this point to note how little Americans share these days. Members of different political parties are drifting apart as ideological homogenization works its magic. Rural voters learn to distrust the ill-defined but undoubtedly nefarious “coastal elites” in the cities, while the cosmopolitan classes either write off the countryfolk as irredeemable bigots or else at least inscrutable Bartlebys, human specimens whose behavior is so peculiarly self-destructive they deserve to be anthropologically studied. Whites increasingly feel the pull of racial resentment, while a vocal left-wing faction urges minorities to treat the color of their skin with near-metaphysical importance. We don’t even share the same “facts.”
Here’s where nationalism comes in. If tribalism won’t go away — and I doubt it will, assuming the brain structure of our species remains the same in the near future — we might as well aim for a more inclusive form of tribalism. If the United States is to function as a cohesive unit, its citizens ought to feel some sort of cohesion. Because what’s the alternative? An “Acela corridor” secession? A revival of black separatism? Some sense of unity and a clearer idea of who we are would give us a better feel for where to go from here, and could be quite helpful if we’d like to put some spring back in our collective step. The anomie that seems to have defined the start of this 21st century — the sense of “I don’t know where things are going, but they’re not going up” — could be tempered a bit, and possibly in a more long-term way, if we at least had faith in the feeling that, roughly, “we’re all in this together.”
The best path toward this goal would be a revitalized celebration of America’s history and shared narratives. We need some sort of shared story that both the left and right can find a way to rally around. There is a broad consensus that our founding and history, or at least the high points of our history, should be understood as an exercise in living out Enlightenment ideals: belief that “all men are created equal,” dedication to the rights outlined in the Constitution, faith in republican government. But there is a divergence between the left’s focus on a “progressive” story, in which we gradually shed all the particularism of our white, Christian forefathers, and the right’s more particularist conception — of an individualist haven, a land defined by a frontier culture, a nation whose soul bears a philosophical indebtedness to Athens and a moral one to Jerusalem.
The way to bridge the gap, to cover all Americans in a definition of who we are, is simply to fuse the two stories together. America is on a “progressive” path forward, but we’re on our providential path. We were founded by white Christian men, but we have to acknowledge the fact these people sewed the seeds of the ideas that allowed for a multitude of colors and creeds to become true Americans. We have to manage to fit both Anglo-Saxon pioneers and Emma Lazarus’s “huddled masses” of multi-ethnic immigrants into our national mythos. Somehow, we must make room for both Pilgrims and braceros.
I’ll freely admit it: this way of thinking is completely absurd. It’s self-contradictory to honor both our slaveholding Founders and Frederick Douglass, Woodrow Wilson and Martin Luther King. But people are self-contradictory, and so is the history they make; if we want to gain from appreciating what was noble about them, there is no way around this. In any case, we should keep in mind that a sense of national memory and cohesion is just a feeling; it can’t be attained in a philosophy course. To do its job, it must merely be felt. And the job it has to do — namely, the Herculean task of beginning to put the country back together again — is, I think, pressing enough that its working on a purely gut level is sufficient.
This is not an exercise in trying to whitewash history. It’s self-evidently a good thing that we’ve begun to talk more and more openly about our sins: slavery, Jim Crow, the genocide of American Indians, and the like. But this doesn’t have to entail focusing solely on the supposedly irredeemable ugliness of our past at the expense of all the good parts. Nihilistic lamentation of evil AmeriKKKa just… isn’t enough. It provides no vision for what a non-evil America looks like. There simply isn’t much usefulness in despair. If you’d like to mobilize the country to erase the residue of past that still scars the present — to whittle away at white racism, to fight poverty in our inner cities or on Indian reservations — you have to get the rest of the populace on the same page. You have to persuade them that you’re on the same team… of the same tribe.
Reviving a moderate nationalist spirit in this country will not be easy. The left, as it stands today, is paradoxically both engrossed in the politics of narrower forms of identity and increasingly repulsed by narrowness of a national identity. The right, post-Trump, doesn’t seem to know what it believes anymore; contrary to the worldview the GOP has traditionally espoused, its current leader doesn’t have much appreciation for the “ideas” piece of the nationalist equation, and his followers appear to be taking his cues. Still, the difficulty of putting an idea into action doesn’t necessarily mean that the idea is wrong. If we’d like to strengthen the ties that keep this country together, its citizens and leaders need, somehow or another, to start speaking the language of unity. We need more nationalism.