How to Get through the “Nationalism” Minefield

Like “America First,” another term that has elbowed its way back into our politics, the word “nationalism” has a lot of baggage that one might have hoped the airline of history would have lost in transit by now. The noted political theorist John Dunn called it “the starkest political shame of the twentieth century, the deepest, most intractable and yet most unanticipated blot on the political history of the world since 1900.” At the same time it is, said Dunn, “the very tissue of modern political sentiment, the most widespread, the most unthinking and the most immediate political disposition of all, at least among the literate populations of the modern world.”

Every government’s primary obligation is to protect the interests of its citizens first before anyone else’s, so “America First” ought to be unobjectionable in the abstract. But “America First” recalls a particular historical context—the years before December 7, 1941—in which motives were tainted with ignoble elements, and statesmen ever after have been wise to avoid its use. They’ve also wisely steered clear of “Peace in our time,” another artifact of the same historical moment. “Nationalism,” to which is attached the same very bad 20th century memories, is now otiose, if not odious; and just as we now must routinely say “person of color” instead of “colored person” because of history, we carefully censor all discussion of the national interest or our national character to avoid verging into any fraternization with “nationalism.”

The half-life of nationalism’s disgrace is proving very long indeed, as Professor Dunn’s observation, which goes back 40 years (Western Political Theory in the Face of the Future, 1979), attests. The battle lines over the subject remain as fixed and unmovable as the Western front trenches of World War I (said to be a result of irrational nationalism!) with little advance for either side. The theorists’ attempts at rehabilitation or containment go back decades, from the efforts of John Plamenatz and others to make fine distinctions between cultural and political nationalism, to the explicitly anti-nationalist cosmopolitanism of Jürgen Habermas. But these were of little avail. Herewith a few inquiries and propositions intended to provoke new thinking.

The “German Question”

First, let us finish the historical picture. Is it possible for an entire continent to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder? Or, to put the matter more directly, is the twitchiness about nationalism partly a proxy for what might otherwise be recognized historically as “the German question”?

When, after 1989, it became possible to reunite the communism-sundered East Germany and West Germany, European nervousness about this was accompanied by the qualms of Germans themselves about their national identity. I observed many times in classrooms with European students that, when asked whether individual students regarded themselves as citizens of “Europe” or citizens of their native country, it was always the German students who were the most likely—sometimes the only—ones who tended to identify as “citizens of Europe” first.

It is hardly an exaggeration to say that Germany’s lingering war guilt acted, and still acts, as a drag on the mood of the entire Continent. Remember what Sir Humphrey Appleby, in the old British television series Yes, Minister, quipped: Germany went into the European Union “to cleanse themselves of genocide and reapply for admission to the human race.” (Or you might prefer the parallel joke, that the purpose of NATO was to keep the Americans in, the Soviets out, and the Germans down.)

But the question goes beyond Germany. Fanatical ethnic nationalism was, there is no doubt, centrally implicated in the two great wars of 20th century Europe as well as the disaster of communism. And fear of it was vividly revived when the end of the Cold War, which had suppressed ethnic and national impulses beneath the titanic superpower struggle, saw the explosion of the former Yugoslavia into genocidal ethnic rage. Hence the understandable enthusiasm for the ever-tighter integration of the European Union, which promised a permanent way for Europe’s individual states to promote their national interests while lowering the risk of uncontrollable conflict.

There is some evidence that the trauma of the world wars and the Holocaust contribute to a higher degree of general risk-aversion among Europeans than Americans. Europe is where, after all, “genetically modified organisms” meet consumer trepidation that is off the chart as compared to the response in, say, the United States or Canada. Invoking “nationalism” among Europeans is as scary as trying to introduce GMOs in their supermarkets. (Would that Europeans had just as much skepticism of the risks of NGOs as they do of GMOs.)

Europe’s culture of risk-aversion would be insufficient, though, to explain the Europeans’ anti-nationalist unease absent a much more powerful and insidious factor: what Sir Roger Scruton calls the Western Left’s “culture of repudiation”—or, in Pascal Bruckner’s useful label, “the tyranny of guilt.” There can be no sensible or benign nationalism when wide swaths of the intelligentsia of Europe—its universities, its media, and politicians like Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel—are embarrassed by or hostile to historic European civilization as a whole. (It should go without saying that same applies to the American intelligentsia.) “Nothing is more Western than hatred of the West,” said Bruckner, who highlighted our “passion for cursing and lacerating ourselves” in a 2017 article. Since the nation-state is thought to be a particularly modern Western invention, you can see why, for the Left, it is not a debatable question whether it has to be sublimated.

What is ironic is that the renewed moral panic over nationalism should occur at the same time as a revival of enthusiasm for socialism, since socialism largely depends on nationalism. This is exactly the reverse of what many, abetted by the extreme case of National Socialism in Hitler’s Germany, have assumed to be the casethe “nationalism” always eclipsed the “socialism” in most assessments of that regime. The embarrassing secret of socialism for more than a century now is that international socialism is a non-starter, and only takes hold in states with charismatic leaders (Eva Peron, Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez) who make socialism a totem through nationalist fervor. Some European countries are actually talking about re-nationalizing basic industries again, and let’s face it, you can’t have nationalized industries without nationalism.

If It’s the Counter to “Neoliberalism,” Where Are the Brownie Points?

An additional irony arises in the fact that nationalism is the most potent force in opposition to the Left’s chief dreaded bogeyman today: “neoliberalism.” The incoherence of left-wingers’  obsession with “neoliberalism” and “diversity” is made evident in the rage at America’s reality distortion field, Donald Trump, who is doing more to disrupt and roll back global neoliberalism than a thousand critical theory seminars on campus. The “woke” intellectuals out there have not yet caught on to the contradictions of their anti-neoliberalism and their commitment to diversity. (This isn’t the only contradiction on display. The people most exercised by the specter of nationalism are likely to be the same people most enthusiastic about compulsory national service. Americorps, anyone?)

At some point perhaps the American Left will catch up with the European Left. European social democracies are discovering the apparently inherent relationship between cohesive national identity and the stability of the welfare state. American anti-nationalists from George McGovern then to Bernie Sanders now have bemoaned that the United States does not have a social welfare system comparable to Europe’s, and especially Scandinavia’s.

Several recent social science studies have produced the uncomfortable and unwelcome finding that, as the Economist summarized, advanced industrial nations have to choose between a generous welfare state or “diversity.” Robert Putnam shocked the liberal cosmopolitan outlook with his finding a decade ago that high rates of immigration and ethnic diversity eroded social trust even within ethnic groups. Another study of 16 European nations published a decade ago  concluded that “growing social diversity will eventually force European welfare states to reduce social spending on account of the pressure caused by growing social diversity, and adopt a system more similar to the US model.”

That last line is devastating to the American fans of Scandinavian welfare states like Senator Sanders and his congressional colleagues, like Elizabeth Warren and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who will change the subject when informed that Denmark’s left-of-center Social Democrats have decided that maintaining its generous welfare state requires a sharp limitation on further immigration. Look for other social democracies to follow suit, and soon. They’ll be very careful to avoid calling this shift “nationalist,” but its meaning will be undeniable.

Invasions and Instinctive Responses

At this point it is legitimate to wonder: Is “nationalism” an authentic ideological “ism” like socialism, communism, feminism, or environmentalism? Or are its doubtful historical examples more like fascism—that protean ideology that defies an agreed-upon definition and always depends upon specific context, reminiscent of Justice Potter Stewart’s famous remark about obscenity (that you can’t define it, but you know it when you see it). The impossibility of settling on a coherent and uniform understanding of nationalism corresponds with the basic instability and variety of political forms themselves.

One of the defects of Ernest Gellner’s understanding of nationalism as a modern phenomenon coincident with the modern nation-state is that the justly decried “blood-and-soil” nationalism is redolent of ancient tribalism, a basic human instinct that modern liberal democracy has blunted but not eliminated. National bonds, like tribal bonds, seem to be necessary in times of danger. It is easy to condemn nationalism in the extreme case, but the tendency to find in any expression of nationalism the germ of revived Nazism neglects that overcoming and defeating actual Nazis  was thought to require nationalist appeals.

The example of Charles de Gaulle comes to mind—the great general insisted that France’s resistance to the occupiers and its postwar recovery required a self-conscious idea of national greatness. So does the bloody tyrant whom the Germans warred against on their eastern front—Josef Stalin rallied the Soviet Union not around communist solidarity but around old-fashioned Russian nationalism against the Hun invaders.

Not all “othering” is objectionable when examined historically. Likewise, when nationalism wasn’t being decried, it was invoked as a legitimating factor behind the enthusiasm for “national self-determination” after World War I and during the rush to end colonialism after World War II. How often did the apologists for the Viet Cong tell us during the Vietnam War that Ho Chi Minh was not really a communist but merely a “nationalist” seeking self-determination for a particular people in a particular place?

“Edmund Burke Would Not Have Approved of Donald Trump”

If it turns out nationalism isn’t a coherent ideology but more an expression of historical national character and culture, a further irony must be noted: that in this age of identity politics and multiculturalism, “national identity” is the only kind of identity that is disapproved. History warrants prudence about ethnic nationalism in Europe and elsewhere, but it is precisely the absence of prudence in that Economist article to which I alluded (a broadside about how “reactionary nationalism” is overtaking and ruining conservatism) that renders ridiculous the categorical rejection of nationalism. “Edmund Burke would not have approved of Donald Trump,” the Economist says in its best supercilious pose. Surely not; but neither would Burke have approved of the metastasizing power of the European Union or the parallel loss of cultural identity that has been advancing for the last several decades.

Are all reactions “reactionary”? The thought that Election 2016 in the United States, or the Brexit vote and other surging “populist” trends in Europe, signify a reaction against the managerial revolutiona perfectly reasonably withdrawal of consent by a people increasingly governed without their consentis simply ruled out in polite company. Most surprising of all might be that the significance of the “populist” uprising of our moment was anticipated better by certain thinkers on the Left than by conservatives who have historically cast a jaundiced eye at populism. Richard Rorty is most often cited for his 1998 prediction that the American working class would turn to an “authoritarian” leader. But a better example (because he had none of Rorty’s smugness) is Christopher Lasch, whose 1994 book The Revolt of the Elites offered an astonishingly accurate portrait of the political class divide that we see today. “Populism is the authentic voice of democracy,” Lasch concluded.

Thinking along Lasch’s lines, is there a way of expressing sensible or moderate nationalism that would enable us to distinguish the noxious nationalisms that haunt our history from the legitimate democratic expression of resistance to a supposedly inexorable “side of history” that steadily erodes self-government? Maybe the question should be understood by reference to one of Margaret Thatcher’s more incendiary comments, which the ex-Prime Minister made in 1999: “In my lifetime all the problems have come from mainland Europe, and all the solutions have come from the English-speaking nations across the world.” To be blunt, we might be excused for considering noxious nationalism to be a European problem—not an American problem.

American nationalism could be said to be a variation of “American exceptionalism,” based on our universalist creed as found most especially in the Declaration of Independence. The best answer to the identity politics of leftist diversi-crats on the one hand and retrograde white nationalists of the Richard Spencer variety on the other, is still the one supplied by Abraham Lincoln in his response to Stephen Douglas. He asserted the Declaration’s clause about the equality of humans included all humans no matter their national origin or color (the “electric cord” speech of July 10, 1858).

President Reagan caught this same understanding in a speech he gave in 1989 about how immigration, properly understood, involves becoming American through embracing America’s principles as much as its culture or its job opportunities. Here’s Reagan: “America represents something universal in the human spirit. I received a letter not long ago from a man who said, ‘You can go to Japan to live, but you cannot become Japanese. You can go to France to live and not become a Frenchman. You can go to live in Germany or Turkey, and you won’t become a German or a Turk.’ But then he added, ‘Anybody from any corner of the world can come to America to live and become an American.’ ”

Or, as the political scientist Carl Friedrich put it, “To be an American is an ideal, while to be a Frenchman is a fact.”

While Lincoln and Reagan appealed to the statement of the unity of the human family implied in the famous second paragraph of the Declaration, perhaps that document’s first clause, nowadays too often overlooked, is most needed: “When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another.” The meaning here is unmistakable. While natural rights might be universal, securing them requires the nation-state—a “separate” nation-state, as the clause after that one says. And you can’t have distinctive nation-states without some kind of nationalist self-definition. The Declaration implicitly acknowledges that even universal rights will require, in practice, particular regimes that will be the product of history as much as reason. There is nothing to fear from a prudential understanding of this essential point.

A few leftists understand this. Historian Michael Kazin, writing in the current issue of Dissent, argues that the American Left needs its own nationalism precisely if it is to advance its universal internationalism. The liberal international reformer, Kazin writes, has always “depended on the power and legitimacy of the United States to gain mass support for his ideas. . . Think of Frederick Douglass, in 1852, basing his hopes for abolition partly on ‘the Declaration of Independence, the great principles it contains, and the genius of American Institutions.’ ” (Kazin even thinks America needs—gulp—secure borders!) He is, however, an outlier on the cultural Left, which today largely (and apparently unknowingly) embraces the old Confederate view that America’s Founding ideals were meant only for white Anglo-Saxon Protestant males, and thus conceives of identity only as the basis for a struggle for power, and the nation-state only as the institutional matrix against which the struggle goes forth.

Do not be distracted by the critiques of specific American institutions (the Electoral College, the U.S. Senate with its equal representation of states) that are obstacles to the Left’s identitarian will to power. Lincoln had it right when he fingered anarchy as the core principle and consequence of this disposition.

The Only Thing We Have to Fear

Dimly the outlines of a historical rotation are coming into view. The cosmopolitan internationalism that dominated the post-World War II era was the product of two reinforcing circumstances: the wish to avoid the kind of nationalist-inflected conflicts that helped propel the two world wars, and the fear that World War III might annihilate all nations at once. Both gave wing to the idea that world government was an eventual necessity. World government by its very nature depends on the suppression of all forms of nationalism.

While the sentiment for a comprehensive world government has ebbed, its legacy—in the form of trans-national tribunals, global accords on climate and other subjects, and its prototype, the European Union—remains well-entrenched. Meanwhile, the real reason the Left opposes nationalism in any form is that a revival of nationalism would involve a renewed appreciation of the West itself, and also a rejection of the nihilism that is necessary for their utopian dreams.

If the events of 1989 through 1991 marked the meaningful end of the post-World War II era, our current time window seems to be approaching the meaningful end of the post-Cold War era. By now there remain few who hold onto the initial euphoria that this era would see the “end of history.” Rather we have restarted history, alive with the old paradox and cunning, in which it is not yet appreciated by our timorous European friends that the cause of genuine European integration would be better served by a renewed nationalist spirit among its constituent members. “Fear,” Luigi Barzini wrote almost 40 years ago, “was and still is the prime mover toward European integration.” The time has come for Europe to learn one of the most famous declarations of American exceptionalism: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

Or, to improve on a famous statement by another Democratic U.S. President (one who failed to get re-elected), it is time for America and Europe alike to get over their inordinate fear of nationalism.


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