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Nationalism or Bust!

The breadth of the three responses show that debates about the nature and destiny of nationalism are just beginning. This is good news.

Bill Voegeli extends several parts of the analysis and introduces some important new problems. In focusing at length on the internecine conflict over nationalism on the left, Voegeli draws out what I left implicit—namely the insincerity of any leftist embrace of nationalism, however understood, that amounts to (in Voegeli’s words) “tactics and rhetoric” because the transnational left cannot succeed if it explicitly proclaims the illegitimacy of the nation-state and endorses its dissolution. This Machiavellian concern for public opinion, along with the left’s commitment to an ever-expanding welfare state that increasingly appears to depend on a good deal of national identity, places them in a precarious long-term position. The left will not be able through persuasion to escape from the “doom loop of modern liberalism” (Derek Thompson’s great phrase that I did not know) and the dead-end street they have created for themselves, so expect more resort to raw force, as the resistance to Brexit is demonstrating. The left can’t suppress these questions forever.

We can sit back with a barrel of popcorn and watch the left agonize, but we can’t do the same with the symmetrical problem of the right that Voegeli raises, which I’ll restate as conservatism’s emerging openness to the defects and limitations of free market capitalism. While the left suppresses open recognition of its contradictions, the right is only beginning to see the outline of the difficulties of its long held axiomatic support for what the left nowadays stigmatizes as “neoliberalism.” The current debates over immigration and protection ought to be understood as a restoration of sorts—a restoration of the primacy of politics over economics. It is likely a fair generalization to say that free market economics was the center of gravity on the right in the Cold Era—it was where the action was—because it was the common point of resistance to both the advancing administrative state at home and the aggressively socialist ideology of our geopolitical adversary, the Soviet Union. (It is hard to get exercised about a socialist basket case like Venezuela when they lack nuclear weapons and a propaganda arm extending into American universities.)

Asserting the primacy of politics over economics is all to the good, but I share Voegeli’s well-stated practical worry that there is little reason to think that even a newly-resurgent conservative political leadership has the competence to conceive, let alone implement, a new nationalist political economy. The public choice critics are right about the immense hazards of acting on a nationalist principle, as Voegeli’s examples bear out. (The ethanol racket can be seen as an early “nationalist” policy that does more harm than good.)

Voegeli leaves implicit the most important conclusion of his analysis: The great intellectual challenge for the right is to work out a new synthesis of political economy that satisfies the imperatives of nationalist self-interest without setting up self-defeating market failures or becoming corrupted by the administrative state and/or special interest groups. This is no simple task, as I can attest from my policy wonk days trying to overcome these difficulties on some very specific issues. Perhaps some of the answers exist in the less-read interstices of the thought of older classical liberals like Hayek and Mises, whose insights into markets tended to overshadow behind their equally subtle and profound work on the rule of law and even administration. We have a lot of homework to do.

Bill McClay is wonderfully mischievous with his title, “When ‘Constitutional Patriotism’ Is Not Enough,” a play on the title of my last book (Patriotism Is Not Enough). Well played, sir, well played! On the other hand, when Bill told me that he had been signed up to respond to whatever I produced on the subject, I decided to bait him with a Yes, Minister reference, which brought out Bill’s proclamation of my “superior wisdom.” So who’s the player now, eh?

We arrive at the same destination, though perhaps through different routes: the nation-state based on consent is essential for democratic self-government. McClay focuses mostly on Europe and the misbegotten metastasis of the European Union, and since writing my original essay I’ve gone back to Pierre Manent’s fine book Democracy Without Nations?, which anticipated the present moment perfectly way back in 2007. By then, though, the wreck of the egregious Draft Constitution for the European Union ought to have prompted more direct contrasts between the watery but unarticulated abstractions of cosmopolitan liberalism and the more grounded (and more succinct) abstract principles of the American Founding.

I thought by emphasizing the often overlooked “one people” phrase in the first sentence of the Declaration of Independence, along with understanding the historical context of the entire nationalism controversy, I had clarified that it is indeed an error to place too much weight on abstractions, as theorists are prone to do. This is what makes Ted McAllister’s response such a head-scratcher, as he is clearly allergic to even strongly qualified references to natural rights. Since I don’t disagree that self-rule is the ultimate test, his vehemence seems disproportionate. Perhaps I just bring out his ornery side.

There seems little use in reprising this stale dispute, though his popular culture example prompts a wry smile because of its self-refuting character. He cites the classic scene in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance where Ransom Stoddard—Jimmy Stewart’s character—instructs the classroom of settlers (many of them immigrants) on the principles of self-government by drawing their attention to the Declaration and the Constitution. After calling these documents “the centerpiece” of Stoddard’s instruction, McAllister shoves them aside with the same force that Liberty Valance threw beefsteaks on the floor of the saloon dining room. “Self-rule is the means by which they attach themselves so fully to the abstract principles that take on emotional significance,” McAllister writes, “not the other way around.”

He then draws our attention to the short speech of Nora, a Swedish immigrant (significant that director John Ford chose someone with a European accent for this line, redolent of the very point Lincoln made in his 1858 “electric cord” speech referenced in my original article), who says that republican government means that “the people are the boss. That means us. And if the big shots in Washington don’t do what we want, we don’t vote for them, by golly, no more.”

A good spirit, and one that undoubtedly inspired a lot of Revolutionary War soldiers far more than the flowery prose of Thomas Jefferson. On the other hand, it might be worth catching a better balance of things by continuing on a few more lines in that great teaching scene, to the point where Stoddard asks Pompey, the black hired hand of John Wayne’s character Tom Doniphan (another interesting script choice by Ford), to read from the Declaration of Independence:

Pompey: It was writ by Mr. Thomas Jefferson of Virginia… It begun with the words… “We hold these truths to be… Self-evident, that…”

Ransom Stoddard: “That all men are created equal.” That’s fine, Pompey.

Pompey: I knew that, Mr. Rance, but I just plumb forgot it.

Ransom Stoddard: Oh, it’s all right, Pompey. A lot of people forget that part of it.

If anyone in Hollywood ever gets the horrible idea of doing a remake of Liberty Valance, I suggest they cast McAllister as Pompey.

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