Self-Rule Is the Basis of American Nationalism . . . Not Natural Rights

Steve Hayward has usefully introduced two key problems with the word “nationalism,” one historical and the other conceptual. He is right, furthermore, to note in his Liberty Forum essay that without understanding these problems, we cannot properly assess any claims made about an “American nationalism.” Hayward is wrong, however, about the nature of American nationalism.

First, he notes that the experiences with nationalism in the first half of the 20th century have given a bad odor to the word and any idea that attaches to it. He calls it “the German question,”  and rightfully so. German nationalism, in the form of Nazism, has become almost paradigmatic in our thinking even though, in some ways, it was a strangely novel and eccentric form of nationalism—an expression, as Modris Eksteins explored in his brilliant 1989 book Rites of Spring, of a modernist impulse prone to glorify nihilistic, irrational acts of creation and destruction. The association of “nationalism” with the hideous excesses of the Nazi regime helped spur an almost unthinking rejection of nationalism, particularly among the Germans, who today are among the most anti-nationalistic of all Europeans.

Hayward’s exploration of the effects of such beliefs are important and telling, including his excellent point that the rejection of nationalism at this level contributes to a deeper hostility toward the historical and rooted European civilization that, among other things, produced the nation-state. This hostility to their own historical civilization is perhaps the deepest pathology in Europe, now spreading to the United States.

A Protean Term

Second, Hayward explores the protean quality of “nationalism,” observing that even leftist opponents of the idea are capable of discovering examples of a healthy or favorable sort. But the point is that the word does not have a clear meaning outside of context, such that nationalism for China is radically different from Canadian nationalism, even if the two share enough to bear the same label. We cannot ask whether nationalism is healthy or destructive without understanding the nation (its character, as it were), its context, and the forms or manifestations it takes.

Nationalism for totalitarian regimes is almost always going to look different from nationalism as expressed by a self-governing people. And while self-governing peoples might produce many different forms of nationalism depending of their respective cultures, totalitarian regimes are likely to produce forms that look rather similar to one another.

We are left wondering about American nationalism—the nationalism of a self-governing people. Hayward does not go here—his essay is about what constitutes the American character, with the implication that this character determines what shape nationalism takes in America. His argument is not focused on our tradition of self-rule. For me, this is its primary flaw. Instead of rooting American nationalism clearly in its tradition of self-rule, Hayward claims that it flows out of American exceptionalism. Hayward connects this exceptionalism with the Declaration of Independence generally and with natural rights particularly.

Before we unpack the meaning and significance of the universal creed of America as found in the Declaration, let me note that I’m puzzled by the exceptionalist label—have been for years. I have heard defenders stress that America is the exception to the rule, the rule being that nations are built on power, on tribal associations that are connected to soil and that come with old grievances and irrational attachments that supply the cultural glue. I’ve even heard those who use the word “exceptional” to refer to the best, or to the one that got it right. For those who see America in this light, we are a model for others to follow, even if, as Hayward notes, the particulars of securing these universal rights must vary.

Hayward uses the term “exceptional” to assert that America is an “idea” or a creed, and that what we mean by America and by the emotional attachment to it is fidelity to the true moral principles on which the nation was founded. If we take equality as one of America’s Founding principles and therefore a part of our creed, we discover ever-greater complexity as we look more deeply into the historical record. It is beyond question that, long before 1776, Americans (colonials) operated with various ideas of equality and that to invoke equality at certain points and for certain purposes resonated with their moral compass.

But that is a far cry from saying that our nation was founded on the idea of equality. Some attachment to equality, defined variously, has been and will continue to be a deep part of our story and therefore a part of us. Abraham Lincoln’s brilliant use of the Declaration’s emphasis on equality served the nation well because it was part of our heritage that, highlighted and even abstracted from its original context, served to address a political and moral pathology in ways that no other part could.

Do Not Forget Experiences, Attachments, Affections

The problem with defining American character this way—as grounded on a set of universal ideas—is that it conflates the fact that these ideas are part of our history (and most Americans tend to believe them in some form or another) with much deeper sources of our national character. When talking about something as elusive as a national character we are prone to abstract claims that help us escape the messy, often ironic, but always complex, empirical and historical evidence. If we can call upon sacred texts and well-stated expressions of principles, we effortlessly gain the conceptual clarity that often hovers above the tangled webs of beliefs, hopes, dreams, actions, of a living people who operate in a living tradition and also in changing circumstances that require them to adapt, change, and redefine.

But what if we attempted to assess an American character that, without losing sight of our most eloquent and persuasive articulation of principles, emerges from what we know about how people really live and think, and what it is that makes most Americans patriotic? Would America look the same as it does when we view it through the lens of one document and its many uses over the centuries?

Such an alternative assessment is well beyond the scope of this essay, but it is worth presenting some ways of thinking about who we are that begin in a different place but don’t ignore our most beautiful national expressions of moral principles. I do not believe that most patriotic Americans are such because of a set of universal principles. Rather, those principles become part of a story that is rooted in experiences, attachments, affections, that emerge from, to put it succinctly, a self-ruling life in partnerships with families, churches, communities, governments, to name a few.

American patriotism is not, of course, connected to blood and soil; and while we are not alone in that respect, it is key to our self-understanding. So, if an American nationalism does not express itself in the ways that Japanese nationalism does, but neither are we devoted to our nation primarily because it stands for high moral principles, what is the source of our national affection and collective identity?

A beginning place to think about this would include the following elements.

First, the Founding should be understood not as a moment in 1776 but as a settlement of peoples, primarily from England, who established a hybrid cultural and political form (actually several hybrids) that stressed, among other things: inherited liberties, common law, and the fact that community is prior to government (that communities create government to serve the prior reality of the community). This beginning place stresses our most important characteristic, that we are a people who want to rule ourselves and that we do so typically through communities and associations.

Second, Americans were from the start more in love with opportunities, with chance-taking, with new starts (and start-ups), with the lure of making their fortune or finding a new opportunity out West, than they were with equality. In this context, Americans were less interested in equal opportunity (which is philosophically nonsense) than with an abundance of opportunities, and, as Wilfred McClay traces so well in his Land of Hope, the ever-fresh spring for new hope that opportunities supply.

Third, that the attraction among immigrants was not primarily our “idea” as expressed by Thomas Jefferson or anyone else, but the same sense that opportunities abounded and that America offered everything from a new profession to a new identity. The confining status and roles of traditional societies dissolved and each person (even if he or she faced all manner of other persecutions upon arrival) could chart his or her own course, craft his or her own identity, and live free from the cultural, social, economic, and political restrictions of Italy or Poland, or whatever the country of origin.

This is only a sketch of the currents of historical experience that shape an American character that is rooted in its 17th century origins and incorporates our most recent immigrants. Easily part of this story, of course, is the importance of our principles, which we have often expressed in creedal form and which reinforce rather than supplant our cultural sources of national affection.

An Illustrative Story

To show this, I might remind readers of a certain age of the great Western movie, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). It is about bringing law and order to, and through, a new community, a group of people who find themselves together and needing to both fight evil and create for themselves the institutions of self-rule suited to their communal needs. Diverse ethnically, with many recent immigrants, the new town is in need of a school. The lead character opens one that includes children, a former slave, and illiterate immigrants. The centerpiece of his teaching is the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, which convey, in their different ways, the governing ideals of the American polity. Each person, no matter his or her past, is heir to this tradition—both the particulars of the American Constitution (surely exceptional) and the national articulation of universal principles.

All of these ideals come in the context of a people who know that they have the right to rule themselves and that this is a precious inheritance. Self-rule is the means by which they attach themselves so fully to the abstract principles that take on emotional significance, not the other way around. In the movie, a recent Swedish immigrant, when asked to tell the class what she has learned about America, says that it is a republic, and this 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.”

American nationalism, when it is truest to our history, traditions, and ideals, is one in which our affection for something so abstract as a nation and that nation’s governing structure and animating principles, is cultivated in and modified by our most tangible partnerships, from family through local governments. We love our nation through our experiences with real people and the institutions we help make and support. Our love of nation, including the creedal elements, is rendered both more moderate and more fervent to the degree that we live in healthy self-governing communities that promise us opportunities more than equality; attachments to real people more than to abstractions; and meaningful participation in the political process rather than a deracinated democracy. If we want to encourage a healthy American nationalism, we must begin by focusing on healthy self-rule.