There is very little to disagree with, and much to commend, in Steven Hayward’s characteristically crisp, intelligent, and witty examination of the issues that have arisen of late regarding “nationalism” and its revival—or if you prefer, its recrudescence. His Liberty Forum essay is made especially refreshing by its contrast with the astonishing amount of rubbish being written on this subject, much of it in the “recrudescence” vein, turning on arbitrary definitions of “nationalism” that end up being little more than straw men set up for the purpose of being knocked down.
A clear indication of Hayward’s superior wisdom is his drawing upon the resources of the much-missed Yes, Minister television show, a minicourse in the realities of modern practical politics. Sir Humphrey had it right: It’s not possible to understand the politics of today’s Germany without reckoning with the enormous and lingering burden of guilt that haunts that land. Nor is it possible to understand the risk-aversion of Europeans without also connecting it with the ways that Europeans have been taught to blame “nationalism” for the calamities of the two great world wars. Jürgen Habermas’s notion of “constitutional patriotism”—the belief that norms deriving from abstract and universal commitments to a pluralistic liberal democracy must be substituted for the norms engendered by the particularisms of national history, memory, customs, culture, and consciousness, and for the pursuit of the national interest—would make little sense without the presumption of that grim German historical background.
But a set of abstract principles cannot by themselves bind people together in any enduring way. That’s the problem with constitutional patriotism, and that’s at least one of the problems with the European Union. Moreover, as Hayward points out, the success of an extensive welfare state (or of socialism itself) depends on the existence of a cohesive nation-state to which citizens give their affectionate loyalty, not merely their rational assent. A workable system of comprehensively socialized health care is far more conceivable in a coherent and homogeneous society than in a wildly heterogeneous one, riven by identity politics and roiled by high rates of unassimilated immigration.
We are required to repeat, over and over, that a diverse society is a strong society. But that can only be true if there is one area—that of national pride, national aspiration, and national solidarity—about which there is general agreement. Writers on the Left from Edward Bellamy to Todd Gitlin have understood this. They have had little enduring influence on their comrades, however.
The fact is that the imposition of abstract political and moral standards fails on multiple grounds.
For one thing, as can be seen readily enough in the example of the EU, it results in a power grab by an elite class of transnational managers that is blind to the needs of the citizens of the member states, particularly if these citizens are poor and politically impotent.
Just as importantly, such abstraction offends against our fundamental humanity. Among other things, it fails to recognize that considerations such as family loyalty, personal loyalty, regional loyalty, and yes, national loyalty, are not merely parochial or sentimental attachments to lesser things. They are part and parcel of what it means to be human, to be the kind of creatures that we are, to cherish our bonds to particular things, to the flesh-and-blood and concrete features of our Lebenswelt, over against the tyranny of abstractions—a tyranny that can easily become the indispensable tool of a tyrannical government. The free flourishing of our particular and provincial loyalties may be the single most important barrier there is to the success of such totalism.
And finally, a point amply illustrated by the increasingly rocky prospects of the European Union: Unless we are prepared to jettison the idea that governments derive their legitimacy from the consent of the governed, and that this dictum is particularly binding upon democratic governments; unless we are prepared to jettison the idea of constitutionalism itself, and of a constitution as a durable expression of the national will, to which the people of a nation have freely consented—unless we abandon all pretense of believing in representative and accountable government—we need the nation-state more than ever. It is the indispensable vehicle of self-government. Without the existence of a national entity possessing definite borders and a system of laws and government to which its people have assented by both formal and informal means, there can be no meaningful democracy, no meaningful concept of self-rule. It’s as simple as that.
The Brexit vote happened because a significant number of Britons had come to fear that they were losing the means and the capacity for self-rule. The dogged, dishonest, and contempt-filled resistance to the implementation of Brexit that we have been watching unfold since 2016 shows that they were absolutely right.