Liberalism Needs the Nation

In his response to Carl Schmitt’s Concept of the Political, Leo Strauss observed that Schmitt’s “critique of liberalism occurs in the horizon of liberalism.” Much the same might be said of our current debates over liberalism and nationalism. What these debates actually reveal is how much the American political imagination relies upon both liberalism and nationalism to produce stable and prosperous political order.

The spectre of postliberal nationalism is nonetheless haunting American politics, particularly since the much-discussed 2019 summer conference on National Conservativism. But this is due more to a general misunderstanding by both its proponents and their critics concerning the relationship between nationalism and liberalism than to any necessary tension between the two concepts. In fact, would-be nationalists are rather more liberal than they let on; meanwhile, the soi-disant defenders of liberalism are themselves unable to articulate a coherent position that does not rely upon some implicit nationalist commitment.

Yoram Hazony, the doyen of the new nationalism, positions his argument for nationalism in opposition to Enlightenment liberalism, which emphasizes the individual over the community. This is true in a sense, but it elides the fact that pre-Enlightenment forms of community did not issue in anything like nationalism. Indeed, as Alasdair Macintyre has pointed out, nationalism, with its centralizing and homogenizing pressures, tends to erode those organic, localized forms of community.

To put it more emphatically: nationalism, though indeed collective, is but one expression of collective identity and ought not be equated with collective identity tout court. It is particularistic but only one way of being particularistic.

More importantly still, Hazony’s argument elides the deep connection between Enlightenment liberalism and nationalism. It was liberalism that sought to legitimize political authority by making it subordinate to the rights and interests of those individuals it notionally represented. But representative government can only represent those interests collectively, not severally—as John Stuart Mill acknowledged in his book on the subject.

It was this collectivity of rights-bearing individuals that came to be conceptualized as the nation. And because of its association with this new model of representative government, the nation has frequently found itself in opposition to local or tribal communities that predate the modern state (it was in fact precisely those ancestral communities that Hazony lionizes, which often present the strongest obstacles to nationalizing forces—cf. the Catalans, Mixtecs, Sardinians, Copts, Kurds, Uighurs, et al.).[1] Conversely, the nascent, modern state found in nationalism a powerful tool for extending the reach of its authority and fostering the cohesion of its population.

It is not surprising, then, that despite attempts by its current adherents to position nationalism as a profound philosophical alternative to liberalism, they have mostly fallen back on opposing the prevailing establishment’s mores. That is, they oppose the au courant liberalism that is the dominant ethos of our most elite institutions, rather than the philosophical liberalism that forms the foundation of our regime. In this respect, the current debates over nationalism resemble those over the communitarian turn in the 1980s. Though opposed to what liberalism had become, communitarians could never quite articulate how they would deviate from baseline liberal democracy on any fundamental rights as a matter of policy.

One can see even more clearly the connection between liberalism and nationalism by looking to the critics of the new nationalism. Though the mere mention of the new nationalism has brought liberalism’s champions out in strength, it is not clear that they understand what it is they’re defending.

For example, in a New York Times editorial, Will Wilkinson sternly took the conference and its speakers to task for advocating “national conservatism,” all but calling them un-American: “The molten core of right-wing nationalism is the furious denial of America’s unalterably multiracial, multicultural national character. This denialism is the crux of the new nationalism’s disloyal contempt for the United States of America.”

Whether Wilkinson’s charge is an accurate portrayal of their views, what it isn’t is anti-nationalist. Wilkinson in fact merely substitutes an inchoate progressive nationalism for what he takes to be the conservatives’ parochial version. For him, this is a nationalism that could somehow unite the diverse strands of multiracial, multiethnic America into a single unified tapestry. E pluribus unum and all that. He can call it what he likes, but Wilkinson’s version of liberalism still requires some sort of statement, however tacit, of a national credo.

As no less a liberal than Jürgen Habermas conceded, “Even if [a liberal democratic] community is grounded in the universalist principles of a democratic constitutional state, it still forms a collective identity, in the sense that it interprets and realizes these principles in light of its own history and in the context of its own particular form of life.”[2]

Thus, nationalism is built into the framework of modern liberalism, because the rights and prerogatives of individuals are constitutively tied to a discrete people that authorizes or legitimizes that government which acts as the guarantor of those rights and prerogatives. This is part of the basic logic of the social contract teaching.

Moreover, those visions that nominally transcend or supersede institutions of popular nationalism (while still preserving democratic rights) are still compelled in practice to fall back upon a concept of nationalism. This is as true for developments in Europe as it is here in the United States. For example, the Schengen Treaty might go some way toward dissolving national separations, but it did not do away with distinctions entirely; it simply pushed the line of demarcation back (i.e., to the Mediterranean and the Black Sea). Its advocates necessarily commit themselves to some particularistic understanding of quasi-national representation—one that is European, rather than French, German, Italian, etc.

It is a common move to contrast the United States’ nationalism as “creedal,” rather than atavistic like that of Europeans and other nations. But those who continue to insist on the United States’ creedal or principled nationalism are conflating past with present. As Adam Rowe perceptively notes of the antebellum Union:

Americans shared a fully developed nationalism, the most robust and self-consciously celebrated national identity in the world at that time. Their identity was intensely political, not ethnic or cultural, but their government was not yet that of a nation-state. The United States was precisely what the name implied—a union of individual states that retained their authority on virtually all issues relevant to most citizens, including defining suffrage requirements, policing and punishing crimes, and education.[3]

This intensely political nationalism displayed by Americans of that period is precisely what Tocqueville highlighted—sometimes amusingly so—in recounting his travels in the 1830s. Postbellum America is simply a different animal. Since the conclusion of the Civil War, right through the present day, the United States has undergone a steady process of consolidation and centralization (one need only consider how, despite retaining the plural “states” in its name, we always refer to the United States as a single entity).

The result has been the continual decline of those localized political practices that both defined American identity and gave it concrete form, largely free of the gassy and abstract character of most modern nationalisms. The distant government in Washington was not especially powerful, and the most practically important forms of representation were nearly always proximate and tied to relatively direct political engagement. (It must also be said that this intensely political version of nationalism, while laudable in many respects, proved fully capable of coexisting with chattel slavery.)

That direct engagement, also memorably described by Tocqueville, has been largely replaced by indirect but powerful and intrusive governance, mediated by impersonal bureaucratic institutions. These in turn require ever more intense appeals to a nation that might legitimize such authority. That nation is necessarily an abstract quantity, encompassing 325 million individuals spread out over 6.11 million square miles—though the remarkable size of our nation is not dispositive; even small countries have far more citizens than any one person could know and deal with directly.

Thus, as the United States has grown progressively more liberal (in the sense of growing a more powerful and more centralized government able to oversee an expanding set of individual rights and prerogatives), it has also grown more nationalistic. Even a Nozickian night-watchman state would have to deal with these implications, but all developed democracies go well beyond that arrangement, requiring sizable fiduciary obligations of and promising even more expansive benefits to their citizenries. This is conspicuously true for Canada and the Nordic-style welfare states, but it is not much less true for the United States, between Medicare, Social Security, the Affordable Care Act, and of course its vast military apparatus. And with the increasing intrusiveness of Title IX-style bureaucracies, we are broadly arrogating more, not less, authority to the state.

We are, in other words, more concerned now with defining the “we” in “We the people,” precisely because our understanding of the reasonable scope of governmental authority has grown with our demands for increased security and welfare. As the political scientist Rogers Brubaker puts it:

Citizenship in a nation-state is inevitably bound up with nationhood and national identity, membership of the state with membership of the nation. Proposals to redefine the legal criteria of citizenship raise large and ideologically charged questions of nationhood and national belonging. Debates about citizenship…are debates about what it means to belong to the nation-state. The politics of citizenship today is first and foremost a politics of nationhood…The central question is not “who gets what?” but rather “who is what?[4]

We are thus thrown back almost daily and in thousands of myriad ways upon the question of who constitutes our nation and why. And there is nothing inherently illiberal about this process. Critics of the new proponents of American nationalism have understandably focused on the obvious dangers historically associated with nationalism. They have overlooked the more fundamental conceptual problem: that nearly all versions currently on offer are essentially contentless. They are demand-side rather than supply-side accounts of nationalism.

The proponents of the new nationalism—from Hazony to Rich Lowry to Tucker Carlson—understandably view their versions of nationalism as a corrective to our political fragmentation, with a politico-economic elite that seems more at odds everyday with the larger American population. But of what does this nationalism consist, besides some quality that will arrest our decline? Just as the flux capacitor in Back to the Future was the thing that makes time travel possible, nationalism is the thing that will hold America together.

At the same time, the various opponents of the new nationalists, on both the right and the left, have not produced an image of political life that accords us the political goods that we seem to want—chiefly the preservation of individual rights combined with the reasonably just allocation of material benefits—while dispensing with some account of national collective identity.

It seems the nationalists cannot avoid liberalism anymore than their critics can avoid nationalism. The increasing thinness of both concepts, meanwhile, is something that might worry the rest of us.

[1] Of course, these new nations repeatedly sought to buttress their status with reference to ancient symbols and deep histories (and not always speciously). E.g., 19th-century Greek nationalism was shot through with Hellenic classicism, but the line from one to the other was hardly a straight one.

[2] Jurgen Habermas, The Postnational Constellation (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2001), p. 107.

[3] Adam Rowe, “Storm Clouds,” Claremont Review of Books (July 3, 2019).

[4] Rogers Brubaker, Citizenship and Nationhood in France and Germany (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992), 182.