Nationalism Is Neither a Disease Nor a Cure for What Ails Us

The revival of national spirit in America today is often styled by sympathetic commentators as a healthy response to the increasing alienation and individualism of America’s Bowing Alone culture. While I share concerns with the decreasing sense of community and increasing sense of isolation among Americans, and I do not reject national identity as an significant component of one’s social identity, today’s nationalistic revival likely represents more of a working out of the alienation and individualism Americans feel rather than a remedy for it.

We often consider individualization and collectivization as opposing movements. They can move together, however, each one spurring the other. Tocqueville, for example, identifies each as a single, two-pronged response to the evaporation of “secondary powers.” The response is collectivizing because it is individuating. America’s social capital, its zealous commitment to these secondary powers, staved off this individuation and so the development of singularly heightened collective identity. Yet with the evaporation of secondary powers, the social understanding generated by America’s equalitarian, democratic culture is insufficient to renew those powers. Americans would become no more than a mass of indistinguishable monads.

Different constitutions (in Aristotle’s sense) lead people to see distinctive social possibilities consistent with those constitutions. These differing constitutional worlds can help to sustain secondary powers or erode them. Tocqueville wrote:

The idea of secondary powers, placed between the sovereign and the subjects, presented itself naturally to the imagination of aristocratic peoples . . . This same idea is naturally absent from the minds of men in times of equality for opposite reasons; it can only be introduced there in an artificial way, and it is only retained there with difficulty, whereas they conceive, as it were without thinking about it, the idea of a unique and central power that leads all the citizens by itself.

This sort of individualism does not lead to individuality, however. It leads to increasing homogeneity and individuals becoming “lost in the crowd,” as Tocqueville put it. Mass identity predominates.

To the extent that conditions become more equal among a people, individuals appear smaller and the society seems greater, or rather each citizen, becoming similar to all the others, is lost in the crowd, and one no longer sees anything other than the vast and magnificent image of the people itself.

One might object that conditions in the United States are not in fact becoming “more equal” among people, but rather more unequal. But Tocqueville is characterizing the mass, not the exception. Indeed, this sort of “equality” is primed especially for the rise of a sort of political great man, or strongman. One whose very greatness and power confirms the equality of the rest. This is the reason, for example, Tocqueville argues Catholicism is well suited for America, perhaps even better suited than for Europe: the one priest supervenes the mass of congregants. Tocqueville argues this ecclesiastical model jibes better with the reductionist social world of American equalitarianism than with the complicated intersections of European aristocracy. The development of bimodal social and economic systems of “elites” and “others” is the equalitarianism that Tocqueville perceived.

The more-significant point, however, is that increasing nationalism, while not the disease the left suggests it is, also is not the remedy for hyperindividualism many on the right suggest it is. It is itself rather a symptom of alienation and individualism afflicting many Americans today.

Today’s grand policy debate between globalism or nationalism strikes me as chimerical. It is scarcely less anonymizing to be a member of a community of 325 million as it is to be a member of a community of 7.6 billion. The dualism of the policy choice rests on a certain looseness in the use of the word “nation” (ethnos). We easily elide between nation as a people group, often enough an extended family group, and nation-state, almost always an aggregation of people groups, often artificially put together.

The point is not to relativize globalism. Just the opposite. The point is that nationalism understood as devotion to modern nation-states can be scarcely better. Human connection, real human connection, must occur on a more-local and intimate scale. I do not in the least reject a natural affection for one’s nation-state. (I served willingly, and happily, in the Army National Guard for eight years. Although in all honest I should note I had a particularly enjoyable MOS.)

So I appreciate the upside of today’s system of modern nation-states, certainly relative to the alternative of a global government from which there is no escape or appeal. But while partitioning the globe into a set of nation-states may be a safer, more-efficient mode of administration than the global alternative, the inclination to bond with one’s nation-state, and regard it as one’s primary community, is a reflection of the absence of real community in America, not the provision of real community.

Reader Discussion

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on October 25, 2018 at 07:15:51 am

Cool--but vague. I find it easy to find fault with any point in time. It's harder, and more helpful, to describe changes over time.

1. I sense that, during and following WWII, the US experienced a surge in social cohesion. We observed the rise of the Bigs--Big Auto, Big Labor, Big Broadcasting. We observe the rise of religious affiliation and civic groups such as fraternities and the boy scouts. And, yes, bowling leagues. There seemed to be relatively high trust in expert, and courts tended to defer to administrative agencies. Perhaps coincidentally, we also observed the expansion of the middle class and greater economic equality.

Since then I sense we've experienced a decline in social cohesion. And, perhaps coincidentally, we've observed growing economic inequality within the country (but growing equality--that is, less poverty--throughout the world).

I can easily spin stories about how the victory of WWII and coincident economic expansion triggered the greater trust in authorities and enthusiasm to affiliate with them. Likewise, I can spin stories about how this social cohesion foundered on the shores of Vietnam protests, or the stagnation of the '70s, or forced bussing, or divorce, and declined. But they're just stories. Perhaps the rise in cohesion was actually the restoration of a natural level of cohesion, and our current era was a departure. Or perhaps our current era is merely a regression to the mean level of social cohesion. Or perhaps there is no natural level of cohesion.

2. Another prism for analyzing the topic is by proposing a remedy/plan. If I understood a remedy Rogers was proposing, I might better understand the diagnosis he's offering.

Dunbar's number refers to the idea that people's capacity for real human connection--"the number of people who, if you encountered one at a bar by chance, you'd comfortably share a drink with"--maxes out at 150. Some people have suggested that "alienation" simply refers to the feeling you have when your life requires to you interact on a regular basis with people beyond your 150. This explains why people in small towns tend to make eye contact when they pass strangers on the street, while people in cities do not: It's not that people in cities are anti-social; it's that they're maxed out.

I recall hearing someone argue that contemporary people now have fewer actual connections and more virtual ones, and exhort us to go JOIN A GROUP that actually meets on a regular basis. A book club. A sports team. A poker club. A church. Become a regular at Cheers. The formation of a network of colleagues should not only fend off feelings of isolation, it should make society more stable, resilient to fads, and thus moderate. That's the theory, anyway.

Anyone got a better one?

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on October 25, 2018 at 11:00:52 am


That last paragraph may contain within it the seeds of, egads,sir!, "populism". Imagine, common folks getting together in a common endeavor without STATE sanction.

Now, I have it on good authority, the HIGHEST authority, indeed an *infallible* authority that Populism is akin to Nazism.


Wherein the percipient political virtuoso, aka, Francis, pontificates on the evils of "attending Cheers" or bowling, etc.
If Franny says it, it must be TRUE; thus, I must caution you against any further such recommendations.

On a serious note, you are quite correct re: "diagnosing" in a specific instant in time as one is unable to gain a perspective or apprehend the changes / moderating effects of changed circumstances as well as questioning a "natural level of cohesion". I suspect that the level of cohesion is a function of time / circumstances and that cohesion levels will rise or fall to a level appropriate to the circumstances.
And it is true that the types of organizations / clubs to which you allude may play a part in both attaining or conditioning that level of cohesion appropriate to the circumstances.
Yet, it is also true that "nationalism" itself may very well serve as a moderator on dramatic swings in the "cohesion level" (bear in mind, I am not here speaking of a peculiar form of German Nationalism common in early part of 20th century as that phenomenon may best be described as "racist imperialism.) by setting limits upon *conduct* inconsistent with the national ethos (or "myth, if you will).

BTW: I am not at all certain precisely what Roger's is advocating with his half-hearted lukewarm endorsement of "intermediary" organizations and *human connections* (as opposed to what, one wonders).

BTW2: If you are interested, there is a rather interesting essay in current issue of American Affairs by Julius Krein entitled The Three fusions in which Mr Krein makes a rather strong case that "Globalism ' is indeed a chimerical "posture" that in fact relies upon underlying nationalist sentiment.
Read it, you'll like it!

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Image of gabe
on October 25, 2018 at 11:40:54 am

For argument's sake let's take Dunbar's thesis as an axiom: that “alienation” simply refers to the feeling you have when your life requires to you interact on a regular basis with people beyond your 150.

And let's apply that to a life where one is called names if one chooses not to interact with another race or religion, far less than the magical 159. The number could be 20! Where, in other words- words that annoy some self-appointed moralists --white will discriminate without the slightest thought of animus toward a black, and vice versa, or Englishman against a Muslim , and vice versa.

Where "alienation" is the primary symptom underlying racial dynamics manifesting the loss of "social cohesion" which is then reflected in the rise of "nationalism" and "identity" as a consequence, or as Rogers puts it--"a symptom of alienation and individualism afflicting many Americans today."

Perhaps the remedy Rogers seeks is to reset the population in self-defined racial categories --like "starting all over"-- correcting where the races have been scattered for whatever happenstance of history over the planet--volitional migration, non-volitional (slavery) , exploration, colonization, industrialization-- historical forces that resulted in a dispersion into multi-racial societies where differences lead to disagreements and disagreements led to disputes. Which brings us up to today.

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Martin Kessler
on October 25, 2018 at 16:12:49 pm

"Human connection, real human connection, must occur on a more-local and intimate scale." To that end, nobody.really avers the effective operating theory, at minimum. That is, human life is less an affair of institutions and systems (Nationalism/Globalism) than of people and an interplay of motivations and inclinations. Implicitly, what ails us may just be found in us (Human Nature).

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Image of Anthony
on October 26, 2018 at 10:13:28 am

I don't begrudge anyone their individual feelings and preferences. But, for what it's worth, integration seems to pose problems for solidarity primarily in contexts where integration seems unusual. in neighborhoods where integration is normalized and expected, the latest research suggests it does influence the level of social trust.

"The question of how ethnic diversity affects societal cohesion has received considerable attention, stemming from studies suggesting that diversity can harm social capital (Putnam, 2007). In particular, concern has arisen due to the consistency of findings that higher neighbourhood diversity is associated with lower social capital within neighbourhoods (Van der Meer and Tolsma, 2014). This work emerged alongside (and later served as evidence for) claims within the public/political sphere that ethnic diversity threatens social solidarity (Goodhart, 2013). Given the historically high ethnic diversity across Europe, understanding the impacts of diversity is crucial. However, issues exist with the current literature.

While attention has focused on how the level of ethnic diversity affects social capital, far less has been paid to segregation....

[W]e confirm the oft-observed negative association between neighbourhood diversity and neighbour-trust. However, this relationship is highly dependent on the level of segregation in the wider-community: it is diverse neighbourhoods nested in segregated wider-communities which exhibit lower trust. Individuals in diverse neighbourhoods nested within integrated wider-communities do not report lower social capital compared to their counterparts in homogeneous areas."

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on October 26, 2018 at 14:10:11 pm

There's another interesting essay, "Our Revolution's Logic," at the new Claremont spin-off "Americanmind,org" by Andrew Codevilla that argues that our collective Rubicon has been crossed and the dice are already in the air. https://americanmind.org/essays/our-revolutions-logic/

I continue to find it strange that Rogers studiously ignores how the Supreme Court has consciously destroyed Madison's hope that "imperium in impero" was possible. It seems Machiavelli was right; in the end there can be only one imperium; a consolidate central government controlled by an unaccountable elite.

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Image of EK
on October 26, 2018 at 16:34:42 pm


Yep, read it. Codevilla is always spot-on!

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Image of gabe
on October 27, 2018 at 11:17:15 am


Last paragraph strikes me as Spot-on.

i guess one could say "When surrounded by Rome, do as the Romans do"

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