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.