The Crumbling Anti-Politics of Constitutional Patriotism

If there’s anything that political earthquakes like Brexit and the ongoing spread of nationalist feeling throughout the European Union demonstrates, it’s that popular support for Europe’s integration project is floundering. In early 2018, France’s pro-EU president Emmanuel Macron publicly acknowledged that France would probably vote to leave the EU if given a simple in/out choice. Politics in a once stalwartly pro-EU nation like Italy is now dominated by Eurosceptic parties.

Advocates for deeper European integration like German chancellor Angela Merkel seldom pass up chances to insist, as she did in a November 2018 speech, that “Nation-states should be willing to give up their sovereignty today.” Many Europeans undoubtedly continue to favor the EU’s commercial conveniences. But outside an increasingly-isolated political class which dominates ever-weakening establishment political parties, vocal enthusiasts for a supranational European state are becoming scarce.

The reasons for this vary. They range from the pervasive association of the EU with unaccountable bureaucracies, to the contempt with which European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker regards anyone questioning his “more-Europe-means-more-EU” program.

There is, however, a lesser-known factor at work which merits greater attention. This concerns the failure of what’s called “constitutional patriotism” to generate the type of widespread attachment to the EU by ordinary Europeans that’s capable of matching the way in which, for example, Poles are invested in the idea of Poland or many French citizens’ ongoing-connectedness to their nation.

It’s All About Germany

Though there are several versions of constitutional patriotism in Europe, they are all traceable to the German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s book, Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch (1795). This proposed the development of a federation of republican states whose growing integration would promote international cooperation, war’s eventual eradication, and even a type of world citizenship.

But constitutional patriotism’s more immediate origins lie, like so many contemporary European problems, in the desire to heal particular traumas of German history. One such wound is the failure of the revolutions which swept Europe in 1848 to establish lasting liberal regimes in Germany and throughout the continent more generally

Historian after historian has illustrated that the eventual defeat of these revolutions—often revealingly referred to as “the Spring of Nations”—owes much to the fact that they were liberal and nationalist in character. Prominent 1848 revolutionaries like Giuseppe Mazzini, Lajos Kossuth, and Heinrich von Gagern were liberals and Italian, Hungarian and German nationalists respectively.

The nationalist sentiments that generated popular support for the 1848 revolutions meant that many revolutionary leaders found themselves having to choose between promoting liberal constitutional principles like equality of all before the law, or advancing their people’s aspirations to establish ethnically-homogenous nations. Time and again, nationalist priorities trumped liberal principles.

Consider the 1848 liberal revolutions in the German-speaking states. One of their goals was to unify these entities into a single German nation-state. Even after their revolutions were crushed in 1849, German liberals remained committed to this objective. This helps explain why many of them went from fiercely opposing Otto von Bismarck when the arch-conservative was appointed Prussian Chancellor in 1862, to being fervent supporters of Bismarck’s unification of Germany via the Prussian army’s victories over the Austrian Empire in 1866 and France in 1870.

It was thus “blood and iron,” to recall Bismarck’s famous 1862 speech, which realized German unification—not peaceful elections and the negotiations of enlightened politicians. Yet this didn’t prevent many German liberals from enthusiastically celebrating and the new and rather un-liberal German Empire and becoming some of its strongest supporters.

Worries about the mesmerizing effects of national feeling upon Germans were only exacerbated by the interwar liberal Weimar Republic’s failure to restrain German nationalism or prevent it from acquiring National Socialism’s racialist flavor. The ensuing catastrophe which befell Germany reinforced many postwar German intellectuals’ determination to establish a liberal regime grounded upon very different attitudes. Herein lies constitutional patriotism’s immediate genesis.

Habermas’ World

The German scholar most associated with constitutional patriotism is the philosopher Jürgen Habermas. The disaster of two World Wars and the crimes committed by German nationals and the German state in the name of the German Volk between 1933 and 1945 made it imperative, he argued, that Germany disavow any strong emphasis upon ethnic-homogeneity. Habermas’ constitutional patriotism sought to ground political regimes upon affection for what he called more “abstract” principles. By this, he meant things like democratic methods, civic commitment, tolerance, and openness. Above all, Habermas had in mind “a consensus on the procedure for the legitimate enactment of laws and the legitimate exercise of power.”

It’s not hard to comprehend why such ideas gained traction in Germany after World War II and the moral cataclysm of the Holocaust. It’s also easy to understand how Habermasian constitutional patriotism became seen as a way to legitimize the European integration project.

After all, constitutional patriotism is all about transcending national differences—indeed, any strong political disagreements. Its emphasis isn’t just upon participation, the development of consensus, etc. Constitutional patriotism also involves fostering doubts about any positive allegiances, such as those generated by religion or ethnicity, which might dilute commitment to constitutional patriotism’s “thinner” norms.

Constitutional patriotism’s objective is thus to defang the nation-state. The ultimate goal is to gradually replace it with a supranational cosmopolitan entity by progressively detaching people from their national memories and collapsing politics into a complicated web of procedures.

One example of how this occurs is the most recent iteration of the EU’s legal character. Signed in 2007, the Treaty of Lisbon refers, like many constitutions, to general principles like liberty and justice. It also mentions a political, cultural and religious backdrop to European unification, but only fleetingly. Hundreds of years of the rich pluralist histories of multiple European peoples are thus reduced to almost as a side-note.

Normatively-speaking, the Lisbon Treaty gets far more specific when it speaks of the EU promoting “peace, security, the sustainable development of the Earth, solidarity and mutual respect among peoples, free and fair trade, eradication of poverty,” etc. All this has a mildly utopian ring to it. The effect, however, is to identify certain universals to which nobody could strongly object as things which Europeans must treat seriously if they truly want to be world citizens but whose meaning remains elastic enough not to excite people’s passions.

Then there is the Treaty’s relentless concentration upon procedures: which EU institution is competent to do what; how consultative mechanisms should work; the means by why people are appointed to various positions; who is to be included in what part of multi-leveled decision-making processes, etc.

To some degree, all constitutions do this. But there is an underlying imperative driving the Treaty’s procedural emphases. This is the forging of agreement by diluting, if not actively discouraging, expressions of strong dissension, especially those which arise outside officially-approved channels. It adds up not to a vision of a Europe of nations, but rather the formation of a vast administrative state undergirded by relatively thin moral commitments and controlled by those who have mastered its complicated decision-making procedures: i.e., a transnational and professional political-bureaucratic class.

You Can’t Build Something on Nothing

The last century of European history makes constitutional patriotism’s attractiveness comprehensible. Who wouldn’t want to see the establishment of political regimes capable of banishing forever the prospect of yet another inter-European configuration?

The shoals upon which Europe’s experiment with constitutional patriotism founders today are twofold.

First, constitutional patriotism is in many ways anti-political. Among other things, politics involves the articulation of conflicting, often irreconcilable views on topics as varied as life’s meaning to the state’s economic role. Constitutional patriotism tries to minimize, if not marginalize such debates altogether.

But such disagreements are part of the human condition. Efforts to extinguish procedurally the articulation of powerful political allegiances or to stigmatize widespread dissent are therefore bound to provoke anger with those people and institutions doing the suppressing or branding. In that sense, constitutional patriotism actually facilitates political conflicts by virtue of trying to repress them.

Second, constitutional patriotism hasn’t proved capable of undermining millions of Europeans’ conviction that they do belong to specific ethnic-linguistic communities with long, complicated and distinct histories. To be Dutch, French, Scottish, Hungarian, Flemish, Polish, Finnish or Greek continues to mean very concrete, specific things to millions of people in the Netherlands, France, Scotland, Hungary, and so forth. Moreover, they care much more about these realties than they do about “communication,” “trust in procedures,” or “shared modalities of practical action,” to use prominent buzzwords of constitutional patriotism.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that these Europeans don’t value liberal constitutionalism. Its roots are, after all, distinctly European. Nevertheless it does indicate that constitutional patriotism’s attempts to dilute national memories and replace them with a difference-repressing proceduralism overlain with a content-light universalistic rhetoric is guaranteed to provoke deep dissatisfaction.

National Feeling and Liberal Constitutionalism Aren’t Incompatible

The irony is that there isn’t any necessary incompatibility between a strong national identity and a commitment to liberal constitutionalism. One example is the United States. When American soldiers swear to support and defend the U.S. Constitution, they’re certainly promising to defend a constitutional system of laws. But we also know that they are also undertaking to defend a specific nation that emerged out of a particular interplay of historical events and ideas and which is composed of people with whom they share these distinct national ties.

It makes no difference that some of those people were born in the United States while others are newly-minted citizens who legally migrated to America ten years ago from South America. A historically-specific national identity and a constitutional system that emphasizes liberty and rule of law are so intertwined in many Americans’ minds that it’s hard for them to conceptualize one without the other.

By contrast, much of Europe is rapidly heading in the opposite direction. Bolstering the nation-state is increasingly seen by many Europeans as the only way to defend their freedoms and cherished cultural particularities from supranational politicians who increasingly denounce any strong expression of national identity as crypto-racism and deride those who value national sovereignty as proto-fascists.

The more, however, that post-national identity advocates like Juncker, Macron or Merkel try advancing cosmopolitan patriotism over and against national feeling, the greater grows the chasm between liberal constitutionalism and national patriotism. That not only risks deepening the already-yawning gap between Europe’s rulers and the ruled. It also heightens the possibility of reigniting some of the passions which, in the past, tore Europe asunder.

Put another way, without the genuine patriotism which arises from deep attachment to national distinctiveness, liberal constitutionalism risks collapsing into mere functionalism and sentimental do-gooder humanitarianism. But without liberal constitutionalism, patriotism can easily degenerate into mere chauvinism.

Plainly, this isn’t an easy balance to strike. But if European nations can’t do so, I can guarantee one thing: that all of us will be experiencing some very sharp after-effects in the near future.

Reader Discussion

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on February 04, 2019 at 10:21:09 am

“Nation-states should be willing to give up their sovereignty today.”

Rome said the same thing to Merkel's ancestors (and to the Scots), who declined, impolitely. As Rome's successor, Germany sees the matter quite differently today.

In the US, one of the (countless) paradoxes of progressivism is that they formally support all of the supra-national institution nonsense while actively working to transform the USA into the EU; i.e., by fomenting the institutionalization and entrenchment of numerous "nationalisms" (known here as "identities") each of which believes itself to be ill-served by the supra-national political structure in Washington, DC (except when it gains control of said structure, as with Germany and the EU)..

constitutional patriotism is in many ways anti-political. Among other things, politics involves the articulation of conflicting, often irreconcilable views on topics as varied as life’s meaning to the state’s economic role. Constitutional patriotism tries to minimize, if not marginalize such debates altogether.

Ralf Dahrendorf observed that this is a particularly German character trait; that Germans incline toward finding ultimate, permanent solutions to political issues that remove them from the arena of political contest.

As for "constitutional patriotism," not only is it something of an oxymoron, given the etymology of "patriot" and its complete incongruence with the demonization of all things "father" and "male" in progressive culture today, but constitutional patriots apparently act no differently from their 18th century predecessors, whom Johnson defined as "factious disturbers of government."

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on February 04, 2019 at 16:30:24 pm

[…] The Kantian dream of undoing real nations keeps foundering on the shoals of human nature’s need for real attachments to place, says Acton research director Samuel Gregg in a new article for Law & Liberty: […]

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Image of Samuel Gregg: The crumbling anti-politics of constitutional patriotism – Acton Institute PowerBlog
Samuel Gregg: The crumbling anti-politics of constitutional patriotism – Acton Institute PowerBlog
on February 04, 2019 at 21:40:13 pm

Congrats to the author and to Law & Liberty--this is a debate very much worth having. Yes, it's all about the Germans; and it's important to get the post-War scenery right (just as Sam is admirably right about the 19th century).

Verfassungspatriotismus is not in fact Habermas's idea. It comes from a 1979 article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine by Dolf Sternberger, on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the Basic Law; and it's free of the pan-European delusions that came to drive Habermas (his first use of the concept, so far as I know, was 1987).

I'm open to the argument that the concept (even as originally intended) was thin, and that maybe Dahrendorf had this right. That said tho by 1987 Habermas had basically reduced his thought to two propositions: (1) if you're in favor of NATO you might as well be a Nazi; (2) if you don't like the EU's latest escapades you are a Nazi. In no small measure that form of argument has gotten the EU into its current state. But it's not a fair representation of the argument back then, and it misses the German question: if not constitutional patriotism, what then?

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Mike Greve
on February 07, 2019 at 12:05:28 pm

I like the Gregg's analysis of the problem, but not his solution. Left out: Checks and balances as a way to get the governed involved and as a way to harness debate and even crude hostilities (Tocqueville); dual sovereignty as a way to share power with Nation-states (Madison); and some way to curb the administrative state, which seems elusive even to the USA.

In general, seeking consensus is the poorest way to govern; it holds the majority hostage to the dictates of a minority (e.g., EU White paper, 2001, European governance (COM (2001) 428 final; Brussels, 25.7.2001). Brussels, Commission of the European Community).

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W.F. Lawless
on June 28, 2019 at 13:33:06 pm

First, a detail: in the first paragraph after "You Can't Build Something on Nothing," should "configuration" be "conflagration'?

More importantly, it might be a good idea to call attention to David Mitrany (a once prominent proponent of "functionalism") between Kant and Habermas.

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Don Forbes

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.