Nationalism and Who We Aren’t

by Peter Spiliakos

Ross Douthat’s recent column about national identity is right in itself, but I would like to make some additional points. Both our Left and our Right have developed ideas of American nationalism that are too systematic and leave out millions of Americans — possibly most Americans. The result is that many Americans are lectured about “who we are” from Democrats, and establishment Republicans end up hearing, “You are not included in the nation.”

The conventional Left and Right each have a too propositional view of America. For the Right (as embodied, in different ways, by Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush), America is about belief in natural rights as embodied in the best of the founding and the speeches of Abraham Lincoln. For the conventional Left (as embodied in President Obama), America is about moving toward progress, away from the sins of the past (with new old sins always being discovered.) This form of progress is always changing, yet somehow always perfectly understood by the people who write New York Times editorials.

Both these forms of American nationality are basically chosen. Each is available to anyone in the world who reveres the Declaration or stands up for subsidies to Planned Parenthood. Both of these propositional nationalisms have a special place for immigrants who are willing to move thousands of miles and choose the ideologically correct American identity.

The problem with both of these propositional nationalisms is that they leave out the millions of Americans who have the “wrong” political ideas or have no particularly coherent ideologies. These Americans don’t necessarily think that America is moving forward to progress or backward to reaction except to the degree that their own lives are impacted. They have never read Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, and the Gettysburg Address was something they pretended to study in high school.

These Americans also believe that their American citizenship involves reciprocal obligations between them and the government. They are loyal to their country and they expect the government of their country to be loyal to them. Any understanding of American nationalism that excludes or marginalizes these people is wrong about the country we actually live in.

Worse, any understanding of “who we are” that excludes these non-ideological but patriotic Americans is divisive. It leaves out the veterans who served because they were protecting their communities rather than the pet projects of Elizabeth Warren or Paul Ryan. Our elite discourse of “who we are” incorporates implicit insults about the civic status of anyone who doesn’t share the speaker’s ideology. Propositional nationalism is universalist in theory because it opens up the theoretical possibility of American nationalism to everybody in the world, but it is exclusionary in practice because it defines large numbers of actual Americans as not really American.

Trump’s movement is partly a reaction to the extremist propositional nationalism of our elites, but Trumpism is too narrow in a different way. Like the propositional nationalisms of Left and Right, the slogan “Make America great again” excludes too many of our fellow Americans. The obvious rejoinders include “So you thought America was great when my grandparents were denied the vote by fraud and terrorism?” and “America became not great only when my family moved to it?”

What we are lacking in our politics is a humble understanding of America as a political community in which government and citizens have important (but limited and conditional) reciprocal responsibilities. We lack an understanding of America as a political community whose common interests embrace both the foreign-born and the native-born, and we lack an understanding that these Americans share responsibilities to one another that they do not share with others.

We are failing to build that kind of moderate, inclusive nationalism partly because of the counterintuitive subcultural politics of immigration. According to Gallup, only 18 percent of Hispanics favor increasing immigration, yet increasing immigration (by any means necessary) is probably the majority position among white liberal journalists and white conservative business lobbyists. From the perspective of our scribblers and lobbyists, the 35 percent of Hispanics who, non-conforming, favor reducing immigration might as well not even exist, because they are not “who we are” as defined by the people who define the political mainstream.

The result is that extreme propositionalist Republicans like Jeb Bush and Paul Ryan get labeled as immigration moderates by the mainstream media and GOP donors even as they are on the fringe relative to public opinion. The Jeb Bushes and the Paul Ryans can’t see their own extremism because they never get negative feedback from anyone they respect. From the perspective of the extreme propositionalist, anybody who disagrees with you is, to that extent, not really worth listening to. He is barely even an American.

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