Even those who disagree with the thrust of “For Love of Country” by Rich and Ramesh, notably Jonah Goldberg and Ben Shapiro, think well of some particulars in it, and those who agree with its broad argument, including Yuval Levin and I, give additional reasons for believing it to be a good thing: a perceptive and fresh analysis of a topic, nationalism, newly central to politics in the age of Trump. This is a rich pudding containing a lot of plums. Outdoing little Jack Horner, I will pull out a few and retire to a corner to chew them over.
Almost all of the points I discuss are in response to Jonah, Ben, and Yuval. Rich and Ramesh say kind words about my earlier National Review writings on America’s identity and culture, and I can happily return the compliment since I am in more or less in complete agreement not only with the broad argument of their piece but also with its side arguments and overall tone. Also, though the election of Donald Trump is one of the two main reasons why we are all debating nationalism, I don’t think we should focus excessively on what he says about it. The new president is a force of nature and not to be underestimated but not someone I would select to lead a philosophy seminar or a debating team.
Thus, when he disavows “American exceptionalism” as a phrase that makes him uncomfortable because he doesn’t want to humiliate the foreigners who will shortly be losing to America, I don’t think he is saying the same thing as Obama. Obama was telling Americans that, hey, every thinks it’s special — i.e., nobody is, we’re not. Trump was saying: When you intend to shoot a man, it costs nothing to be polite. It was an affirmation of exceptionalism rather than a denial of it.
We are debating nationalism, however, less because Trump says he’s for it than because a number of conservative writers, represented here by Jonah and Ben, responded to his support by declaring that they were against it. Nor were they saying so just because it felt good to contradict the then-candidate (though I imagine it did). Quite the contrary. Several conservatives advanced the argument “If nationalism is Trump’s defense against the accusation of not being a conservative, it’s no defense at all, since nationalism is incompatible with conservatism rather than a strand in it.” That’s a précis of several columns by different authors, but it’s not too distant from what Ben writes (with élan) and what Jonah writes (with cautious élan.) To my mind that’s the reason for this debate.
It’s a relief to me, however, that we are not debating a concept of nationalism that would pretend to make (ethnic) nationhood the sole legitimate basis for statehood. Elie Kedourie demolished that proposition in his book Nationalism, and the dire results of Woodrow Wilson’s attempt to redraw Europe along lines of national self-determination confirm Kedourie’s skeptical conclusion. As Earl Wavell said of Versailles, the war to end all war produced the peace to end all peace. States are the products of history and reflect very different founding principles: dynastic marriages, conquest, revolution, war, “velvet divorces,” treaties, referenda, constitutional separatism, etc., etc. It is likely that we will have to clear up some messes history leaves behind from time to time, as after Versailles, but no conservative would propose embarking on a wholesale reconstruction of states in accordance with a single theoretical principle that most existing states violated.
When people cite what earlier conservatives have said in condemnation of nationalism, it’s often this definition and its utopian implications that they have in mind. I can’t say for certain that’s what Bill Buckley had in mind when he said he didn’t have an ounce of nationalism in him. But if he was using the term in its colloquial sense, then I have to respond either that Bill was fooling himself or that knew himself less well than the English schoolboys whom, according to his own account, he harangued on the vices of George III in his school dormitory.
Nationalism in this debate, however, is about the attitude that conservatives should take toward their nation and state and, by extension, toward the kind of policies, mainly in international relations, that its government should pursue. Jonah’s leading argument is that nationalism, except in small doses, is a bad thing, and is to be distinguished from its wiser and more principled brother, patriotism. Both are passions, but patriotism is a passion that has been refined and disciplined by liberal ideas — in the U.S., the flag, the Constitution, and the liberties for which they stand. Nationalism, however, is the raw spirit, unrefined and dangerous. Without the right ideas to restrain the passion, nationalism and nationalists will threaten others, wage wars, and produce carnage from a sort of national egoism.
Might this sense of common-fellowship encompass the globe and produce global citizens in time? Possibly. I can’t forecast the future, but for the moment ‘the largest we’ is the nation.
Much of this I can accept. But what is the “passion” under discussion? It is the love of country. It’s a pre-rational sense of fellowship, common destiny, and loyalty that, because of the spread of communications, has expanded from the inhabitants of a village to the citizens of a nation united by, well, several things — a common language, common institutions, the mystic chords of memory, songs, poems, etc. Might this sense of common-fellowship encompass the globe and produce global citizens in time? Possibly. I can’t forecast the future, but for the moment “the largest we” is the nation.
All institutions rest in part on such passions — the local mafia as well as the local police. It matters to everyone whether their governing principles are criminal or charitable. But the ur-passion of group solidarity or loyalty that sustains them is essentially the same. Nationalism is the sense of solidarity that unites a nation as opposed to a golf club or an army platoon.
Thinking along the same lines, Jonah compares nationalism to the physical attraction that underpins marriage: It’s a start, but if the marriage has to survive, it must be allied to some higher ideal. Okay, but let’s look at this further. Physical attraction is indeed the root of many things as well as marriage, including promiscuity, pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, jealousy, infidelity, divorce — at one extreme, murder, and at the other, self-sacrifice for home and beauty. Which of these different results flow from physical attraction depends on the ideals that govern it: promiscuity when it is governed by selfishness, self-sacrifice when governed by romantic altruism, and marriage when governed by a deep emotional or sacramental commitment. All these are expressions of physical attraction, however, and the best marriage will struggle to survive if that disappears entirely.
Marriage in this comparison plays the part of patriotism. If Jonah were to say that patriotism is nationalism governed by high ideals, and fascism a form of nationalism corrupted by vicious ones, we would be on the same page. But he wants to draw between nationalism and patriotism a clear, bright line that I don’t think can be maintained. What are the marks of distinction between the two apart from the fact that, as we all acknowledge, different nations have different cultures, traditions, and political ideals and therefore different styles of nationalism (some nice, some nasty) as a result?
Wouldn’t it make better sense to think of nationalism as a spectrum, with aggressive, exclusivist nationalism at one end and, at the other, the kind of green pacifist nationalism of some Left intellectuals in Orwell’s wartime England (“soil and bloodlessness”?), with patriotism being the usage reserved for the nationalism of countries with a constitutional, liberal tradition and outlook? It would reflect the fact that love of country infuses these very different nationalisms just as sexual passion drives both marriage and adultery — and that a constitutional patriotism cannot long survive if it loses touch with its fundamental root in this emotion. Jonah comes close to conceding this when he complains that “many intellectuals use terms such as ‘civic nationalism’ to describe patriotism and ‘ethnic nationalism’ to describe the blood-and-soil variety.” Like him, I prefer the traditional word, but “civic nationalism” conveys the idea that patriotism is one variant of nationalism rather than a separate species — and that is, I think, the truer argument.
I doubt that I’ve convinced Jonah, however, and I will proceed to the next logical point: what principles should infuse America’s (or, in my case, Britain’s) national identity and culture. If we stand outside any national loyalties and consider this abstractly, we will probably think that nationalism should be inclusive internally — that is, admitting all ethnic groups into full citizenship without discrimination — and non-aggressive externally, forswearing irredentist claims, for instance. Circumstances alter cases, but this kind of civic and pacific bourgeois nationalism seems likely to arouse or invite conflict less than most other kinds.
Both Jonah and Ben want to go much further than this, however. They want not only to bind nationalism within a straitjacket of liberal constitutionalism but to assert that this transforms it into a unique and different passion. Here is Jonah explaining why American patriotism is deeply different from all nationalisms:
Our statues of soldiers commemorate heroes who died for something very different from what other warriors have fought and died for for millennia. Every one of them — immigrants included — took an oath to defend not just some soil but our Constitution and by extension the ideals of the Founding. Walk around any European hamlet or capital and you will find statues of men who fell in battle to protect their tribe from another tribe.
Now, of course, there’s a great deal in what Jonah wrote in this passage. Though G.I.s in the Second World War were fighting for home and beauty as well as ideals, and though they may not have kept the U.S. Constitution permanently in the forefront of their minds, they had absolutely no doubt that they were on the side of liberty, equality, and decency. They knew what they were fighting for. I happily acknowledge the truth of that claim from outside the American nation; and as a Brit, I make exactly the same claim for British troops in the same war. That’s not surprising, since the values and ideals of 1776 are an expansion of the Whiggish ideals of Britain’s 1688 Glorious Revolution — the first liberal revolution in history. These ideals are threaded through the national self-understanding of the other great Anglophone settler nations — Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. And they partly explain why these five countries, despite lesser differences of political ideology and real interest, have so often found themselves fighting on the same side in the same wars and believing themselves to be fighting for causes higher than national self-interest.
In both embodying liberal principles and proclaiming them to the world, America becomes more missionary in its liberal advocacy than other nations in the liberal family.
I am not trying to dilute American exceptionalism here; America is the leading liberal nation-state in every regard. In both embodying liberal principles and proclaiming them to the world, moreover, it becomes more missionary in its liberal advocacy than other nations in the liberal family. And that will raise other questions below. But the family of liberal nations is a family all the same and liberal all the same.
But are we muscular liberals quite as different from European nations as Jonah and especially Ben suggest? It is not the case that all Europe’s wars were wars of princely expansion or ethnic rivalry designed to add soil to the national territory. Europe’s most devastating and costly wars were wars of principle — the Crusades; the Thirty Years’ War and other post-Reformation religious armed conflicts; the 20-year-long war waged by Revolutionary and Napoleonic France under the banner of “the Rights of Man;” the wars for Greek independence, for Italian unification, and for European liberal constitutionalism against the Hapsburgs in 1848; and the First World War, which was essentially waged to defend a settled European order based on law, commerce, and diplomatic restraint from the lawless “militarism” of the new Germany symbolized by its invasion of Belgium. All these conflicts, including the two world wars of the last century, were tainted by national interest, especially at Versailles. But they were not driven by national interest, and no European statesman would have embarked on them for material or territorial gain, as opposed to profiting from them if fortune happened to smile in the right direction.
In short, it is not only the good guys who are moved by what they suppose to be noble principles — and what sometimes are noble principles. And if these principles differ with each other, and especially over apparent fundamentals (e.g., utopian equality over practical liberty), they will lead to conflict over time. And, sadly, they are far more likely to lead to prolonged bloody conflict than are disagreements over whether a frontier was drawn in the right place or a royal baby should count a disputed province in his future kingdom. Such wars end quickly. But Nazis, Marxists, and democrats were so strongly hostile to each others’ ideas that they fought to the finish — and one set of bad guys was among the big winners. Of course, conflict is more embedded in Marxism and Nazism, indeed consciously so, than in liberal democracy. But liberalism has the capacity to become an armed doctrine too. Experience in the wars of the 20th century suggests that moderation in wars of ideology doesn’t last long even on the liberal side. American patriotism ought not to be intolerant in principle, but it sometimes is in practice.
It even has the potential of becoming an orthodoxy imposed on dissenters in domestic politics as, Jonah demonstrated very persuasively in Liberal Fascism. That leads me to be less happy than Jonah is, for instance, with the term “un-American.” It suggests just that orthodoxy I suspect; and I wonder what is the position of those Americans, born, bred, and educated in the country, who grow up to reject the American idea — for instance, those who go to college and become Marxists. Have they thereby excluded themselves from the national community? In fact, the concept of the “un-American” strikes me as downright un-American — a half-step toward totalitarian liberalism. Now, there’s an answer to this criticism — see below — but it’s not an answer that gives aid and comfort to any brand of ideas-based nationalism, a.k.a. “propositionalism.”
We need other things to restrain our civic nationalism or liberal patriotism from following even good instincts in the wrong direction — and to build a (safely quarrelsome) national community on lasting and secure foundations. What are they?
Ben Shapiro has a very clear answer. He argues that there is a simple, binary choice between propositional patriotism and what he calls the “blood and soil” variety, or ethnic nationalism. And he chooses the former. Americans are held together, he believes, by the principles stated in the Declaration of Independence, implicit in the U.S. Constitution, reaffirmed in Lincoln’s speeches, and summarized as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Ben doesn’t blink at any of the logical implications of this assertion. It is sometimes alleged by critics of ideological nationalism that it reduces the ties between Americans to mere statements of philosophical sympathy and that these are not enough to unify people spread across a continent or to sustain them through hard times. Rather than expressing indignation at this accusation, he embraces it and argues that it is mere ethnic “tribalism” that would really divide Americans:
And once nationalism is tribalism, the question becomes why America should remain one nation rather than many. My connection to my local community is stronger than my connection to bureaucrats in Washington, D.C. My connection with those who share my faith and my ideas is stronger than my connection with somebody living 2,000 miles away in an area I’ve never visited. It is not a coincidence that 60 percent of Trumpian nationalists in Texas were willing to secede from the country if Hillary Clinton became president, and 48 percent of California Democrats are willing to secede from the country now that Trump is president. Nothing holds us together, once we rule out idea-based nationalism in favor of blood-and-soil-based nationalism. And, make no mistake, it is a choice; the two forms of nationalism can’t be synthesized. One form must have primacy.
Well, Ben and I should perhaps have a drink next time we’re both in the same city since I have to say honestly that I disagree with almost everything in that long quotation. I haven’t heard of any mass exodus of California Democrats since November 8, and I don’t think Texan Trumpians would have left home if Hillary had been elected. People say such daft things all the time in political debates without the slightest intention of acting on them. And both sets of partisans living in the same town would be helping each other to put out a forest fire if one threatened their community. Ben himself is connected to other Americans living far away, by many ties beyond political liberalism — most important, that they have lived, died, and sacrificed to give him a country in which he is a free man. Many of those to whom he owes this large debt differ from him on political fundamentals, and yet they consider him a fellow American who has a claim on them ahead of foreigners if he is in need. Most Americans, indeed, would think it odd that they should have to pass a test in political theory to satisfy him on their patriotic credentials. When questioned about such things as the Bill of Rights, moreover, many Americans give the wrong answers quite innocently. And on the opposite side of that political divide, I have no doubt that if some crisis arose for his neighbors or the nation, Ben would find himself responding to it like a volunteer fireman in Dixville Notch.
Why is that? It is, I think, because Ben is mistaken on his concluding point, that if we rule out “propositionalism,” we are inevitably saddled with ethnic nationalism, blood and soil, etc. For a host of reasons, an ethno-nationalism is not a present choice for large multi-ethnic settler nations such as the U.S. But there is a third nationalism that he never discusses — and that is a form of nationalism rooted in America’s common culture and in the lived experience of freedom and fellowship in American life. The American idea is powerful and good, but it is the abstract distillation of that experience. The experience itself is richer, constantly influencing us, and it shapes American patriots far more deeply. And it serves to unify Americans without their needing to reflect consciously on it. As Rich and Ramesh argue in their article, it “attaches to the country’s people and culture, not just to its political institutions and laws. Such nationalism includes solidarity with one’s countrymen, whose welfare comes before, albeit not to the complete exclusion of, that of foreigners.”
And there is a final paradox: that an American identity rooted in cultural familiarity will be more genuinely liberal than one based on the American idea. It allows someone to reject the dominant ethos of his society — that Marxist professor above — without losing his claim to be an American. Does that mean the death of liberal Americanism? Not at all. As Orwell pointed out in the British context, someone who has spent his life breathing a free atmosphere will find himself talking freedom against all his professed principles. Thus, a Marxist law professor would write to the Times to complain that some proposal was contrary to all the traditions of English liberty.
Ideas are less likely to restrain themselves than be restrained by traditions of decent behavior that become second nature to us. That’s why Americans should not be afraid of their own cultural nationalism — whatever they choose to call it.