Politics & Policy

The Trouble with Nationalism

Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Marcorubino/Dreamstime)
Seeing ethnic nationalism as the only form of bad nationalism is a mistake.

Editor’s Note: This piece is a response to “For Love of Country,” the cover story of the February 20, 2017, issue of National Review.

There’s text and then there’s context. Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru’s cover essay on nationalism in the current issue is controversial more because of the context than because of the text itself. Self-avowed nationalists are in the saddle across the West — including in the West Wing. Many passionate opponents on the left believe even the slightest rhetorical or intellectual concession to nationalism amounts to surrender to Trumpism – and not just Trumpism, but their often hysterical caricature of Trumpism. And because National Review was a major source of opposition to Trump, it’s also allegedly proof of our collective hypocrisy. I think most of that is silly, but I do have my objections to the piece.

Let me focus on the text first.

I thought “For Love of Country” was on the whole very good and in parts quite lovely. I also think it’s basically wrong, though defensibly so.

Rich and Ramesh do not see patriotism and nationalism as distinct things. I do. And so did Bill Buckley, who famously (thanks to Jay Nordlinger) said, “I’m as patriotic as anyone from sea to shining sea, but there’s not a molecule of nationalism in me.” The historian John Lukacs also saw a distinction — albeit a complicated one — between patriotism and nationalism. It was from him I learned that Hitler said he was a nationalist but not a patriot.

Walter Berns in his wonderful book Making Patriots, argued that no one is born a patriot. They are made. I would add that everyone is born a nationalist, to one extent or another. That’s because nationalism isn’t so much a doctrine — though many have tried to turn it into one — but an emotional or psychological state. In short, it is a passion, and one very closely related to populism. So even before the rise of the Westphalian system (which kinda-sorta created nation-states), there were nationalists in the sense that there have always been tribalists. Tribalism is natural. Patriotism takes work.

Definitions get messy because, for the average American, nationalism and patriotism are mixed together. They get messier still because many intellectuals use terms such as “civic nationalism” to describe patriotism and “ethnic nationalism” to describe the blood-and-soil variety. As Rich and Ramesh note, John Fonte distinguishes between “authoritarian nationalism” and “democratic nationalism.”

Rich and Ramesh fall pretty obviously into the camp that differentiates civic nationalism from ethnic nationalism or authoritarian nationalism. For what it’s worth, I think ethnic nationalism is obviously a very real thing (see, Hitler, Adolf), but I also think seeing ethnic nationalism as the only form of bad nationalism is obviously a mistake. Not all nationalisms are necessarily racial. Fascist Italy was quite obviously nationalist, but its nationalism wasn’t particularly rooted in any of the biological pseudoscience of Nazi Germany. I would argue that the Soviet Union was nationalist during World War II (a.k.a. “the Great Patriotic War for Mother Russia”) and after, but it was also a great multi-ethnic empire. The “new nationalism” of, say, Richard Ely had eugenic attributes to it (because Ely was, after all, a leading progressive racist), but it didn’t speak with any of the romantic poetry of 1800s Germany.

In short, nationalism is complicated. I agree entirely — and have written as much many times — that a little nationalism is a healthy thing. It thickens the stew of civil society and allows individuals and institutions to bond together in important ways. Without some pre-rational passion for one’s own country, it would be impossible to make patriots. Rich and Ramesh make a similar point:

Indeed, the vast majority of expressions of American patriotism — the flag, the national anthem, statues, shrines and coinage honoring national heroes, military parades, ceremonies for those fallen in the nation’s wars — are replicated in every other country of the world. This is all the stuff of nationalism, both abroad and here at home.

But this is at the same time both entirely right and fundamentally misleading. It leaves out what the flag represents. It glides over the fact that the national anthem sanctifies the “land of the free.” Our shrines are to patriots who upheld very specific American ideals. 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. That doesn’t necessarily diminish the nobility of their deaths or the glory of their valor, but it is quite simply a very different thing they were fighting for. Now, of course, no doubt American soldiers sacrifice for home and hearth and their band of brothers without giving much thought — at least in the heat of battle — to the lofty notions inscribed on the walls of the Lincoln Memorial, the ultimate patriotic (rather than nationalist) shrine. But one of the ways we make patriots in this country is by putting these sacrifices in that context.

Nationalism is healthy in small doses, but we must remember that all poisons are determined by the dose.

Left-wingers who fancy themselves ironically detached from patriotism and particularism and as avatars of a more sophisticated cosmopolitanism no doubt roll their eyes at such things, considering it so much schmaltz. Some might even snark that such patriotic piety is hypocritical given this or that crime — real or alleged — that America has committed. But hypocrisy is a charge every civilization opens itself to when it aims for an ideal higher and better than loyalty to tribe. There were few hypocrites in Sparta.

But I firmly believe that when we call the sacrifices of American patriots no different from the sacrifices of Spartans — ancient or modern — we are giving short shrift to the glory, majesty, and uniqueness of American patriotism and the American experiment. I’m reminded of Martin Diamond’s point that the concepts of “Americanism,” “Americanization,” and “un-American” have no parallel in any other country or language.

It is true that nationalism is part of the equation, but it is the less important part. And by mistaking the tail for the dog, we lose sight of what is important. Think of it this way. All, or at least most, marriages require some level of physical attraction, particularly at the outset — that is only natural. But any marriage purely based on physical attraction will struggle to last. No happily married couple I have ever met has confessed that the secret of their long marriage was mutual lust. Marriages endure for a host of complicated reasons, but among the most important is surely a commitment to an ideal, be it religious or otherwise. Nationalism is a bit like lust — a natural human passion that, absent proper channeling, is at best morally neutral and more often a source of unhealthy temptation.

In other words, as I often say when discussing nationalism, it is healthy in small doses, but we must remember that all poisons are determined by the dose. Because nationalism is ultimately the fire of tribalism, having too much of it tends to melt away important distinctions, from the rule of law to the right to dissent to the sovereignty of the individual. This is why every example of unfettered nationalism run amok ends up looking very much like socialism run amok (and vice versa). The passionate populist desire for unity above all recognizes no abstract barriers to the general will.

This is the point Rich and Ramesh are getting at when they write:

Nationalism should be tempered by a modesty about the power of government, lest an aggrandizing state wedded to a swollen nationalism run out of control; by religion, which keeps the nation from becoming the first allegiance; and by a respect for other nations that undergirds a cooperative international order.

I agree with that. But what they’ve ultimately done is define away the problem. If that’s all people mean when they say they are nationalists, well fine. I may grumble over terminology, but really, where’s the harm?

And that brings me to the context. Rich and Ramesh chose to defend nationalism at a moment when self-described nationalists at home and abroad are calling into question a host of democratic norms (though more abroad than at home, at least for now). Donald Trump talks a great deal about nationalism but precious little about liberty and the Constitution. His contempt for American exceptionalism seems rooted in the belief that our ideals get in the way of our being a serious country (as I write in today’s Los Angeles Times.) His chief ideologist of nationalism, Steve Bannon, has in the past made common cause with people who quite passionately admire ethno-nationalism.

In a normal time, I would still have the above disagreements (and a few others I left out) with Rich and Ramesh, but they would be entirely academic. But this is not a normal time, and the decision to slap a coat of paint over the term nationalism becomes difficult not to interpret as a whitewash. If the intent is to educate the president about what nationalism, rightly understood is, I wish them luck, but I won’t get my hopes up.


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