Untangling the Meaning of ‘Nationalism’

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We should embrace a moderate nationalism in keeping with our national character.

American conservatism contains a broad nationalist streak. It also contains a smaller streak of theoretical hostility to nationalism. These streaks are sometimes present in the same conservative individuals.

This is one conclusion I draw from the debate that Richard Lowry and I began by writing a cover story for this magazine in defense of nationalism. In the weeks following the article’s publication, National Review Online published criticisms by Jonah Goldberg, Ben Shapiro, and Mona Charen, responses to that criticism by John O’Sullivan and Lowry, and another measured defense of nationalism by Yuval Levin.

If these exchanges have as yet changed no participants’ mind, they have at least proven that it is possible even today to have a civil and intelligent debate among people who respect one another. It has also, I think, clarified some of our disagreements.

The least important of these disagreements, which nonetheless colors everything else, concerns the usage of the word “nationalism.” Lurking in the background of our NRO critics’ argument, and explicit in criticisms made by others in different venues, is that what Lowry and I call a benign nationalism is really patriotism while nationalism is inherently aggressive, statist, and even bigoted. When Charen writes that “nationalism is a demagogue’s patriotism” and “resentment draped in the flag,” she is not accusing us of favoring demagoguery or resentment. She is suggesting that the term “nationalism” should be used exclusively to refer to a phenomenon that all three of us deplore.

Yet the term has in practice been used in a wide variety of ways. In our original essay, Lowry and I noted that Orwell’s influential essay against nationalism counted Stalinism — an ideology that explicitly aimed to govern all races and cultures and eventually to abolish the nation-state — within its definition. O’Sullivan reminds us that the term has also denoted the view that an ethnic group living in a geographically contiguous area has a right to govern itself and that governments not based on this principle lack legitimacy. Neither of these “nationalisms” are what we sought to defend.

The variety of meanings that “nationalism” has taken implies that people who agree on all the underlying issues can nonetheless appear to be at odds based on how they use the term. In this debate among colleagues, everyone agrees that the love of one’s country is natural, that this love can take better and worse forms, and that in the United States it has a strong ideological component.

The variety of meanings that “nationalism” has taken implies that people who agree on all the underlying issues can nonetheless appear to be at odds based on how they use the term.

Employing the terms “nationalism” and “patriotism” as Charen, Goldberg, and like-minded others do can be helpful to thought and communication. I take it that when William F. Buckley Jr. said that he was a patriot without a nationalist bone in his body — a remark that Goldberg mentions and that other critics have more or less flung in our faces — he was disavowing national chauvinism. I feel confident that he was not denying that American foreign policy should be primarily based on our pragmatic interests or that immigration should be restrained, since he affirmed both views. Not for the first time, I wish he were here to offer more guidance. It is comforting, though, that so far as I know he never insisted that these terms always be used in this way.

Which is good, because defining nationalism and patriotism in evaluative terms, with the former bad and the latter good, tends to harden three misunderstandings that are especially prevalent today. First, this usage suggests a sharper distinction between positive and negative forms of attachment to one’s country than truly exists. Second, and relatedly, it lends itself to a binary distinction between an attachment to a nation’s worthy ideals (which is identified with patriotism) and one to a race or ethnicity (nationalism) — and allows no room for a love of country that is based on both a nation’s ideals and its culture. Third, it leaves us with no commonplace term for a political philosophy or program that places a heavy emphasis on the nation’s interests, sovereignty, and cohesion, and, worse, it tends to make such a philosophy or program seem sinister in principle.

Someone who believes that America should pool its sovereignty with other nations, or that it should adopt an immigration policy that weights the interests of potential Americans and actual citizens equally, may have a real affection for his country and countrymen. He may even have put himself in harm’s way in our nation’s defense. It seems sensible to label such a person a patriot but not a nationalist, and to do so without suggesting that those of us who take a different view of these political issues — as nearly all American conservatives have, at least to some extent — are necessarily authoritarian or even wrong.

To the extent that our anti-nationalist critics have real rather than semantic differences with Lowry and me, they are rooted in these three tendencies. Shapiro’s case is particularly stark. He asserts that we must choose between an “ideas-based” and a “blood-and-soil-based” nationalism; and since he does not think red and blue America share political ideals anymore, he concludes that they have nothing to hold them together in one nation.

But his own argument suggests the fatal weaknesses of both an ethnic nationalism that does not fit our demographic realities and an ideological patriotism that our political disagreements threaten. It also illustrates the superiority of a cultural nationalism to either. The main reason the California Democrats and Texas Republicans whom Shapiro mentions have not left the country when elections have gone against them is that, whatever their antipathy to each other and whatever threats they sometimes make, they feel that this country is their home.

A last difference between these two camps of colleagues concerns the nationalist views expressed by President Trump, whose inaugural address occasioned our essay. This difference is a fine one. Charen, Goldberg, and Shapiro are critics of Trump’s nationalism; but so are Levin, Lowry, and I. (O’Sullivan’s contribution to the debate did not dwell on Trump.) All of us think that Trump scants the ideals, and the idealism, that are an important part of a distinctively American nationalism. What we call “American exceptionalism,” as Levin points out, is a moderating influence on our nationalism. Trump mentions exceptionalism only to dismiss it.

Trump’s nationalism could also stand to benefit from other elements of conservatism that would exercise a further moderating influence on it. The inaugural address was nearly devoid of the limited-government themes that American conservatives usually stress, and their absence gave his nationalism a collectivist, utopian, and demagogic flavor. He said that protectionism would lead to great prosperity, that nationalist leadership in Washington would bring an end to crime, and that in general solving America’s problems is a simple matter of remembering to put Americans’ interests front and center.

Conservatives lost touch with their nationalism in part because of an exaggerated philosophical discomfort with it.

Our critics would presumably agree with us on these defects in Trumpian nationalism. What they have not conceded, even grudgingly, is that there is anything worthwhile in Trump’s nationalism that has eluded other Republicans: that these Republicans have too often failed even to try to connect their policy proposals to Americans’ self-interest, that they have ignored their desire for national unity, and that these failures contributed to Trump’s rise. Conservatives lost touch with their nationalism in part because of an exaggerated philosophical discomfort with it.

Goldberg lamented that our defense of nationalism, coming as it did soon after Trump’s inauguration, would be taken as a “whitewash” of his version of nationalism (which is already white enough). When a new president uses one of the highest-profile events in American politics to articulate views that are both right and wrong in important ways, however, it is exactly the right time to sift through them.

Take Trump’s protectionism, which Goldberg urges conservatives to reject. We should indeed reject it — not because it is always wrong to subordinate the freedom of a corporation to the interests of the country, but because we have many reasons to think that trade barriers will usually undermine the national interest. Raising tariffs on the imports that American companies use to manufacture their products may help certain other American companies, but it will hurt Americans as a whole. The problem with it, that is, isn’t that it’s “economic nationalism.” It’s that it’s not a sensible form of nationalist economics.

New York Times columnist David Brooks, who may or may not agree with the specific arguments in this article, recently said that the way to fight Trumpian nationalism is not with globalism but with American nationalism, by which he means an exceptionalist and idealistic nationalism. I’d say that his point applies more broadly: Americans on all sides of the Trump question, including President Trump himself, should embrace a moderate nationalism in keeping with our national character. Conservatives who do so, like the Molière character who realized he had been speaking prose all his life without knowing it, will find that the language comes naturally.

— Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor of National Review. This article appears in the April 3, 2017, issue of National Review.


Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.


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