Politics & Policy

Liberals Still Love Nationalist Ideas — Just Not the Label

President Trump, Vice President Pence, and House Speaker Ryan applaud during the State of the Union address, January 30, 2018. (Photo: Win McNamee/Pool/Reuters)
Wilson, both Roosevelts, and JFK were all practitioners of the sort of nationalism now deemed incompatible with America.

As many readers will recall, I have had my arguments with some of my colleagues about the benefits of nationalism as a unifying political concept. In fairness, Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru prefer the term “benign nationalism,” which I think is better, even though all the heavy lifting is done by the word “benign.”

Rich and Ramesh both have problems with the admittedly often clichéd proposition that “America is an idea.” They prefer to say that America is “a nation with an idea.” I think this is an entirely defensible formulation, even if I have my disagreements with what they think should flow from this observation. But even though I come from the side of the debate that argues it is better to emphasize America as a creedal nation and that patriotism is a more useful and appropriate concept than nationalism, I think it’s just plain obvious that America is a nation and that its self-conception as a nation is important in myriad ways.

Enter Elizabeth Bruenig in the Washington Post. She writes:

America simply isn’t a nation-state; it was neither conceived to nor can it foster the “organic” nationalism Trumpish conservatives now seem fixated on. Nations are made up of people who claim to share certain unchosen characteristics: language, ethnicity, historic religion, mystical destiny. In America, not only is it the factual case that we do not share such things, but it’s rather the point of our existence as a country — or was, once. Liberal democracies prize freedom and self-determination, so it follows that Americans are made by beliefs and choices, not by blood and tongue. American nationalism can shatter lives and breed violence, but it won’t ever amount to the creation of an American nation. Such a thing does not exist.

There’s a lot going on here, and I’m not going to address all of it. But two points come to mind. First, of course America is a nation-state. This isn’t a philosophical point. As a matter of law and lexicology, we are nation-state. We have borders and a government. Other nation-states recognize us as a nation-state.

I also think that we are a nation-state in the sense Bruenig has in mind. There is an overriding American culture, even if there are many subcultures that have their own idiosyncrasies. It’s not “organic” in the sense she means, but it’s real.

The chief source of the problem here isn’t confusion on Bruenig’s part but the confusion that arises from the sloppiness of the jargon used in this field. The term “nation-state” has (at least) two meanings. Sometimes it’s used to denote an ethno-state — a culturally or ethnically homogeneous country that aligns with its borders and government — and sometimes it simply means what people mean by a “country.” America is not an ethno-state, but it most certainly is a country.

What I find interesting about Bruenig’s argument is the idea that the concept of America is incompatible with Trumpish nationalism. I agree! But she goes farther than that. She argues that nationalism itself is incompatible with Americanism rightly understood. And I am delighted to hear it!

But what’s intriguing to me is that this would be news to progressive or “liberal” politicians and thinkers for most of the last hundred years. Wilson, both Roosevelts, and JFK were all practitioners of the sort of nationalism Bruenig says is incompatible with America. Foreign policy, and the jargon that comes with it, can muddy this question, given how those presidents often championed American leadership in international institutions. But domestically, from 100 Percent Americanism to the New Deal to the New Frontier, nationalism — economic and cultural — was central to domestic liberalism. Go look at some WPA art projects if you don’t believe me.

As I’ve written scores of times, “the moral equivalent of war” was the central organizing principle of liberalism in the 20th century. It was the defining concept of both Wilson’s “war socialism” and Roosevelt’s New Deal. And the moral equivalent of war is nothing if not a nationalist idea — at least until we’re invaded by aliens.

Indeed, I always wonder why Donald Trump doesn’t say, “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country!” on the stump, since it both fits his worldview perfectly and would be a brilliant way to troll liberals.

What vexes me about contemporary liberalism is that while it has not lost its love of the spirit of nationalism, it just doesn’t like the label anymore. Barack Obama peddled “moral equivalent of war” arguments relentlessly — and liberals ate it up.

In Barack Obama’s 2012 State of the Union Address, he said:

At a time when too many of our institutions have let us down, they exceed all expectations. They’re not consumed with personal ambition. They don’t obsess over their differences. They focus on the mission at hand. They work together. Imagine what we could accomplish if we followed their example. Think about the America within our reach.

Obama gushed over Seal Team Six as a model for domestic life. “All that mattered that day was the mission. No one thought about politics. No one thought about themselves,” Obama said. The warriors on the ground “only succeeded . . . because every single member of that unit did their job.”

More than that, the mission only succeeded because every member of that unit trusted each other — because you can’t charge up those stairs, into darkness and danger, unless you know that there’s somebody behind you, watching your back. So it is with America. . . . This nation is great because we worked as a team. This nation is great because we get each other’s backs.

As I wrote at the time, this is a disgusting inversion of what America is all about. To borrow Bruenig words, the “point of our existence” as Americans is to “prize freedom and self-determination.” We have a military to protect our liberty not to provide a model for how best we can surrender it. An America that lives by the ethos of Seal Team Six isn’t America, it’s Sparta.

And yet, I don’t recall any liberals decrying Obama’s speech. Nor do I remember liberals denouncing Obama’s expressed envy of how easy China’s dictator had it (nor, alas, do I see nearly enough of the conservatives who denounced it, objecting to Trump’s embrace of similar thinking).

An America that lives by the ethos of Seal Team Six isn’t America, it’s Sparta.

Now, I don’t blame liberals for despising Trump’s nationalism and populism; I don’t like it either! But they fail to see the splinter in their own eyes. Obama was a populist, too: “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for” was nothing more than New Agey populism. He was also a nationalist, in his own way. There’s a reason he gave a speech in Osawatomie, Kans., the place where TR delivered his “New Nationalism” speech. Liberals don’t like the words “nationalism” or “populism” anymore (though their turn on the term “populism” is extremely recent).

The difference between me and many of the liberals decrying Trump’s nationalism and populism is that I dislike nationalism and populism of the Left and the Right, regardless of the brand names they hide behind. They just don’t like nationalism and populism when it’s not on their terms. And, while we all tire of “This is how we got Trump” takes, it seems fairly obvious to me that the rise of Trump derives from the fact that many on the right decided to get in on the game liberals have been playing for a long time. They were just more honest about it.


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