Politics & Policy

What the Nationalism vs. Liberalism Debate Misses

Community can end up enriching our personal liberty, and the exercise of our liberty often involves the building of community.

Many grand ideological narratives of the present moment proclaim some tectonic collision between “nationalism” and “liberalism.” One of the things that have made this battle so hard to follow (and perhaps even so vitriolic) is that there seems to be a lack of common agreement about what these terms even mean.

Take “nationalism.” Many of the folks affiliated with the Niskanen Center are pretty staunch in their anti-“nationalist” sentiments, but what exactly constitutes “nationalism” is up for grabs. In a piece hosted at Niskanen’s website, political scientist Jeffrey Friedman defines “nationalism” to mean having any care for one’s fellow countrymen qua countrymen: “Nationalism is sympathy toward others whom one has never met based on their living inside those borders. To the nationalist, people within these arbitrary geographical boundaries deserve to have their interests protected by the national state — even at the expense of the interests of those outside those boundaries.”

By this standard, a charity set up to benefit American poor children would be an example of “nationalism,” as would government programs exclusively for American citizens. Both that charity and such government programs would benefit people only because of their nationality.

Conversely, in a recent National Affairs essay, Niskanen scholar Brink Lindsey has called for a revival of “republicanism.” But essential to that “republicanism,” which Lindsey opposes to “ethno-nationalism,” is a sense of civic — dare one say national? — solidarity:

Republicanism begins with love and unity: the patriotic love of country, a love that unites all of us regardless of party. However much we may differ from one another, however many distinctions we draw among ourselves in a modern, sprawling, pluralistic society, there is one thing that binds all Americans together as moral and civic equals: the res publica, or commonwealth, under whose laws we all live and within whose institutions we can all participate to make those laws better.

For Lindsey, the republican experiment is very much about feeling sympathy with one’s fellow citizens and seeking to prioritize their interests to some extent.

The different emphases in Friedman and Lindsey are representative of a wider argument about the meaning of “nationalism.” There’s a lot of antipathy to the word in some circles, but what exactly is meant by “nationalism” varies. As Yuval Levin outlined recently, there are many different conceptual strands within the term “nationalism.”

A similar point applies to “liberalism.” Is liberalism merely a set of market-oriented practices, civil liberties, and democratic elections, or is it a particular ideology? Many contemporary critics of “liberalism” — such as Yoram Hazony and Patrick Deneen — attack liberalism as an ideology premised on radical autonomy. But their criticisms of “liberalism” do not necessarily entail a rejection of the political trappings many associate with the “liberal” order, such as democratic elections and freedom of speech.

For instance, Hazony’s The Virtue of Nationalism often offers “freedom” as an ideal, and specifically defends what he terms the “Anglo-American conservative tradition” as a “nationalist political tradition that embraces the principles of limited executive power, individual liberties, public religion based on the Bible, and a historical empiricism.” This doesn’t exactly sound like a call for autocracy.

Sohrab Ahmari has lobbed many attacks on “liberalism” but also has called himself a “liberal” of sorts; he seems pretty sympathetic to the Bill of Rights and the existence of the United States Constitution more generally. Now, there might be some “post-liberals” who indeed would like to toss out or significantly diminish First Amendment protections and who are rather skeptical about the checks and balances of the Constitution, but many who criticize “liberalism” do so not out of hostility to the Constitution but instead because they fear that “liberalism” undermines republican constitutional practices. Conversely, more than a few proponents of “liberalism” seek not to defend an ideology that makes an idol of the self’s will but rather a set of practices and conventions (such as voting, due process, social tolerance, and so forth) that might be amenable to a variety of worldviews.

This terminological confusion hangs over my head in thinking about contemporary debates about conservatism, liberalism, and nationalism. This isn’t to deny that there are, in fact, some significant intellectual differences, especially about the role of (mediated) social life and political institutions. Yet sometimes this terminological warfare can render matters unclear. July’s “National Conservatism” conference featured a number of speakers, with a variety of orientations (as Aaron Sibarium has ably documented). Coverage of this conference sometimes presented such “national conservatism” as a challenge to “Reaganism,” but even here the differences can be exaggerated — especially because the Gipper’s rhetorical flourishes at times diverged from his record of governance.

For instance, one of the major headlines coming out of this conference was the attendees’ endorsement of industrial policy. However, industrial policy has a long legacy in Republican politics, even up to the Reagan presidency. Reagan implemented import restrictions throughout his presidency: most famously on cars from Japan but also on steel, computer products, and other goods. Meanwhile, he also poured money into military technologies, some of which would have significant implications for civilian life. (One might also note in passing that the current concentration of power in the hands of tech and financial conglomerates is itself in part a product of government policy. The pressing question is not whether a government will formulate an economic policy — governments always will — but whether such a policy serves the common good.)

More broadly, American politics long have shown not an antagonism but an alliance between national self-governance and individual liberties. I am tempted, then, to turn to a term not from 19th-century European political theory but instead from the American political experience: unionism. American politics continually has been drawn between the poles of unification and disintegration. Obviously, the Civil War was perhaps the sharpest expression of that conflict between union and disintegration, but American history as a whole has been pervaded by that dialectic. The project of striking this balance caused the end of the Articles of Confederation and the birth of the Constitution. The task of proponents of unionism has been to find some ways of causing the nation to cohere while also respecting the role of individual and communal difference.

Some sense of a common civic ground is useful for any polity, but it is especially important for a constitutional democracy; civic fellowship helps restrain factional vitriol and convinces the stakeholders of major political factions to be invested in the functioning of constitutional norms. While James Madison famously argued in Federalist No. 10 that a proliferation of competing factions could serve the national interest, many Founders (including his Federalist Papers co-author Alexander Hamilton) observed that factional competition alone was not a sufficient foundation for an enduring republic. Instead, they also asserted the importance of norms of personal and public virtue as well as of a national architecture to channel disputes.

As many of the political debates of the period before the Civil War suggest, at times the interest of unionism is served not by asserting national homogeneity but instead by allowing for diversity within the union. The great compromises wrestled out by Henry Clay and others gave deference to state sovereignty — too much deference, according to some — while also trying to keep the country together as a whole. (That such compromises involved a moral cost and ultimately could not avert the Civil War might not necessarily vitiate them. If a civil war had come in the 1820s rather than the 1860s, it is far from clear that the Union would have won; industrialization and a free-labor economy gave the North an increasing advantage over the South in the decades leading up to the war, and the success of abolition depended upon the Union’s victory.)

Certain issues of coherence are almost necessarily national. Trade policy must be decided at the federal level, for instance. In the early decades of the United States, individual states formulated their own immigration policies, but immigration seems almost certainly a national issue today, after the rise of federal entitlements and the free movement of individuals within the United States. Moreover, the federal government seems well-positioned to promote anti-monopoly efforts, and certain social-insurance programs (such as Social Security) probably work best when administered across state boundaries.

But not all are. Harnessing the benefits of the federal system entails some level of policy diffusion, both at the local and state levels. This diffusion means placing limits on both top-down federal mandates and purportedly “market-oriented” federal policies that prohibit states and localities from developing their own policy responses to various issues. Trying to impose a one-size-fits-all policy regime on such a diverse nation is likely to raise public tensions.

As Patrick Deneen recently emphasized at the “National Conservatism” conference, localism plays a role here, too. An element of that diffusion means recognizing the importance having localities shape their own character — through education, zoning, business regulation, attention to local textures, and so forth. For the unionist tradition, cultivating and celebrating local belonging is a supplement to participation in a federal union; one sees one’s community in conversation with a bigger order. This community has distinctive elements: A historic New England town is different from the big-box-dominated Texan exurb is different from Park Slope. But all communities can come together in the bigger project of the United States. Moreover, as Alexis de Tocqueville saw, that daily participation in local governance can help ward off the tendencies toward atomism and technocracy to which modern democracy is susceptible. Engaging in governance instructs us that we are not merely consumers or titillated observers of the national scene.

Sustaining the union is in part about striking a balance between diffusion and cohesion. But part of it might also involve efforts — at federal, state, and local levels — to strengthen the civic textures of our society. For instance, policies to strengthen families could contribute to the well-being of individual Americans as well as the broader social capital of the polity. A tighter labor market could help provide Americans better pay and more stable jobs. Some policy efforts might be more market-focused (such as trying to roll back medical cartelization) but others might involve some level of government investment.

The task of sustaining a union is not, of course, merely about policy. We might revise contemporary language of ethnic identity to recognize its contingency and complexities. Those in the commanding heights of culture might temper the language of Manichean culture war — emphasizing common human dignity rather than the “wrong” or “right” side of history. In this time of intense ideological turmoil, it’s unsurprising that American history should be in the crosshairs. While it might be tempting for some ideologues to reduce the American regime to its shortcomings, there’s also something to be said for exploring its deeper worth and for showing how this civic patrimony can speak to the vast panorama of contemporary America.

One of the subtexts of debates about “nationalism” is an argument about international affairs — how much the United States should engage with the world and how much it should seek to sustain the post–World War II institutions it helped build. It seems in many ways that those supportive of many existing international commitments should be most interested in sustaining the project of union. The United States’ economic might was central for the role it played in the 20th century, and the faith in constitutional institutions was a precondition for successful foreign-policy engagement.

The current “nationalism vs. liberal international order” clash obscures the fact that functioning nation-states were the building blocks of the post-war order; attempts to dissolve such nations in the name of global brotherhood might be like trying to melt the blocks of an igloo. Indeed, for all the lamentation of “populist” disruption, the trends of 2000 to 2016 imperiled the ability of the United States to maintain its commitments over the long term. A governing elite fumbled one crucial issue after another. Years of economic stagnation shrank the United States’ economic footprint relative to the rest of the world. Increasingly fractious domestic politics augured both more unrest at home and an unsteady hand abroad.

Looking at some contemporary controversies from this angle of unionism reveals a few things. A sense of national fellowship is not incompatible with internal diversity and heterogeneity. Instead, it’s about nurturing an additional set of bonds to complement the other facets of our identities. Liberty itself serves a higher purpose, and a liberty that is sustainable will have to address that purpose. Far from eviscerating our personal liberty, the textures of community can end up enriching it, as part of the exercise of our liberty involves the building of community.

The Civil War was fought to preserve the Union and, eventually, to end slavery; that duality — associating national coherence and individual liberation — might contain some lesson for this tumultuous time.

Something to Consider

If you enjoyed this article, we have a proposition for you: Join NRPLUS. Members get all of our content (including the magazine), no paywalls or content meters, an advertising-minimal experience, and unique access to our writers and editors (conference calls, social-media groups, etc.). And importantly, NRPLUS members help keep NR going. Consider it?

If you enjoyed this article, and were stimulated by its contents, we have a proposition for you: Join NRPLUS.

Fred Bauer is a writer from New England. His work has been featured in numerous publications, including The Weekly Standard and The Daily Caller. He also blogs at A Certain ...

Most Popular

White House

The Trivialization of Impeachment

We have a serious governance problem. Our system is based on separation of powers, because liberty depends on preventing any component of the state from accumulating too much authority -- that’s how tyrants are born. For the system to work, the components have to be able to check each other: The federal and ... Read More

‘Texodus’ Bodes Badly for Republicans

‘I am a classically trained engineer," says Representative Will Hurd, a Texas Republican, "and I firmly believe in regression to the mean." Applying a concept from statistics to the randomness of today's politics is problematic. In any case, Hurd, 42, is not waiting for the regression of our politics from the ... Read More

In Defense of Tulsi

Some years ago, a liberal-minded friend of mine complained during lunch that Fox News was “stealing” his elderly parents. “They should be enjoying retirement,” he said, noting that they live in a modest but comfortable style with attentive children and grandchildren to enjoy. “But instead,” he sighed, ... Read More

Not Less Religion, Just Different Religion

The Pew Poll tells us that society is secularizing -- particularly among the young -- and who can deny it? That is one reason that the free expression of religion is under such intense pressure in the West. But it seems to me that we aren't really becoming less religious. Rather, many are merely changing that ... Read More