On Thursday morning, NR senior writer Michael Brendan Dougherty spoke with NR editor in chief Rich Lowry about Rich’s new book, The Case for Nationalism: How It Made Us Powerful, United, and Free. Broadcasting live to members from NR’s New York office, Rich and Michael discussed Rich’s thesis, the main points of his book, and took questions from members.
Rich began by exploring the two basic contentions of his book. First, that nationalism, or national feeling, is a very old, very powerful, and very natural idea which we cannot do away with. Second, nationalism is part of the mainstream of the American tradition. We wouldn’t have had the American Revolution without it because the fundamental assertion of the Revolution was that the American nation has rights and claims which are due and should be respected. We don’t get the constitution without nationalism, and without a strong capable government we would descend into squabbling statelets. Even the victory in the civil war is thanks to nationalism. It’s really this that cements our dependence on nationalism. To Rich, democracy is essential to modern nationalism, as it gives us a sense of common feeling and common trust. This is how America can depend on peaceful transfers of power that don’t end in coups or violence.
Michael followed up by asking Rich why, if nationalism is such an essential part of the American tradition, he felt the need to write the book?
Rich said that while it isn’t a “Trump book,” he wrote it because of President Donald Trump. Many people hadn’t thought about nationalism prior to Trump, and even people at NR hadn’t talked about it much until Trump’s first State of the Union address. For a long time, nationalism has had a bad reputation and occupied a bad place in many people’s minds. In reality, nationalism is white commonsensical, but people tend to turn away from it because of this idea that patriotism is the good and nationalism is the bad. Rich said that he shouldn’t be surprised but the debate about the book on the left has been mostly about how racist he is. He believes that a cultural core and common language are important to a nation, and he said he was surprised that so many people are deeply uncomfortable with the idea of a nation that is a concrete thing united by commonality.
Michael responded to Rich by saying that he sees American nationalism as having the capacity to reconcile diverse groups and give them a sense of shared citizenship and membership in the state. This dovetailed with a question from member Andrew Good, who asked what, if anything, the book has taught conservatives anything about messaging on these racial issues.
Rich replied by pointing to an unlikely source: The New York Times‘s 1619 project. African-Americans are a part of the American identity from the beginning, and our culture isn’t white at all. A nation, Rich explained, goes beyond sect, gender, and color, and conservatives have to do more to acknowledge the contribution of African-Americans to our nation’s history in meaningful ways. Frederick Douglass, for example, should be on the currency, and Americans should mark Juneteenth, the day formally recognized as the end of slavery, in a more significant way. Rich saw many lies in the 1619 project, but this was a good point. Conservatives not having black voters is a tragedy that we really need to do more to heal.
Michael next turned to a question from Gary Donner, who asked about how Rich distinguishes his definition of nationalism from British novelist and political theorist George Orwell’s. In short, in his definition, Orwell presents a negative and impossible form of international group identity. Rich’s defines nationalism as the idea that a distinct group of people bound together by common history should defend a common territory. Orwell, Rich argued, wrote during a period of German nationalism, and that extreme version is his basis for his general definition of nationalism. In reality, nationalism is a version of the family. You’re bound together by something more than just skin color, religion, or creed. So instantly, there’s something in common. Orwell’s flaw is that he is writing about the citizens of the world, which doesn’t really exist.
Next, Michael turned to a question from Jeffery Bellant, who asked what part of Rich’s thesis was most misunderstood by the left or the right. Rich answered quickly, having been accused of racism in a review published in Foreign Affairs, which he called a “totally crackpot review.” It alleged that Rich only used “we” in regard to white, Christian Americans, when in reality he was talking about the American nation. Everything since 1776 is “we” to Rich, an American. The Foreign Affairs reviewer also said that Rich wants more white people in America based on a contrived reading of Rich’s argument about assimilation. The reviewer clearly looked over Rich’s laud of interracial marriage, which serves to further unite the American nation.
Next up was a question from member Lee Danner, who asked if Rich had changed any minds or opinions with his book and why conservatives are so scared by the term “nationalism.” Rich said that nationalism has been an under-appreciated part of the conservative tapestry for a long time. It wasn’t until Trump that the idea floated to the surface, and that’s where Rich comes in. While Rich believes the book could start the mind-changing process, he suspects not too many minds have changed, as “we are in an era of minds not changing.”
Rich and Michael continued taking questions from members, and at the end, Michael gave three books away to three members whose questions were asked on the call. An audio and film recording of the call is above. Thank you to those who joined us, and we look forward to seeing you all for the next one.