The Corner

Politics & Policy

Nationalism vs. Statism, Part II

American flag display at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah, 2002 (Photo: Americanspirit/Dreamstime)

I am constantly hearing how conservatism needs to embrace nationalism. But so far, only Ramesh Ponnuru, has been able to give me a single example of what a non-statist “nationalist” policy might be. Pulling out of the Paris accord on climate was nationalist, he argued, because it asserted American sovereignty and freed up American energy producers (in principle, of course: The actual accord wasn’t particularly binding in any meaningful way). I think this points to an important distinction. As I discussed in my G-File last week, the international realm is far closer to a state of nature than domestic politics, and, therefore, I can see how asserting national sovereignty can hold at bay attempts by international institutions to constrain American liberty, collectively and individually. This doesn’t mean that all international agreements are bad — I’m just conceding that they can be.

But what does a “nationalist” domestic policy look like that doesn’t involve using state power? I’m all in favor of enforcing the border, but that does require the use of state force (it’s even in the word “enforce”). This points to how I favor some policies that can be called “nationalist” but I don’t see the benefit in calling the basic functions of the state “nationalist.” When the government — in the name of nationalism, or progress, or social justice — exceeds those basic functions laid out in the Constitution, it’s still statism.

Conservatives used to consider “statist” a fighting word. Well, what exactly is the difference between statism and nationalism when translated into a domestic agenda? A peacetime draft would certainly be nationalist; it would also be statist. The public schools were birthed in a riot of nationalism. Indeed, the progressives who constructed the administrative state were not Bolsheviks looking to unite the world under global Communism; they were nationalists trained in the German historicist tradition. But it seems for different reasons that both the Right and the Left have forgotten that part of the story.


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