The Corner


The Perils of Symbolic Nationalism

(Mike Segar/Reuters)

I love Kevin Williamson’s piece on Welfare Chauvinism, even though I’m kicking myself I didn’t read it before I filed my syndicated column today or my just-posted piece below. I particularly enjoyed this vintage Williamsonism:

Senator Sanders and President Trump have substantially similar instincts when it comes to immigration even if the politically plastic gentleman from Vermont has been scolded into pretending otherwise. If you have convinced yourself that Senator Sanders’s views simply must be rooted in solidarity and that President Trump’s views simply must be rooted in viciousness, then you might want to consider the possibility that you have become a brain-dead partisan, a very cheap date indeed — and that you have not given sufficient consideration to the ways in which appeals to in-group solidarity are related to ordinary viciousness.

Kevin also writes:

As the libertarian economist Bryan Caplan has wryly observed, in the United States today we really have no classical liberal party but instead have a choice between two national-socialist parties: one a little more nationalist, the other a little more socialist.

This has been a bugaboo of mine for quite sometime. As I wrote in response to the riot of hysteria over the proposed Dubai Ports deal in 2006:

The beauty of the American free-trade consensus over the last few decades is that it split two outlooks that tend to go together: nationalism and socialism. In terms of economic policy, nationalism is indistinguishable from socialism. When you nationalize an industry, you socialize it. And what is the difference between socialized medicine and nationalized health care?

Liberals are naturally sympathetic to socialistic arguments, conservatives to nationalistic ones. But to everyone’s benefit these two outlooks have been quarantined in different parties. Conservatives have been culturally nationalistic but economically liberal (in the classical sense). Liberals have been economically nationalistic–on health care, regulation, taxes, unions–but culturally liberal. Although it’s been quite painful for them, this cultural liberalism has kept the Democratic party in favor of free trade and immigration. Protectionism hurts foreigners and poor Americans, after all.

A lot has happened since then. The Democrats have invested heavily in illiberal identity politics (and some on the right have decided to play a similar game) and conservative have invested, particularly in the last two years, in traditionally Democratic nationalistic economic policy.

As Kevin notes, our politics are increasingly defined by competing definitions of nationalized group solidarity. One side uses the word “nationalism” to describe its vision (though actual definitions of nationalism vary widely and significantly), the other either eschews labels or, in some corners, prattles about “socialism” or “social democracy” (and almost any request for a definition is met with eye-rolling). But whether it was Barack Obama’s “Economic Patriotism” or Bannon’s “Economic Nationalism” the underlying visions are remarkably similar in matters of policy (and have more in common with corporatism than either nationalism or socialism). Where they differ is on chosen symbols and the coalitions that rally to them.

An interesting dye marker in this battle of competing solidarities is how each side claims to be speaking for the “real” America. Whenever one party is out of power, they claim they want to “take back America.” Whenever a party is in power, its intellectuals talk about the need for “one nation politics.” (I’m old enough to remember when this was a dear term for Clintonites and Blairites).

Save in a time of war, I don’t like “one-nation politics” precisely because it makes what defines the whole nation subservient to the partisan agenda of whoever is in power. When the language of patriotism becomes weaponized in a partisan contest, patriotism is devalued into something that is not shared by all regardless of party and is instead turned into a cudgel against dissenters from a partisan program. I’m no absolutist on this point. For instance, if you argue that the UN should be a superior moral authority to the will of the voters as expressed by our representatives, I think you are insufficiently patriotic. But all in all, I prefer policy arguments that can be won on the merits rather than by appeals to group solidarity, even when my sympathies are more with one group than another.

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