The G-File

Politics & Policy

When Patriotism Loses Its Universality

When nationalism-sold-as-patriotism becomes the primary rationale for any party in power, the toxic process of polarization and partisanship gets worse.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is Jonah Goldberg’s weekly “news”letter, the G-File. Subscribe here to get the G-File delivered to your inbox on Fridays.

Dear Reader (And everyone trying to keep cool),

I’m in Nantucket working on some hot new limericks. More about that later. Later today, I’m hoping to make the arduous trek along the Ted Kennedy Trail into the heart of Martha’s Vineyard, in the hopes of bringing Alan Dershowitz the much-craved social approval he’s been so cruelly denied. I will have to go in mufti, of course. Wearing Nantucket Red shorts — not by coincidence, the same color as MAGA hats — would be a dead giveaway that I’m an outsider. If caught by the locals, there’s no telling what they would do to me. They might serve me unchilled Chablis or — <shudder> — serve red wine with fish.

Anyway, on the Fourth of July, I attended a really wonderful event: the public reading of the Declaration of Independence. Of course, because everything has to be politicized these days, the woman who read the passage about immigration put a lot of righteous stink on it — because Trump. This is the part I mean:

He has endeavored to prevent the population of these states; for that purpose obstructing the laws for naturalization of foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migration hither, and raising the conditions of new appropriations of lands.

A bunch of people applauded and cheered at this — but also the stuff about judges:

He has obstructed the administration of justice, by refusing his assent to laws for establishing judiciary powers.

He has made judges dependent on his will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.

As the woman read these lines with great vengeance and furious anger, confident that she was “owning” Trump, it felt a bit like when John Oliver’s audience laughs at a joke it doesn’t understand, because they’re still confident it’s aimed at the right target. I mean I get it, but is it really that clever? Or necessary? I don’t stand up and high-five my friends at the reading of the Second or Ninth Amendments. Take that libs!

Anyway, I bring this up because, first of all, I so rarely do any reporting these days. Second, because it’s a good example of how politics infects so much of life. And, third, because it casts a little light on the perils of turning nationalism or patriotism into a political program.

The Disenchantment of the World

Michael Brendan Dougherty visits a topic I’ve been dwelling on quite a bit of late — and for the last ten years: How things like socialism and nationalism are serving as enchantment creeds or, to put it less grandiosely, as substitute faiths to make up for the decline or deterioration of civil society, religion, and family.

Last week, I wrote about how we often use words such as “censorship” or “dogma” to describe only the forms of censorship and dogma we do not like. Nearly all of us believe in some censorship, and literally all of us have some dogmatic convictions, but we reserve those labels for the bad stuff or for the things our foes want to do.

Nationalism and socialism work in somewhat similar ways. Conservatives denounce progressive nationalism as “socialism,” and liberals denounce conservative socialism as “nationalism.”

Those Were the Days

Throughout the 20th century, most progressives were nationalists. This fact is often ignored in the conservative critiques of liberalism for a few reasons. One of them is that Marxist — and Marx-ish — intellectuals had an outsized influence in public debates, particularly in the second half of the 20th century. The Cold War made arguing with Marxism seem more important and, let’s face it, more fun.

That’s one reason why conservatives loved to talk about the New Deal as if it was some kind of ersatz Commie plot, when the reality was that it was a thoroughgoing nationalist affair. From the art of the WPA, to the militarism of the Blue Eagle and WPA, to FDR’s refusal to cooperate with allies to fight the Great Depression at the London Economic Conference, the New Deal was wrapped up in the aesthetics and economics of statist nationalism. That’s one reason so many useful idiots followed Stalin’s fatwah — the theory of social fascism — and labelled FDR, John Dewey, and other American progressives “fascists” for a time. According to the theory of social fascism, any progressive or socialist movement that wasn’t loyal to Moscow was objectively fascist. It didn’t matter if you wanted to nationalize industry or socialize medicine, if you weren’t part of the global Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist coalition, you were fascist. That doctrine changed only after Hitler invaded Russia.

But the intellectual attraction of Marxist thinking was harder to wash away. Richard Rorty, a consummate left-wing intellectual, wrote about — and lamented — this tendency in his book Achieving Our Country. The left-wingers who looked to Russian Bolshevism as a model — and the subsequent generations of intellectuals who adapted Marxist modes of thinking to identity politics and “power relations” — did a disservice to the progressive cause and to America generally, Rorty argued. Better to revive the progressive tradition of Richard Ely and others who were very much dedicated to socialism — but to a kind of socialism grounded in American soil.

I should also note, lest I lose my membership in the International Order of Woodrow Wilson Haters, that the New Dealers were, almost to a person, Wilson-administration retreads. While Wilson may have pushed an “internationalist” foreign policy to justify entrance into the First World War, it was sold domestically as unbridled, and often authoritarian, nationalism. From Liberal Fascism:

Meanwhile, socialist editors and journalists — including many from the Masses, the most audacious of the radical journals that Wilson tried to ban — rushed to get a paycheck from Wilson’s propaganda ministry. Artists such as Charles Dana Gibson, James Montgomery Flagg, and Joseph Pennell and writers like Booth Tarkington, Samuel Hopkins Adams, and Ernest Poole became cheerleaders for the war-hungry regime. Musicians, comedians, sculptors, ministers — and of course the movie industry — were all happily drafted to the cause, eager to wear the “invisible uniform of war.” Isadora Duncan, an avant-garde pioneer of what today would be called sexual liberation, became a toe tapper in patriotic pageants at the Metropolitan Opera House. The most enduring and iconic image of the time is Flagg’s “I Want You” poster of Uncle Sam pointing the shaming finger of the state-made-flesh at uncommitted citizens.

Today’s progressivism has shed almost all of this. The virus of identity politics has made anything like national pride a form of heresy in some quarters. Of course, when Democrats run the show, it creeps back a little. The same liberals who today have suddenly discovered the merits of free trade in order to oppose Donald Trump’s “economic nationalism” cheered Barack Obama’s “economic patriotism.” Obama thought it was patriotic to help solar-panel companies. Trump thinks it’s patriotic to favor coal companies. You can argue about the comparative benefits of the policies, but it’s still industrial planning and picking winners and losers.

And that gets me to my point.

Many of my friends and colleagues are eager to turn nationalism, variously defined, into a political program for the Republicans. Now, as a matter of purely political — i.e., partisan — strategy this might be a good idea. Wrapping yourself in the flag has been a profitable partisan strategy for generations. Wilson, FDR, and JFK used appeals to patriotism to great effect. Truman’s 1948 victory was a triumph of demagoguery, now largely airbrushed from memory, in which he demonized Thomas Dewey (!) as a front man for Hitlerism. Eisenhower didn’t need to use patriotism because he personified it. Ronald Reagan’s sunny “Morning in America” was a major part of his appeal. George H. W. Bush used the Pledge of Allegiance to pummel Michael Dukakis. Donald Trump’s blunt and divisive version of nationalism helped him win the presidency, and it’s what sustains his popularity with the base of the Republican party.

But something happened along the way. Patriotism lost its universality.

The reasons for this are many and complicated. One partial explanation — or result, depending on how you look at it: Appeals to patriotism work better on older, whiter Americans, nostalgic for a national unity that looms larger in gauzy memory than in fact (something that has not gone unnoticed by marketers). Trump’s fan service to “my people” only highlights and amplifies the trend.

Like appeals to divine authority, appeals to patriotism only work on people who recognize the authority of patriotism. And the more you invoke patriotism as a substitute for fact-based arguments, the more you drain the power from patriotism. The more patriotism is used to sell an explicitly partisan agenda, the more patriotism is seen as a partisan phenomenon.

But there’s also the broader philosophical problem with nationalism as a political program. If your defining concept of politics is “national unity,” it is almost impossible not to succumb to the statist temptation over time, because the national government is the only institution that claims to speak for all of the people. But by definition, there are very few things in a democracy that enjoy anything like national consensus, which means the party out of power will feel steamrolled and lied to (see: Obamacare). And from a conservative perspective, some nationalistic things — like, say, nationalizing or socializing industries (which are the same thing) — shouldn’t be done even if there is a national consensus. The same goes for patriotism. Nationalists or populists might want to round up, say, Japanese Americans and put them in internment camps, but I like to think patriots would have objections.

When nationalism-sold-as-patriotism becomes the primary rationale for any party in power, the toxic process of polarization and partisanship gets worse, and the language of patriotism gets cheapened, because everything the party in power wants to do is gussied up in red-white-and-blue bunting. When Barack Obama was in office, conservatives understood this better, or, at the very least, were freer to say what we understood without being called traitors. Here’s Kevin Williamson in 2014:

Which is to say, what the economic nationalism of Benito Mussolini most has in common with the prattling and blockheaded talk of “economic patriotism” coming out of the mealy mouths of 21st-century Democrats is the habit of subordinating everything to immediate political concerns. In this context, “patriotism” doesn’t mean doing what’s best for your country — it means doing what is best for the Obama administration and its congressional allies.

Today, everything the Trump administration wants to do is tarted up with the drag-queen lipstick of MAGA. The swamp, the fake news, the deep state, globalists, and every other familiar euphemism for “enemies of the people” are daily cast as unpatriotic because they disagree with, or dislike, the president or his policies. Even Harley Davidson is being scorned as “unpatriotic” because it is making decisions in its business interests that run against the grain of Trump’s political interests. And don’t get me wrong: Some of Trump’s critics do suffer from a lack of patriotism — but not because they criticize Trump.

I agree wholly with those who argue for the need to restore a sense of national unity and civic pride. Megan McArdle writes:

If we are to fight our way back from this soft civil war, we will need a muscular patriotism that focuses us on our commonalities instead of our differences. Of course, such a patriotism must not be either imperialist nor racialized [sic]. Which means we desperately need the flag, and the anthem, and all the other common symbols that are light on politics or military fetishism and heavy on symbolism. We need much more of them, rather than much less — constant reminders that we are groupish, and that our group consists of 328 million fellow Americans with whom we share a country and a creed, a song and a flag, and the deep sense of mutual obligation that all these things imply.

I also agree with Richard Rorty when he writes that “national pride is to countries what self-respect is to individuals, a necessary condition for self-improvement.”

Michael Brendan Dougherty is entirely right that the social treasury is being depleted, and, as a result, people are racing to things such as socialism and nationalism (and partisan politics generally) in the hopes that they can find connectedness and solidarity that they can’t find in faith, family, and friends. I believe that patriotism is one of the better antidotes for this crisis. But the hitch is that you cannot restore patriotism from above, particularly at time when negative polarization defines our national politics. It must be restored from below, and that requires replenishing the social treasury, which can’t be done from above, either.

Various & Sundry

Canine Update: Before we get to the usual fare, I want to address a disturbing new study. Researchers studied the genes of a wide variety of dogs and found that none of them have more than 4 percent of the genes associated with the dogs that lived in America prior to European contact with North America. Well, almost none of them. One individual Carolina Dog did have 30 percent of “pre-contact” genes, but apparently that was an inexplicable anomaly. Meanwhile, typical Carolina dogs and Chihuahuas do not exceed the 4 percent mark:

However, as with earlier work, Ní Leathlobhair et al. find almost no genetic traces of precontact dog ancestry in modern dogs, whether purebred or American village dog. Modern Arctic dogs are not descended from precontact dogs, but instead are part of a sister clade brought into the Americas within the last 1000 years (see the figure). None of the village dogs, Carolina dogs, or Chihuahuas could be confidently shown to have precontact dog ancestry of more than 2 to 4%.

Now, I don’t want to go all Kenniwick man here, but this is an outrageous assault on the American Dingo, contradicting earlier studies that found genetic evidence to support their claim to ancient dingoness. For now, I will hold off telling Zoë any of this.

In the meantime, reports from home are that the doggers are doing well, despite the horrible heat, though, as often happens these days, the unpleasant weather encourages trolling and creeking. This is encouraging because the dogs were very happy until they realized that we weren’t taking them on this trip. There are few things sadder than a pouting spaniel.

The good news for them is that the Goldbergs have a fun adventure in store for them in August. We’ll be renting a small RV and heading West with the beasts.

ICYMI . . .

Last week’s G-File

On the Anthony Kennedy retirement conspiracies

Dan Rather’s LeBron conspiracy

Yet another “Never Trumpers” screed

Trump must stick to his list for the SCOTUS pick

My Reason.TV interview on Suicide of the West

The latest Remnant

What is patriotism?

And now, the weird stuff.

Debby’s Independence Day Links

Inside the temple from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

Dogs delicately eating watermelon

Spiders use electricity to fly

A history of protestors climbing monuments

Now this bear knows how to do summer

A taxi service that accepts singing instead of money

Real life chestbursters

Psychic octopus fails to predict its own murder

The mutant wolves of Chernobyl

Get high on Trump

Hero kangaroo ends soccer game

Scientists design the perfect human body. It’s creepy

Pool noodle fights are about to get epic

The return of the floppy disk

Armadillos are perverts

RIP one of the best boys

Why the Fermi Paradox doesn’t matter
That Ben Sasse has quite the view


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