Defining Nationalism

COMMENTARY Conservatism

Defining Nationalism

Mar 30, 2023 8 min read
Gillian Richards

Research Associate, Simon Center for American Studies

Gillian is a Research Associate in The Heritage Foundation’s B. Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies.
A statue of Andrew Jackson stands in Lafayette Square near the White House on Wednesday evening, April 17, 2019 in Washington, D.C. Drew Angerer / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

What some refer to as “nationalism” may be mostly a robust defense of national loyalty.

Is it mostly about policies, a principled defense of the national good, or a populist revolt against elites?

The virtue of national loyalty can slip into excess (a toxic nationalism) or deficiency (apathy toward or hatred of one’s home).

Current debates over nationalism seem to generate more heat than light. Critics claim it amounts to creeping fascism. Champions claim it’s the way out of conservative malaise and failure. Figuring out who’s right is hard to assess, though, since disputants use the word to refer to so many different things.

We might expect this equivocation from critics on the left. But even those who endorse some form of “nationalism” don’t seem to agree on what it means.

Some, for instance, define it as a popular or democratic resistance to a global empire. Others equate nationalism with certain policies, such as those thought to boost working-class jobs. Some understand it as a broader disposition to promote the national good.

It’s fair to ask: If “nationalism” means so many different things to different people, what extra work does the word do, beyond sowing confusion?

Indeed, what some refer to as “nationalism” may be mostly a robust defense of national loyalty. If so, then talking about that might help reverse the ratio of heat to light in the current debate.

Three Nationalists—Four Definitions

Each of the above views figured into a recent panel at the Catholic University of America. It addressed a simple question, “Are nationalism and Catholicism compatible?” The answers were far less simple.

Dr. Bradley Lewis from Catholic University’s School of Philosophy pointed out that what we often refer to as “nationalism” is simply a desire for democratic accountability. And this only exists at the level of nation-states, not in transnational entities like the United Nations.

First Things editor Rusty Reno defined it a bit more narrowly. He called nationalism a “priority-setting word” that signals a regrouping of national identity. Many feel the pendulum has swung too far toward global empire, he argued, so they turn to nationalism to “reconsolidate” power.

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The related National Conservative coalition, in which Reno has figured prominently, likewise emphasizes the need to reclaim national sovereignty against an encroaching global regime. The NatCons’ homepage defines nationalism as “a commitment to a world of independent nations,” and their 10 broad principles include the rule of law, national independence, and free enterprise. At this level, NatCons sound like standard conservatives. But they also set forth more specific policy goals, such as provisions to boost domestic manufacturing and realign education to serve the national interest.

At the Catholic University panel, however, Jennifer Frey, a philosophy professor at the University of South Carolina, argued the National Conservative movement doesn’t offer meaningful solutions for working-class Americans. Frey saw nationalism as inextricably linked to “Trumpism.” As a result, nationalism is not likely to repair civic bonds when its advocates often reject civility outright.

Reno disagreed. Yes, Trump plays a role here. But Reno insisted that Trump prompted a shift in elite attitudes toward the middle class. Trump’s focus on the “forgotten man” of middle America went beyond his time in office and signaled to Democrats, including the Biden administration, to pick up the slack.

Reno offered as an example Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act, a multi-billion-dollar spending package that will purportedly help the middle class. The Biden administration is right in spending $700 billion-plus to “make American jobs” and “force manufacturing back into the US,” he said. “That’s nationalism, folks.”

Though Reno helped draft the statement of principles, it’s not clear whether this policy opinion would be endorsed by the NatCon movement at large. It is a diverse coalition. As a result, National Conservatism, like its near synonym “nationalism,” is hard to define. It takes on different shapes and colors depending on whom you ask.

Accordingly, the fourth panelist, Michael Dougherty of National Review rightly noted the protean character of nationalism. “The reality is that it’s not one thing,” he said.

A Protean Character

So, the question remains: Is nationalism a set of policy rhetoric and priorities, a disposition, a sense of national loyalty and identity, democratic accountability, resistance to global empire, Trumpism, a bipartisan priority, or a combination of these elements? Or, to reduce this blooming buzzing confusion to three options, is it mostly about policies, a principled defense of the national good, or a populist revolt against elites?

The chameleon-like feature of “nationalism” has long been a problem. The writer Mark Helprin described the word as parametric: a constant parameter applied to variables. Nationalism takes on new shapes depending on the context in which it is applied. The word has different functions in different historical contexts. But the ambiguity persists even within a single historical context and within similar religious circles. So it’s fair to ask how fruitful these debates will be if the disputants fail to settle on a common definition.

And, again, if it means so many different things to different people, what use is the word? For instance, if nationalism just means supporting policies that help, or at least claim to help, boost manufacturing jobs in the US, why do we need the word? Why not just talk about industrial policy? If it’s about reasserting the national interest and embracing national identity, why not call for patriotism?

Indeed, the word seems to hide a deeper ambiguity. Arguments over nationalism often seem to act as proxies for other questions: What is the nation? What is its purpose? Is the national interest something worth pursuing?

Perhaps getting clarity on the answers to those questions might help bring the current debate over nationalism into clearer focus and create common ground between some self-identified nationalists and traditional conservatives.

Humane National Loyalty

French political thinker Pierre Manent and the late Pope St. John Paul II offer visions of humane national loyalty. In his 2006 essay “What Is a Nation?”, Manent argues that, of all available political regimes, the nation-state best integrates communion and consent. The nation, as we now understand it, was a unique development of Christian Europe, the Church having emerged as a “third party” to the ancient conflict between city and empire.

Though not strictly political, the Church reordered the way people viewed human association in antiquity. Manent writes that Christianity’s animating principle, charity, allowed the Church to go “deeper than the city and further than the empire.” But the Church also limited the state’s dominion over souls, while also broadening the outlook of people beyond their village or city. In this way, the nation reflected a broader Christian charity and communion, which had a salutary influence on citizenship and loyalty to the nation.

John Paul similarly describes the development of nations from Christian Europe. In his book Memory and Identityhe describes the nation as a community, based in a territory and distinguished from other nations by its culture. Christianity shaped the European character and contributed to the growth of native and national cultures.

For John Paul, the nation is linked with ideas of native land and patrimony—“the totality of goods bequeathed to us by our forefathers.” A nation’s patrimony was originally conceived merely in terms of the natural generation through family and tribe.

The Church added a spiritual dimension to the idea of patrimony. “The Church herself, in carrying out her task of evangelization, absorbed and transformed the older cultural patrimony,” writes John Paul. Christ’s inheritance orients the patrimony of native lands to an eternal homeland.

Yet this new dimension of patrimony doesn’t diminish its temporal content. Underpinning the idea of nations is a deep bond between the spiritual and the material, the culture and territory. National identity is tied up with territory, but also with language, history, religion, and cultural traditions. Patriotism, for John Paul, is “a love for everything to do with our native land: its history, its traditions, its language, its features.”

John Paul and Manent both acknowledge that the virtue of national loyalty can take on a toxic form. John Paul refers to the distortion of national loyalty as nationalism: an excessive love of one’s country at the expense of others. “Of this, the twentieth century has supplied some all-too-eloquent examples, with disastrous consequences,” he writes.

Manent points out that the spiritual communion of the nation, properly conceived, has “little to do with the toxic nationalisms and exclusive valorization of one’s people” as seen in totalitarian regimes.

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Aristotle understood moral virtue as a means between opposing vices of excess and deficiency. The virtue of national loyalty can similarly slip into excess (a toxic nationalism) or deficiency (apathy toward or hatred of one’s home, or “oikophobia” as the late Sir Roger Scruton called it).

Any remedy for these distortions need not sacrifice true national loyalty—the proper appreciation of one’s heritage and home. It is precisely the nation, out of all political options, that best meets the spiritual and temporal needs necessary for human flourishing.

Measuring Perspectives

Both Manent and John Paul II use “nationalism” as a pejorative. As Jennifer Frey noted in the panel, recent nationalist movements have largely rejected civility and law and order outright. Such forms of nationalism, which often place national interest as the highest good, are incompatible with any notion of humane national loyalty, which assumes a properly ordered love of nation, love of God, and love of fellow man.

But, as we’ve seen, this is not the only definition of “nationalism” on offer.

What some refer to as “nationalism” is simply a desire for national sovereignty and democratic accountability. Likewise, the NatCons’ defining feature, abstracting from the details, might be a desire to defend and restore national identity against those who seek to dissolve it.

Notions of national sovereignty and resistance to global empire needn’t be at odds with humane national loyalty in principle. Moreover, if a proper understanding of the “national interest” includes human flourishing, then pursuing the national interest could be compatible with—and even an expression of—humane national loyalty as well. 

Industrial policy is another matter and represents a departure from postwar American conservatism. Still, if NatCons’ priority is the national interest rather than specific policy, then perhaps the best way for conservative skeptics of, say, industrial policy, to engage NatCons is not to denounce them. It’s to offer evidence that such a policy is not—despite good intentions—in our national interest.

In sum: if “nationalism” refers principally to loyalty to one’s nation, then surely it’s worth defending. But, then, why call it nationalism? If what we’re talking about is retaining a love for one’s country and homeland, what extra work is that term doing?

Perhaps the answer will turn out to be that it has forced a debate over the virtue of national loyalty. In any case, if we want to defend the good of our nation, then we should try to use our terms carefully. 

This piece originally appeared in Law & Liberty

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