The Problem of Nationalism

COMMENTARY Conservatism

The Problem of Nationalism

Dec 13th, 2019 13 min read
COMMENTARY BY
Kim R. Holmes, Ph.D.

Executive Vice President

Kim R. Holmes is the Executive Vice President at The Heritage Foundation.
The conservative movement today faces huge threats to our most basic principles. Drew Angerer / Staff / Getty Images

At first glance, the new nationalism of conservatives will seem benign and even uncontroversial. In his book, “The Case for Nationalism,” Rich Lowry defines nationalism as flowing from a people’s "natural devotion to their home and to their country." Yoram Hazony, in his book “The Virtue of Nationalism,” also has a rather anodyne definition of nationalism. It means "that the world is governed best when nations agree to cultivate their own traditions, free from interference by other nations."

There is nothing particularly controversial at all about these statements. Defined in these terms, it sounds like little more than simply defending nationality or national sovereignty, which is why Lowry, Hazony, and others insist their definition of nationalism has nothing to do with the most virulent forms involving ethnicity, race, militarism, or fascism. 

Here's the problem. I suppose any of us can take any tradition that has a definite history and simply redefine it to our liking. We could then give ourselves permission to castigate anyone who doesn't agree with us as "misunderstanding" or even libeling us.

But who actually is responsible for the misunderstanding here? The people who are trying to redefine the term, or the people who remind us of nationalism's real history and what nationalism actually has been in history? Which raises an even bigger question: Why go down this road at all?

If you have to spend half of your time explaining, "Oh, I don't mean that kind of nationalism," why would you want to associate a venerable tradition of American civic patriotism, national pride, and American exceptionalism at all with the various nationalisms that have occurred in the world? After all, American conservatives have argued that one of the great things about America was that it was different from all other countries. Different from all other nationalisms. 

Here's my point. Nationalism is not the same thing as national identity. It's not the same thing as respect for national sovereignty. It's not even the same thing as national pride. It's something historically and philosophically different, and those differences are not merely semantic, technical or the preoccupations of academic historians. In fact, they go to the very essence of what it means to be an American.

I think I understand why some people will be attracted to the concept of nationalism. President Trump used the term nationalism. National conservatives think that President Trump has tapped into a new populism for conservatism, and they want to take advantage of it. They think that traditional fusionist conservatism and the American exceptionalism idea are not strong enough. These ideas are not muscular enough. They want something stronger to stand up to the universal claims of globalism and progressivism that they believe are anti-American. They also want something stronger to push back on open borders and limitless immigration.

I understand that. I understand very well the desire to have a muscular reaction to the overreach of international governance and globalism, and I have no trouble at all arguing that an international system based on nation-states and national sovereignty is vastly superior, especially for the United States, to one that is run by a global governing body that is democratically remote from the people.

So what's the problem then? Why can't we just all agree that nationalism defined in this way is what we American conservatives have been and believed all along—that it's just a new, more fashionable bottle for a very old wine? Well, because the new bottle changes the way that the wine will be viewed. Why do we need a new bottle at all? It would be like putting a perfectly good California cabernet in a bottle labeled from Germany or France or Russia or China. 

The problem lies in that little suffix, “ism.” It indicates that the word nationalism means a general practice, system, philosophy or ideology that is true for all. There is a tradition of nationalism out there that we Americans are part of. All countries have “nationalisms.” All nations and all peoples are all distinguished by what makes them different. Their common heritage as nationalists is actually their difference. Their different languages, their different ethnicities, their different cultures.

At the same time, all nations supposedly share the same sovereignty and rights of the nation-state, regardless of their form of government. A sovereign democratic nation-state is, in this respect, no different than a sovereign authoritarian nation-state. Regardless of the different kinds of government, it's the commonality of the nation-state that matters. Therefore, the sovereignty of Iran or North Korea is, by this way of thinking, morally and legally no different than the sovereignty of the United States or any other democratic nation.

I firmly believe that not all nation-states are the same. There have been times in history when nations have been associated with racism, ethnic supremacy, militarism, communism, and fascism. Does that mean that all nation-states are that way? Of course not, but there is a huge difference between the historical phenomena of nationalism and respect for the sovereignty of a democratic nation-state. Nationalism celebrates cultural and even ethnic differences of a people, regardless of the form of government. The democratic nation-state, on the other hand, grounds its legitimacy and its sovereignty in democratic governance.

The biggest problem causing this misunderstanding is not recognizing the actual history of nationalism. It is, as I mentioned before, to confuse national identity, national consciousness, and national sovereignty with Nationalism with a capital N.

Nationalism as we historically know it arose not in America but in Europe. Our independence movement was a revolt of the people over the type of government that we had under the British. The founders at first thought of themselves as Englishmen, who were being denied their rights by Parliament and by the crown. Yes, Americans certainly had an identity, but it was not based on ethnicity, language, or even religion alone. It had already developed a very distinct understanding of self-government, and that was the key to the Revolution.

By this time, Americans already had a fairly strong sense of identity, but that identity was not nationalism. Why is that? Because nationalism had not been invented yet. It didn't exist at the time of the American Revolution. 

Modern nationalism began in France, in the French Revolution. The revolution was a call to arms of the French people. The French nation was born in the French Revolution. The terror and Napoleonic imperialism were the highest expression of this new-born French nationalism. 

Napoleon's nationalist imperialism, in turn, sparked the rise of counter-reactionary nationalism in Germany, and all over Europe. Germans, Russians, Austrians, and other nations discovered their own national consciousness and the importance of their own cultures in their hatred of the French invaders.

After that, nationalism raged across the 19th and 20th centuries as a celebration of nations based on the common national culture and a common language and a common historical experience. Nationalism was, in this sense, particularistic. It was populistic. It was exclusive. It was zero- sum. It celebrated differences, not the common humanity of Christianity as it had been known in the Holy Roman Empire or the Catholic Church or even in the Enlightenment.

The key to nationalism was the nation-state. Technically, it wasn't the people themselves who were free or sovereign as the people, but the people represented by and in the name of the nation-state. In other words, their governments. Sovereignty ultimately resided in the state, not the people. The state was above the people, not of, by, and for the people as in the American experience. To this day, this idea lives in the British monarchy, for example, where the Queen is the ultimate sovereign, not the people or the Parliament.

It is unfortunately a common historical error to equate nationalism with the historical rise of the nation-state in Europe and the international state system that arose after the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. The Westphalian Peace did recognize the sovereignty of princes, over and against the universal claims of the Holy Roman Empire and the Church, and it's true that the Protestant Reformation did solidify the sovereignty of the princes and the principalities as forerunners to the nation-state.

But these were princes. They were monarchies. They were dynasties. It wasn't until much later that the modern nation-state and especially the popular sentiments of nationalism arose in history. Whatever this state system was, it is not nationalism. Nationalism is an historic phenomena that did not emerge for another 150 years after 1648. Claiming otherwise is just bad history, pure and simple.

That brings me to the idea of American exceptionalism, which is, I believe, the answer to the question of America's national identity and what it should be. 

It's a beautiful concept that captures both the reality and the ambiguity of the American experience. It's based on a universal creed. It is grounded in America's founding principles: natural law, liberty, limited government, individual rights, the checks and balances of government, popular sovereignty not the sovereignty of the folkish nation-state, the civilizing role of religion in civil society and not an established religion associated with one class or one creed, and the crucial role of civil society and civil institutions in grounding and mediating our democracy and our freedom.. 

We as Americans believe these principles are right and true for all peoples and not just for us. That was the way that Washington and Jefferson understood them, and it was certainly the way that Lincoln understood them. That's what makes them universal. In other words, the American creed grounds us in universal principles.

But what, you may ask, makes us so exceptional then? If it's universal, what makes us exceptional? It is, in fact, the creed. 

We believe that Americans are different because our creed is both universal and exceptional at the same time. We are exceptional in the unique way we apply our universal principles. It doesn't necessarily mean that we are better than other peoples, though I think probably most Americans do believe that they are. It's not really about bragging rights. Rather, it's a statement of historical fact that there is something truly different and unique about the United States, which becomes lost when talking in terms of nationalism.

A nationalist cannot say this, because there is nothing universal about nationalism except that all nationalisms are, well, different and particularistic. Nationalism is devoid of a common idea or principle of government except that a people or a nation-state can be almost anything. It can be fascist, it can be authoritarian, it can be totalitarian, or it can be democratic.

Some of the new nationalists doubt explicitly the importance of the American creed. They argue that the creed is not as important as we thought it was to our national identity.  Let's just think about that for a minute. 

What does it mean to say that the creed really isn't all that important? If the creed doesn't matter, what is so special about America? 

Is it our language? Well, no. We share that with Britain, and now much of the world.

Is it our ethnicity? Well, that doesn't work either because there's no such thing as a common American ethnicity. 

Is it a specific religion? We are indeed a religious country, but no, we have freedom of religion, not one specific religion. 

Is it our beautiful rivers and mountains?  No. We've got some beautiful rivers and mountains, but so do other countries. 

Is it our culture? Yes, I suppose so, but how do you understand American culture without the American creed and the founding principles?

Lincoln called America the world's “last best hope,” because it was a place where all people can and should be free. Before Lincoln, Jefferson called it an empire of liberty. 

Immigrants came here and became true Americans by living the American creed and the American dream. You can become a French citizen, but for most Frenchmen, if you are foreign, that is not the same thing as being French. It's different here. You can be a real American by adopting our creed and our way of life.

After World War II, the American way and our devotion to democracy became a beacon of freedom for the whole world. That was the foundation of our claim to world leadership in the Cold War, and it is no different today. If we become a nation just like any other nation, then frankly I would not expect any other nation to grant us any special trust or support.

Another benefit of American exceptionalism is that it is self-correcting. When we fail to live up to our ideals as we did with slavery before the Civil War, we can appeal as Lincoln did to our “better nature” to correct our flaws. That is where the central importance of the creed comes in. Applying the principles of the Declaration of Independence correctly has allowed us to redeem ourselves and our history when we have gone astray. 

There is no American identity without the American creed. However, the nationalists are correct about one thing, in suggesting that the American identity is more than just about a set of ideas. These ideas are lived in our culture—that is true. It is also true, as Lincoln said about his famous “mystic chords of memory,” that our common experience and our common history form a unique story. It is a story that embodies the very real lives and relationships of people and a shared cultural experience in a shared space and time in history that we call the United States.

The sharing of experience in space and time—in and of itself—is not unlike what any other nation experiences. At the most basic level, yes, I would say that all nations are in that respect alike. But what made it different for Lincoln was that he believed and he hoped that the “better angels of our nature,” that was grounded in the American creed, would touch the mystic chords of memory that make up that story—and it was that “touch” that set us apart from other nations.

Let me end by making two points. 

One, the degree to which national conservatism sounds plausible rests on a profound historical misunderstanding. Statements in and of themselves that sound true and even attractive have to be suspended in a state of historical amnesia to make sense. 

When Hazony says, "National cohesion is the secret ingredient that allows free institutions to exist," it makes an almost obvious banal point, as least for the countries that are already free. The problem begins when he associates this with the general tradition of the virtues of nationalism as a concept. Then it gets really messy. 

Is national cohesion the secret ingredient to free institutions to nationalists in Russia? In China? Or in Iran? Hardly. In fact, nationalism in these countries is the bitter enemy of free institutions. If the answer is, "Well, I don't mean that kind of nationalism," then the question gets really begged: Why make broad general statements about nationalism at all if the exceptions loom so large? If in fact the exceptions end up being the rule?

My second point is this. If this were just an academic debate over the idea of nationalism, then I suppose it really wouldn't be all that important. You could let the intellectuals split their hairs and historians make their points about the history of nationalism, and you could go and see whether or not the concept of nationalism really helps us politically—whether it's true or not.

I fear the problem is bigger than that for conservatives. The conservative movement today faces huge threats to our most basic principles. From the left, we face progressives who have always said that our creed and our claims to American exceptionalism were a fraud. They have always argued that we were a nation like any other. In fact, the more radical of them argue that we are actually worse than other nations precisely because our founding principles were supposedly based on lies.

Now, we face a new challenge on the sanctity of the American creed from a different direction. This time, from the right. It comes first from blurring the distinctions between nationalism as actually practiced and the uniqueness of American exceptionalism. Then it goes on to raise the specter of the nation-state as being an idea—if not the central idea—to American conservatism. That’s no different than what a continental European conservative probably would say about their traditions. 

Frankly, I don't get this at all. American conservatives are skeptical of the government. They're skeptical of the nation-state. That's what makes us conservatives. So why elevate the concept of the nation-state that is so foreign to the American conservative tradition?

I fear the answer may have to do with the deeper philosophical transformation that is going on inside some conservative political circles. It is now becoming fashionable for some conservatives to criticize capitalism and the free market. Some are even arguing that there are now no limiting principles to what the state and the government can or should do in the name of their political agenda. 

This used to be called “big government” conservatism. It was seen then as a liberal proposition, and it still is, in my view. It shares a troubling principle with modern progressivism. Deep down, having the government rather than the people make important decisions about their lives is, in principle, no different than a progressive arguing for the need for government to end poverty and eliminate inequality.

Apparently the idea is that, with conservatives in charge of government, this time it will be different. This time we will make sure that the government that we control will drive investments in the right direction, and we will make the right decisions on what the trade-offs are. 

Does this sound familiar? Don't defenders of big government always argue that this time it will be different? 

Put aside for a moment whether we conservatives would ever control such a government to sufficiently do the things that we want it to do. Do we want to empower a government even more in industrial and other kinds of economic and social policy that will surely use that very increased power to destroy the things that we love and believe about this country?

The best way, in my opinion, to protect America's greatness, its special claims, its identity if you will, is to believe in what made us great in the first place. It wasn't our language. It wasn't our race. It wasn't our ethnicity. It wasn't our industrial policy. It wasn't the power of government to decide what the trade-offs are. It wasn't in a government that decides what kind of work is dignified or what kind of work is not. And it certainly wasn't a belief in the nation-state or the greatness of nationalism.

It was our creed and the belief system that was personified and lived in a culture, our institutions of civil societies and our democratic way of government that made America the greatest nation in the history of all nations. In a word, it was our belief in ourselves as a good and free people. That's what made American exceptional. That's what made us a free country. And it continues to do so today.

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