Appealing to nationalism a politically necessary strategy
November 10, 2019
If there’s one thing that elite opinion tends to agree about on the left and the right, it’s that nationalism is a very bad thing. If anything, this view has become even more entrenched as nationalism has demonstrated its potency in recent years, from the election of Donald Trump to Britain’s vote to leave the European Union.
When President Trump first openly embraced the term “nationalist” at a 2018 campaign rally, commentators reacted in horror. Patriotism is about love, nationalism about hate, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof opined. Trump, insisted Jennifer Rubin of The Washington Post, is “normalizing a hateful political philosophy that is contrary to our deepest-held beliefs.”
As I write in my new book, “The Case for Nationalism,” this reflexive hostility to the concept is ill-informed and an attempt to deem nationalism a swearword and end all discussion on that basis.
At its most basic, the scholar Azar Gat writes, nationalism is “the doctrine and ideology that a people is bound together in solidarity, fate, and common political aspirations.”
Historian Anthony Smith described the national ideal as “a belief that all those who shared a common history and culture should be autonomous, united and distinct in their recognized homelands.”
A key contention of nationalism is that a nation has its rights and claims. This is a thread that runs through the Declaration of Independence, the Gettysburg Address and the Atlantic Charter. A nation has the right to break off from larger sovereignties in the cause of self-determination (see, for instance, 1776), and to remake its regime or foundational governing rules (see, for instance, 1789).
So if a nation’s rights and interests are being trampled, loyalty to the nation, i.e., nationalism, may require treason against the government, the object of patriotic loyalty. As Michael Lind explains, “Governments should serve nations, not nations governments.”
When Europe went off the rails in the early 20th century, nationalism as such didn’t cause its crash so much as social Darwinism, militarism and the cult of charismatic leadership. The aftermath of World War I added its own poison.
Regardless, American nationalism — which encompasses such diverse, rightly beloved figures as Alexander Hamilton, Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt — is not to be feared. As with so many other things about this country, it is more benign than the versions to be found in Europe and other places around the world.
This is true for a number of reasons. First, we are the inheritors of an Anglo-American tradition that has profound respect for the individual and the rule of law and is a fundamental part of our national identity.
The sheet anchor of American sovereignty, the U.S. Constitution, makes it clear that authority ultimately resides with “we the people of the United States.” The Constitution also happens to be a durable mechanism of self-government and itself an object of patriotic loyalty and national pride.
Finally, the United States was never infected with the dream of universal empire that Europe inherited from Rome and that has lingered on in differing forms from Charlemagne to the European Union.
The rise of Donald Trump has pushed the left further away from respect for nationalistic attitudes and even patriotic symbols. Democrats — and the country — would be much better served if they countered Trump’s nationalism with a version of their own.
On his own side of the aisle, Trump has made Republicans more nationalistic. Still, much of the party is quietly uncomfortable with this. If Trump loses in 2020, the party’s establishment may try to snap back to its pre-Trump disposition of relative indifference to nationalism.
Yet, if there’s one clear political lesson from the long history of nationalism in this country and elsewhere, it is that a party interested in moving people and selling a program should make some sort of an appeal to it — even if conventional wisdom insists it is foolish and wrong.
Rich Lowry can be reached at: