Against the New Nationalism

Individual autonomy is not the cause of our problems and state autonomy is not the solution


"Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism," George Orwell wrote in 1945. "Both words are normally used in so vague a way that any definition is liable to be challenged, but one must draw a distinction between them, since two different and even opposing ideas are involved."

In The Case for Nationalism (Broadside Books), Rich Lowry has decided, rather boldly, to go up against Orwell and stake out the inverse position: To be a nationalist, he says, is merely to feel a glow of pride in one's country, to recognize it as possessing a particular cultural character that differentiates its citizens from all others, and to insist on its sovereignty in the face of crusading outside forces. Nationalism and patriotism, in other words, are essentially interchangeable.

The exemplar for Lowry is thus Joan of Arc, the legendary French teenager who, in the 15th century, helped drive the British army from her country before being captured and burned at the stake. "Joan both expressed the national identity of France—a chosen people ruled by 'the most Christian' king and inhabiting their own distinct land—and came to represent it," the National Review editor writes in his new book.

The United States is not, of course, at risk of invasion by England or any other country on Earth. But in Lowry's view, our national unity is under attack from both without and within. The rise of "neo-imperial" governing institutions such as the United Nations and the International Criminal Court threatens to usurp Americans' right to self-determination. Meanwhile, a bevy of leftist scholars—the late Howard Zinn figures prominently—employ revisionist history and identity politics to seed discord and disdain among the people.

Lowry's post atop the National Review masthead, and his pedigree as the hand-picked inheritor of William F. Buckley Jr.'s job, have long made him an avatar of respectable, mainstream conservatism. So his choice of Joan—a literal saint in the eyes of much of the world—is no accident. It's strategic, meant to reinforce the notion that his is a righteous nationalism, in contrast with the more noxious forms so often seen in history. Indeed, Lowry is one of a handful of influential conservatives who have begun working to rehabilitate the nationalist brand by arguing that it need not, after all, be associated with racism, fascism, or military conquest.

"There is such a thing as a benign—even a salutary—nationalism," explained Gabriel Schoenfeld in the September/October 2019 issue of The American Interest. "A nationalist politics that seeks to shore up [our fraying common] identity would not be illiberal in any meaningful sense of the word," averred W. James Antle III in the January/February 2019 issue of The American Conservative. "I am persuaded that there are perverse forms of nationalism," declared F.H. Buckley in the Fall 2019 issue of Modern Age, "but as an American nationalist I needn't take any interest in them."

Clearly, these thinkers seek to polish nationalism's image, rubbing away the negative connotations that have tarnished it over time to reveal the valuable material underneath. ("The allergy to nationalism and the belief that it should be dismissed and resisted are based on widespread misperceptions," Lowry writes. "It isn't based on hatred, instead on love: our affection for home and our own people.") Yet it's worth asking whether a revived nationalism can, in actual practice, resist corrosion.

There is little in history to instill optimism on that count and nothing to suggest that those who would take hold of a newly burnished nationalist ideology plan to use it for liberal purposes. Whether or not they intend as much, Lowry et al. are empowering a dangerous anti-individualism. National sentiment may be necessary and good, but nationalist policy is coercive by definition—a rejection of the very cultural values that make America worth loving in the first place.

Not a Beneficent Force

Conflict and repression predate the emergence of the modern nation-state, Lowry points out early in his book. Just look at the Mongols!

This is obviously true—but on its own, it does not come close to proving that nationalism "is not inherently militaristic, undemocratic, or racist," as he claims, let alone that "nationalism has done more to promote peace than war."

Lowry's own historical survey undermines the case he wants to make. In France, he concedes, nationalism gave way to an orgy of violence in the French Revolution and then the Napoleonic Wars. Previously, Oliver Cromwell's England had "descended into military dictatorship," resulting in that country's "early forays into overseas empire." In the 20th century, Italian nationalism gave rise to the Fascists while German nationalism led to two world wars and the Holocaust.

Lowry acknowledges that "an extreme or authoritarian nationalism (usually the same thing), as well as a nationalism of unquenchable grievance (also often associated with authoritarianism), is dangerous." Still, he thinks a world of proud and independent nation-states is better than what came before. "Tribalism tends to be red in tooth and claw," he writes.

He doesn't appear to consider that nationalism is a species of tribalism, which is why it so often itself turns bloody.

This is in keeping with the habit of today's nationalists to define away one of the most widespread fears inspired by the word. By insisting that authentic nationalism respects the right of other peoples to rule themselves, they're able to tidily conclude, as Lowry does, that the "constant source of war throughout history isn't nationalism but its opposite: the quest for dominion." If nationalism does go wrong, it must be because it was "tainted with malign influences."

A simpler explanation is that nationalism is unstable: It easily decays into something hazardous, marked by military aggression abroad, an obsession with purity at home, or—as with the Third Reich—a toxic combination of the two. Even if such a transmutation doesn't happen in 100 percent of cases, the history as Lowry himself presents it should hardly assure readers that a nationalist revival would be a beneficent force in the world.

Imposing Unity on the Country

In fairness to America's new conservative nationalism, there's every reason to assume its proponents are mercantilists, not Nazis. Nonetheless, in both general outlook and specific policy prescriptions, it is decidedly not a simple synonym for patriotic pride.

The new nationalism is implicitly illiberal. It doesn't stop at resisting the push, regrettably fashionable on many college campuses, to divide society into mutually antagonistic identity subgroups or to rewrite history to cast the United States as an unredeemable villain in every tale. Instead, it spills over into efforts to preserve our cultural homogeneity (such as it exists) from the diluting influence of foreigners. And it doesn't stop at opposing what The American Conservative's Antle calls "sovereignty-shredding supranational organizations" (the European Union, for instance) but spills over into an anti-cosmopolitanism that seeks to throw up barriers to free markets and free trade.

This predilection was on display at last summer's National Conservatism Conference, an event at which Beltway journalists, professors from prestigious educational institutions, and at least one U.S. senator gathered at the Ritz-Carlton in Washington, D.C., to discuss how coastal elitism is ruining America. The lineup featured a parade of right-of-center intellectuals explaining what, practically speaking, nationalism means to them: higher tariffs ("economic nationalists must be willing to pay higher prices to protect our fellow citizens," said Christian activist David Brog), larger expenditures to support the American industrial sector ("we should have a National Institutes of Manufacturing just as we have a National Institutes of Health," said former Mitt Romney adviser Oren Cass), stricter immigration laws ("it doesn't make a darn bit of difference what the economic arguments are if our cohesion is shot," said Israeli political philosopher Yoram Hazony), and more aggressive efforts to legislate morality ("we should care about a whole host of public goods and actually be willing to use politics and political power to accomplish those goods," said Hillbilly Elegy author J.D. Vance).

There can be no doubting that the nationalist project—not just in my telling but in the minds of the people undertaking it—involves a coercive imposition of national unity on the country. Consider the difference between encouraging people to "buy American" out of a sense of solidarity and enacting protectionist policies that raise prices for everyone, whether they like it or not.

In fact, many of the new nationalists are explicit that libertarian economics, and the classical liberal order more broadly, are diametric to their desires. Writer Daniel McCarthy, in a widely circulated March 2019 essay for First Things, warned that America is headed for "suicide by liberalism," with a nationalist program "the most effective and honorable way out of the dilemma we face." Fox News host Tucker Carlson has repeatedly blamed "libertarian ideologues" for the GOP's unwillingness to embrace a program of "economic patriotism" resembling the one put forward by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D–Mass.). And Hazony used the National Conservatism Conference to "declare our independence…from neoliberalism, from libertarianism, from what they call classical liberalism. From the set of ideas that sees the atomic individual, the free and equal individual, as the only thing" that matters.

The list could go on. Too often these days, a nationalist is a person who thinks individual autonomy is the cause of all our problems and state autonomy is the solution. True, Lowry probably doesn't see himself in those terms—but as the story goes, the Soviets had a name for people who credulously dealt in an ideology without grasping the enormity of its goals: useful idiots.

Nationalism in Practice Isn't Pretty

One might object that these are all just theoretical proposals. Fortunately for those of us hoping to discern what this type of alternative might look like in the wild, there's a self-identifying nationalist in the White House we can look to.

"They have a word…it's called a nationalist," President Donald Trump said at a rally shortly before the 2018 midterm elections. "We're not supposed to use that word. I'm a nationalist, OK? Nationalist. Use that word."

Lowry understandably wishes to distance his proposal from Trump's more egregious behavior, writing that "there isn't anything inherently nationalistic about wild presidential tweets, extreme boastfulness, excoriating attacks on the media, the browbeating of allies or even protectionism or populism." Setting aside the assertion that boastfulness and protectionism can be exorcised from his project, it's silly to demand that critics ignore the most powerful person to embrace the label in its newly reincarnated form.

The list of things Trump has done with his power, like the list of things the new conservative nationalists would like to see done, is highly illiberal. On the immigration front, it includes attempts to ban people from Muslim-majority countries and to indefinitely separate children from their parents at the border. In the realm of economics, it includes the ongoing trade war alongside efforts to dictate private business decisions by dangling subsidies and threatening punitive taxes. And it's all but certain the president would go much further if he were not regularly thwarted by Congress, the courts, dissenters within the various executive agencies, and his own staff.

Lowry's position depends on a belief that "benign" nationalism can be kept from sliding into authoritarianism. But his description of what it looks like when things start to go wrong should set off at least an early warning bell for those who are paying attention.

Historically, he writes, the fascists "sought to substitute loyalty to the party and its leader to the squabbling of democratic politics" and "celebrated violence and the triumph of the will." We need not make Trump into Hitler to see worrying parallels in the man who pre-emptively declared the results of the 2016 election invalid if he didn't win; who has offered to pay the legal bills of supporters who "knock the crap out of" anti-Trump protesters at his rallies; and who cozies up to repressive dictators such as the Philippines' Rodrigo Duterte. Anyone who believes, as Lowry claims to, that America's nationalism is uniquely "inclusive" should also be troubled by the race-based us-and-them mentality on display, for example, when the president suggested a federal judge was unqualified to rule in one of his cases because of the judge's Mexican heritage, or when he tweeted that four nonwhite congresswomen, three of whom were born in the United States, should "go back" to where they came from.

The most charitable definition of nationalism is the belief, in Lowry's words, that "we should be doing everything possible to break down tribal group loyalties rather than build them up." It's hard (to put it mildly) to reconcile that maxim with Trump's actions and rhetoric. Nationalism, as it's currently being practiced, isn't pretty. And nationalism, as it has been practiced historically, is much, much worse.

Liberalism Makes Us Exceptional

In Nationalism: A Short History (Brookings Institution Press), the Boston University sociologist Liah Greenfeld distinguishes between the "individualistic" nationalism that characterizes England and "collectivist" nationalisms like the French and Japanese varieties. The key difference is that in the latter societies, the nation is considered a separate entity "with a will and interests of its own, independent of those of the human individuals composing it." Members of these societies have a duty to work hard, not in the pursuit of riches or glory for themselves but in order "to contribute to the dignity of the nation" relative to the rest of the world.

The United States, by contrast, is history's purest example of an individualistic society. The American nation was "a community of sovereign members" whose own sovereignty "was derived from theirs," Greenfeld explains. "Americans pledged themselves, far more openly and unambiguously than the English did before them, to universal liberty."

The Case for Nationalism places an almost comical degree of emphasis on Lowry's insistence that America is not just an idea or a creed: "America is a nation, whose sovereignty and borders are dear to it, whose history and culture are an indispensable glue, whose interests guide her actions (or should)," he writes—and proceeds as if that settles things once and for all against the anti-nationalist position.

Yet what makes the United States distinctive is the extent to which its history and culture are animated by liberal values such as pluralism, entrepreneurialism, and personal responsibility. In Give Me Liberty: A History of America's Exceptional Idea (Basic Books), Lowry's National Review colleague Richard Brookhiser canvasses the last 400 years to show that, at virtually every turn, U.S. history has been shaped by Americans' deep commitment to individual liberty, from democracy and markets to freedom of the press and the free exercise of religion. As F.A. Hayek put it, "What in Europe was called 'liberalism' was here the common tradition on which the American polity had been built." As H.G. Wells once observed, "All Americans are, from the English point of view, Liberals of one sort or another."

Lowry knows all this: "We are the inheritors of an Anglo-American tradition…that has profound respect for the individual and the rule of law," he writes. As far back as the 1630s, Americans were exhibiting "a bullheaded resistance to arbitrary authority and a willingness to resort to force in defense of our rights." Later in the book, he approvingly quotes Ronald Reagan's attestation that "America is freedom—freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of enterprise. And freedom is special and rare."

The problem for Lowry and his fellow travelers is that the new conservative nationalism, with its great affection for government power and its demands that individual autonomy be subordinated to the collective good, is the antithesis of those qualities that have always set us apart.

Dignity Must Come First

The project of reconciling liberalism with nationalism is doomed from the start—in part because even the self-proclaimed liberal nationalists have a tendency to veer into questionable territory.

F.H. Buckley, in his piece for Modern Age, writes that "nationalism has a gravitational force that pulls one leftward on social welfare policies." Lowry comes right out with his belief that "on global trade, it shouldn't be enough to say that it has lifted hundreds of millions of Chinese out of poverty, not if there's been a substantial cost to Americans." And the only substantive policy he spends real time in the book advocating is immigration restrictionism, on the theory that "the bottom line of a contemporary nationalist agenda [is] the preservation of the American cultural nation" and that "we are a people whose nature can be changed depending on who we welcome here or not."

This is why Greenfeld's phrase individualist nationalism obscures more than it reveals. Nationalism, to her, is something more like popular sovereignty—the idea that a nation's governing authority rightly belongs to the people. But that is at best an antiquated understanding of the word.

Today's nationalists think the federal government has an obligation to actively pursue what they call the "national interest." Any agenda that assumes the existence of such a thing must begin by making a variety of determinations, from who should be allowed to join the polity to whether to privilege the producer's bottom line over the consumer's. And in anything short of a monolithic society, that means overriding some individuals' preferences—and often their right to make choices for themselves.

"The fact that these questions can reasonably be answered in different ways helps explain why nationalism cannot easily dispense with coercion," argues George Washington University political scientist Samuel Goldman, who is writing a book on the topic. "Contrary to organic metaphors, nationalism is not the spontaneous expression of an underlying consensus. It always seeks to institutionalize one vision of the nation at the expense of alternatives."

If coercion is, by definition, the opposite of liberty, then a nationalist is someone who, when push comes to shove, will inevitably choose the former. Lowry unintentionally drives this notion home when he points out that Abraham Lincoln believed in a "hierarchy of values" that prioritized national unity above his abolitionist convictions.

"Much as I hate slavery," Lowry quotes Lincoln saying in an 1854 speech, "I would consent to the extension of it rather than see the Union dissolved, just as I would consent to any GREAT evil, to avoid a GREATER one."

With the benefit of 166 years' hindsight, we should be able to recognize Lincoln's hierarchy as disordered. Slavery will forever be America's most profound failure to live up to its liberal values—a stain on this country's founding. We should not twist or falsify the historical record to emphasize that fact. But if we as a people can't acknowledge our mistakes, and learn from them, and dedicate ourselves to doing better, we aren't worthy of the "deep, abiding, and emotional" loyalty that Lowry wants to restore.

There are more important things than nation-states, which have come and gone through history. Human dignity, and the commitment to liberty that flows from it, must come first.