The Volokh Conspiracy

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A Compelling Summary of the Case Against Nationalism

Alex Nowrasteh of the Cato Institute provides what may be the best short summary of the evils of nationalism.


In my last post, I highlighted Cato Institute scholar Alex Nowrasteh's excellent critique of claims that immigration causes harm by reducing social trust. Rarely do I devote two posts in a row to writings by the same person. But I could not pass up his compelling summary of the evils of nationalism, drawn from his opening statement in a recent debate with Rich Lowry of National Review.

Nationalism is a major force in both the US and around the world, and the major point of divergence between libertarians and the "New Right." I tried my own hand at summarizing the dangers of nationalism back in 2009, including some of the parallels between it and communism. But, frankly, Nowrasteh's piece is way better.

"Nationalism," like "conservatism," and "liberalism," is a fuzzy term that different people use in different ways. But Nowrasteh captures the main focus of most nationalist movements and thinkers, when he describes it as an ideology based on loyalty to a "nation" based on a "group of genetically similar individuals with a common language, culture, religion, and ethnicity." As he explains, "[n]ationalism is to the right wing what communism is to the left wing, poorly reasoned utopianism that often leads to some of the worst crimes against humanity."

Here are some excerpts from his summary of its dangers, with commentary by me:

The first downside of nationalism is that it increases centralized state power. In nationalism, the state representing a nation (known as a nation-state) is the only organization that counts because it represents the entire nation. Individualism is not important, individual rights don't matter, and a nation's government does and should determine everything regardless of the desires of dissenters….

Nationalist movements do indeed have a long history of suppressing dissent and undermining liberal democracy. The ethnic and cultural homogeneity nationalists seek is usually impossible to achieve without it.

The second effect of nationalism is that it tends to concentrate state power in a single person, the leader. Nationalists often conflate the nation with that of an individual political leader who is a nationalist, frequently a strong man, sometimes a dictator, and other times a king, probably because the nation is just an abstraction that requires a totem of some kind to be real in the minds of men….

Nationalism isn't the only political ideology that tends to promote strongmen. But it has a particularly powerful tendency towards leader-worship. Recall such figures as Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco. In our own day, we have examples like Putin, Erdogan, and Xi Jinping, among others. Even nationalist movements in liberal-democratic nations have a tendency to do this. Consider, for example, the worship of Donald Trump by his core supporters, which exceeds that of any other modern US president. The kinds of people who become nationalist strongmen tend to be unscrupulous, ruthless and cruel. Thus, not only does nationalism concentrate power. It often does so in worst possible hands.

The third common effect of nationalism is more state control over the economy. After all, the nation knows best and its government will do whatever it thinks is in the national interest (or, more accurately, whatever is in the best interests of nationalist politicians). It's no mistake that National Conservatives, as they call themselves today in the United States, favor industrial policy, protectionism, high taxes, closed borders, pro-union policies, a large welfare state, praise the New Deal, and desire more state control over the economy. Increasing state control over the economy is partly ideological and partly just a byproduct of the increasingly centralized state that nationalists demand.

Very true. I would add that the types of statist economic policies nationalists advocate tend to be among the most harmful, condemned by most economists across the political spectrum. In addition, this concentration of economic power becomes even more dangerous when combined with nationalists' disdain for individual rights and elevation of brutal strongmen leaders.

The fourth effect of nationalism is more government control over the private lives of citizens and central planning of culture. From the French Revolution originating the term "nation building" in France and their central planning of language to Vladimir Putin in Russia and dozens of nationalist leaders in between, they all use the state to force their preferred version of a centrally planned culture on society….

The fifth effect of nationalism is the glorification of militarism, war, and lesser hostility between nations through trade wars and tearing up arms control treaties for no good reason. Judged by the number of deaths caused by different types of governments in the 20th century, just focusing on governments murdering their own citizens, nationalism is second only to communism….

We see nationalist wars most vividly today in Russia's attempt to conquer Ukraine as part of a nationalist irredentism to reconstitute the Russian Empire by bringing the QUOTE "fake ethnicity of Ukrainians" back into the Russian fold. It's no mistake that so many nationalists around the world admired Putin prior to his invasion, such as Dutch nationalist Thierry Baudet, French nationalist Marine Le Pen, Italian nationalist and Prime Minister Georgia Meloni and former Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi (who still defends Putin after the invasion), and many American National Conservatives, as they call themselves. Some American National Conservatives, or NatCons, slobbered over Putin (in part) because his military recruitment advertisements showed Russians as manly….

The sixth common effect of nationalism is ethnic chauvinism and, to a disturbingly frequent extent, genocide. Slaughters in Nationalist Turkey, mass death in Nationalist China, and two world wars were caused by nationalists with revanchist dreams. Historian Aristide Zolberg went as far as to call the formation of new nation-states "as a refugee-generating process" to expel groups of people who are not members of the new nation. Not every nationalist government commits genocide or engages in ethnic chauvinism, but not every communist regime causes a great famine either. We shouldn't give nationalists a pass any more than we should give communists a pass…

All well-taken points.

But won't nationalism at least give us a warm sense of national unity, overcoming our divisions? Not so much:

Did you feel better and more connected to other American strangers when Donald Trump, who embraced nationalism, was president? Did Trump cause American solidarity to increase? Just the opposite. Nationalism is a schismatic ideology that pulls citizens apart from one another instead of binding them together. Meaning and belonging come from family, friendships, real communities of people who know each other, worship in groups of people who know each other, hobbies, career, and other personal human relationships, not from devotion to a national abstraction….

In an ideologically founded country like the U.S., nationalism is a disuniting force and not a uniting one. Nationalism here builds walls around different groups and defines political opponents or other groups as less American than others. Nationalism is an exclusionary ideology, not an inclusive one. Nationalism often defines a country in terms of what it's not – usually foreigners. But that frame is easily applied to defining fellow American citizens as not real Americans either. Claremont senior fellow Glenn Ellmers, an American nationalist and writer at a nationalist publication, wrote in 2021 that the 80 million Americans who voted for President Joe Biden in 2020 were "not Americans in any meaningful sense of the term…." These nationalists believe that half of American voters have betrayed the nation. They obviously don't care about building national solidarity. If they wanted to build national solidarity and harness good feelings for national greatness, they would be trying to bring the country together instead of trying to label half of their fellow countrymen as non-Americans or un-American. Where is this benign and uniting nationalism that Rich [Lowry] speaks of? Certainly not in the minds or on the lips of nationalists.

Particularly, in a society as diverse as the United States, nationalist ideology is a source of division and mutual hatred, not unity. The divisive nature of nationalism isn't unique to Trump or his particular political movement. It's an inherent feature of nationalist ideology, more generally. If you believe that the nation rests on a common ethnicity, culture, language, and so on, then there is a natural tendency to demonize those who don't fit that description.  Even if it doesn't go as far as ethnic cleansing or genocide, that tendency is necessarily divisive.

In his commentary on the debate with Lowry, Nowrasteh does note a possible virtue of nationalism. Sometimes, its origin is "reactive" in nature—a response to racial or ethnically based oppression:

When certain ethnic or religious groups are persecuted, a common reaction of those persecuted is the strengthening or creation of nationalism for psychological and defensive reasons. Individuals are very easily persecuted, but individuals in a large group who defensively cooperate, have solidarity, and aid each other are harder to oppress. Zionism, for instance, grew rapidly in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as anti-Semitism, pogroms, and state oppression of Jews were widespread in Europe. Persecuted groups can even form a new ethnic identity in response to persistent persecution.

Zionism is just one of many "reactive" nationalist movements. Other cases include Polish and Irish nationalism, and various nationalist movements in developing countries, that arose in part as a reaction to European colonialism. Ukrainian nationalism, of course, is in large part a product of centuries of oppression by successive Russian and Soviet rulers. Here in the US, black nationalist movements arose as a reaction to centuries of oppression and discrimination at the hands of whites.

But even reactive nationalism often becomes a force for evil. Time and again, the nationalist movements of oppressed groups have themselves become oppressors when when they seize power. Obvious examples include various Eastern European nationalists, the nationalist governments of numerous post-colonial nations, and others. All too often reactive nationalists replicate the same type of evil they set out to oppose.

Moreover, reactive nationalism is far from the only way to fight ethnic and racial oppression. A better approach is to appeal to universal principles of liberty and justice. This strategy is no Utopian pie in the sky. It's how the abolition of slavery and Jim Crow segregation were achieved, and how much other oppression was curtailed around the world. Those who think people will never fight and die for universalist liberalism should remember the sacrifices made to win the American Revolution (fought for those very principles), the many lives lost to end slavery, and numerous other examples.

Abjuring reactive nationalism in favor of universal liberal principles is far from a new idea. The great African-American abolitionist Frederick Douglass advanced it back in the 19th century:

We hear, since emancipation, much said by our modern colored leaders in commendation of race pride, race love, race effort, race superiority, race men, and the like…. In all this talk of race, the motive may be good, but the method is bad. It is an effort to cast out Satan by Beelzebub…..

The evils which are now crushing the negro to earth have their root and sap, their force and mainspring, in this narrow spirit of race and color, and the negro has no more right to excuse and foster it than have men of any other race….

Hence, at the risk of being deficient in the quality of love and loyalty to race and color, I confess that in my advocacy of the colored man's cause, whether in the name of education or freedom, I have had more to say of manhood and of what is comprehended in manhood and in womanhood, than of the mere accident of race and color; and, if this is disloyalty to race and color, I am guilty….

In Douglass's time, the word "race" referred not just to skin color, but to what we today call "ethnicity." Thus, his condemnation was not limited solely to nationalistic movements based on skin color. If a man who personally experienced the horrors of racially based slavery could grasp the wrongness of reactive nationalism, we should be able to, as well.

Reactive nationalism also is likely to bring down a counter-reaction by stimulating nationalism among other groups. As Douglass warned, "[d]o we not know that every argument we make, and every pretension we set up in favor of race pride, is giving the enemy a stick to break our own heads?… We cannot afford to draw the color-line in politics, trade, education, manners, religion, fashion, or civilization. Especially we cannot afford to draw the color-line in politics." What is true of racial color lines also applies to ethnic divisions.

There may be times and places where some kind of reactive nationalism is the only politically feasible alternative to an even greater evil. Choosing between greater and lesser evils may be the only options we have. But we should at least remember that the lesser evil is still evil and should be dispensed with at the first available opportunity.