Nationalism Reconsidered

For decades nationalism was a taboo term, but now it’s back. Why are so many people attracted to it, and why aren’t I one of them?

A few weeks after the election, in “Should I Have White Pride?“, I put forward the idea that we now needed to start answering questions we used to write off, and discussing issues we used to think were settled. OK then: Nationalism. What about it?

For decades the concept was in the doghouse, but the Trump administration has put nationalism back into the public conversation. In his 60 Minutes interview earlier this month, Steve Bannon talked glowingly about “Donald Trump’s populist, economic nationalist agenda” and claimed that “Economic nationalism is what this country was built on.”

Trump himself tends not to use the term, but often invokes the concept. “America First” is fundamentally a nationalist slogan. In his speech to the United Nations on Tuesday, he repeatedly invoked “sovereignty” and stated: “the nation-state remains the best vehicle for elevating the human condition.”

Now we are calling for a great reawakening of nations, for the revival of their spirits, their pride, their people, and their patriotism.

This is a big change. Between and after the world wars, books like All Quiet on the Western Front portrayed nationalism as a kind of collective insanity that induced millions of otherwise sensible Frenchmen and Germans to repeatedly try to kill each other. But in his UN speech, Trump draws a different lesson from the wars. He ignores the nationalism embodied in slogans like “Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer!” or enacted by Japanese kamikaze pilots crashing their planes into American ships, and focuses only on the “good” nationalism of the Allies:

In remembering the great victory that led to this body’s founding, we must never forget that those heroes who fought against evil also fought for the nations that they loved. Patriotism led the Poles to die to save Poland, the French to fight for a free France, and the Brits to stand strong for Britain.

For decades, a “national liberation movement” was at best a phase a Third World society — Vietnam, say, or Zimbabwe — might go through while escaping colonialism and finding its place in the world. But the whole point of international institutions like the UN was to help First Worlders rise above such atavistic motivations. Not any more. Trump’s vision of the UN seems less influenced by Star Trek‘s Federation of Planets than by Robert Frost’s often-misquoted maxim that “Good fences make good neighbors.”

Our success depends on a coalition of strong and independent nations that embrace their sovereignty to promote security, prosperity, and peace for themselves and for the world. … Strong, sovereign nations let diverse countries with different values, different cultures, and different dreams not just coexist, but work side by side on the basis of mutual respect.

(That quote invites a question: Can different values, cultures, and dreams respectfully coexist within a nation? Or is that a problem?) In the Trump administration, globalism is the dirty word. The nation-state is an end in itself, not something we should be trying to transcend.

Nationalism and essentialism. Before criticizing nationalism, it’s important to understand the attraction of it. The root idea of nationalism is that nations are, or should be, more than just lines on a map. Ideally, a nation represents a convergence of territory, culture, and government. A variety of factors — typically ethnicity, language, religion, and/or shared history — give a population a common identity as “a people”. That people occupies a territory, and expresses its common will through a government that is sovereign over that territory.

In this vision, being English or French or Japanese means far more than simply living inside the boundaries of England or France or Japan, or satisfying the legal conditions for citizenship. It means sharing the almost mystical essence that unites the English, French, or Japanese people.

At its best, this identity as a people gives a country a unity that makes it governable, and a common purpose that allows it to accomplish great things. We can easily see the lack of such a national essence in the failure of American “nation building” in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is comparatively easy to draw borders on a map, to write a document that defines a constitutional republic within those borders, and to establish a government by holding elections under that constitution. Whether or not that government actually takes hold, though, depends on whether it corresponds to something its citizens can identify with and feel loyal to. Constitutions and elections can be how the popular will expresses itself. If there is no national identity, though, and hence no popular will, elections simply become a way of deciding who will dominate who. Officials will be corrupt, and citizens will show them no loyalty beyond what the police can force out of them.

But nationalism also has a down side: It creates dissonance between the actual citizenry and the ideal citizenry. Some Frenchmen are just “more French” than others. Some U.S. citizens are real Americans, while others are not quite so real. Even if their ancestors had lived in Germany since before there was a Germany, even if they spoke perfect German and loyally paid their taxes, and even if they had fought for the Kaiser in World War I, Jews could never be part of the German Volk.

Nationalism also provokes a disruptive desire to get the boundaries right. Hitler’s initial expansions — Austria, the Sudeten region of Czechoslovakia, and the Danzig corridor of Poland — were justified by his ambition to unite the German Volk under a single Reich. Similarly today, Putin’s annexation of Crimea and the pressure he is putting on the eastern provinces of Ukraine are part of a vision that unites all the ethnic Russians in the nation of Russia.

And if boundaries won’t move, then people must. Ethnic cleansing and genocide are the ultimate expressions of nationalism. If you don’t fit the national identity and you aren’t willing to accept slavery or some other subordinate status, then you have to go.

Finally, national identity often comes packaged with a national mythology that justifies dominating others. It’s no coincidence that nationalists are also the Americans most likely to believe in American exceptionalism.

When nationalism and democracy were allies. One of the key ideas underlying President Wilson’s 14 Points for establishing peace in Europe after World War I was “self determination“. In the 19th century, the world had been dominated by big cosmopolitan empires like Austria-Hungary or the Ottomans. The Czars ruled far more than just the Russians, and the English governed both nearby Ireland and distant India. Even France, if you looked closely, was a polyglot of Normans, Bretons, Provencals, Burgundians, and many others who were only beginning to identify as a nation and speak a common language (for more than just government and trade).

In an era where democracy was only beginning to catch on in Great Britain, the United States, and a handful of other places, cosmopolitan empires seemed normal. Government wasn’t supposed to express the popular will, it was an organizing service offered by a central authority. If the ruling House established trade, promoted the arts, and kept the peace — what more did you want?

But when World War I left Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire in tatters, the victorious nations had to decide what to do with the pieces. Their internal squabbles had been the sparks the lit the war to begin with — the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and all that — so the victors weren’t inclined to just prop up new Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman emperors. So what, then?

Wilson’s solution was to identify natural ethnic boundaries and create new nations to match them.

National aspirations must be respected; people may now be dominated and governed only by their own consent. “Self determination” is not a mere phrase; it is an imperative principle of action.

Having been established around the peoples who lived there, Wilson expected the new nations to be fertile ground for government by the people. In this sense, nationalism and democracy would go hand in hand.

From self-determination to ethnic cleansing. In fact Wilson’s vision was not implemented all that well; the borders established by the Treaty of Versailles involved as much national score-settling as self-determination. But Wilson got perhaps more credit than he deserved for his idealism. (In retrospect, his support for nationalism abroad paralleled his racism at home. Wilson re-segregated government offices, and screened Birth of a Nation in the White House.)

On the ground, ethnic boundaries were never quite so natural as he had imagined, and many Romanians, Hungarians, Bulgarians, and others wound up on the wrong side of the borders defining the nations of their peoples. Many moved, while others stayed and were now oppressed by the local majority rather than by a distant emperor. Jews, Roma, and other dispersed peoples were often worse off than they had been in a cosmopolitan empire.

As the remaining empires dissolved in the subsequent decades, national self-determination was often associated with either ethnic cleansing or a semi-voluntary mass migration motivated by fear of the new majority. The British Raj, for example, split into Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan. But there had never been a clear territorial separation between the two religions, so millions moved or were moved, with much violence on both sides.

In the long run, does democracy require nationalism? It’s worth considering why the Versailles negotiators couldn’t have just declared a unified Republic of Austria-Hungary; written a modern constitution that defended the rights of all the Serbians, Jews, Maygars, and other ethnic groups inside it; and held elections for a new Parliament. For that matter, why couldn’t we do the same today with Earth?

The answer is that the inherent political discord of a democratic republic is only stable if it is an island floating on a broader sea of public consensus. Constitutional rights only matter if the public actually believes in them, so that whoever gains power will feel constrained to defend everybody’s rights, and not just the rights of a particular party or ethnic group. As the U.S. Senate has been finding out over the last decade or so, unwritten but broadly shared standards of fair play are as important — and perhaps more important — than constitutional guarantees.

In many countries, a disputed presidential election like the U.S. had in 2000 would have led to civil war. Instead, the Supreme Court ruled, Gore conceded, and subsequent elections were held on schedule in 2004 and 2008. When Bush’s chosen successor lost the 2008 election, we had a peaceful transfer of power.

That happened because all sides had confidence in American standards of fair play. If Gore’s supporters in 2000 (or the outgoing Bushies in 2008) had believed that they were all about to be rounded up and shot, civil war might have seemed like a more attractive option.

Confidence in the underlying consensus limits the stakes of an election, and allows the losers to retreat and regroup rather than panic. Because of that consensus, we argue vociferously over things like tax rates and health insurance, but we don’t consider killing off all the old people. Anti-gay bakers may or may not have to make cakes for same-sex weddings, but they won’t be sent off to re-education camps. Larger or smaller numbers of undocumented Hispanics may be deported, but Hispanic citizens will not be ethnically cleansed. We may or may not create hurdles to voting that many people will lack the will to jump, but we will not revoke the voting rights of entire races or religions. In some future progressive administration, billionaires may have a harder time multiplying their wealth and passing it on to their descendants, but they won’t become enemies of the people whose estates are confiscated and whose children are impoverished.

In short, we can vote about the things that divide us, and live with the outcome, because we share a broad consensus on the graver issues that large numbers of people would be willing to kill or die for. (When the consensus ruptured on slavery, we did have a civil war.) A country that doesn’t have such a consensus won’t be a stable democracy, no matter what its constitution says.

A nationalist believes that such a consensus can only come from a shared identity as a people, which is based on shared culture, language, religion, and history. Anything that dilutes that identity — say, by bringing in a bunch of immigrants who don’t fit the national identity — undermines the national consensus that democracy depends on.

National identity in America. Trump/Bannon American nationalism has a nuanced relationship with racism. Both will deny that they are racist, and in one sense they are justified. Bannon put it like this:

We look after our own. We look after our citizen, we look after our manufacturing base, and guess what? This country’s gonna be greater, more united, more powerful than it’s ever been. And it’s not– this is not astrophysics. OK? And by the way, that’s every nationality, every race, every religion, every sexual preference. As long as you’re a citizen of our country. As long as you’re an American citizen, you’re part of this populist, economic nationalist movement

But last summer he told Mother Jones that he had made Breitbart “the platform for the alt-Right“, which clearly is racist. Both Bannon and Trump appeal to the racist leanings of their base voters, sometimes pretty explicitly.

Here’s how I interpret the nuance: The national identity Bannon/Trump are trying to defend against dilution is white, Christian, straight, English-speaking, and perhaps a few other things. That’s why Bannon can correct Charlie Rose’s statement about “the Trump base” with “the American people”. To the extent that Americans are “a people”, Bannon sees them as the Trump white Christian base.

But that’s a description of an ideal. Few Americans fit the ideal perfectly; most of us are only “real Americans” up to a point. So Trumpists don’t have to be against any individual Hispanics or Muslims purely because of their race or religion. It’s only when large numbers of people differ significantly from the ideal that dilution becomes an issue. If America stopped being a white country or stopped being a Christian country, that would be a problem for them.

So whether they’re bigots depends on what you mean: They don’t necessarily hate individuals based on their race or religion. But all races and religions are not created equal, at least not if you want to fit in with the American people.

Why I’m not a nationalist. If you look back at American history, our national identity has always been an issue, and in retrospect it is obvious that the people who wanted to defend it have always defined it too narrowly. The Founding generation seriously debated whether Catholics could be good Americans, and most doubted that they could. The flood of German immigrants in the early 1800s (my ancestors) threatened the nation’s English heritage. The subsequent waves of Irish, Italian, Jewish, Polish, and Slavic immigrants were also controversial in their day. How could we possibly assimilate so many of them all at once?

One reason the South hung onto slavery so desperately was that Southern whites didn’t believe that whites and blacks could share a society, certainly not as citizens with equal rights. If blacks became the majority (as they already were in South Carolina and Mississippi) and had equal rights, then they’d define a black society, and whites would be the slaves. Or else there would be a race war, and one would wipe out the other. That’s what Jefferson was talking about when he described slavery as having “a wolf by the ear. We can neither hold him nor safely let him go.” The choice was slavery or genocidal race war, because the national identity had to be either white or black.

In retrospect, the national identity has changed a lot over the years, and the broad consensus underlying our democracy has shifted from one era to the next. Even using the most generous estimates, English-Americans are only 1 out of every 4, and may be less than 1 out of 10. (John Adams, I’m sure, would be horrified.) Whites are less than half of the population of California, and yet democratic institutions continue to function there. White protestants are less than half of the population nationwide, but blacks, Catholics, Jews, and even atheists and agnostics seem to have caught on to being Americans.

These changes can be disturbing if you are part of a declining majority. (I still get edgy when I am surrounded on public transit by people speaking a language I don’t understand.) But it’s important not to confuse personal discomfort with a danger to the Republic.

In short, I see a wide gap between a white/Christian/English-speaking identity and the national consensus that keeps democracy functioning. The idea of America has always been more flexible and resilient than the Americans of any given era have imagined. People come here because they find the idea of America attractive, and not because they want to tear it down. But they have also always tried to hang onto part of the heritage of the old country, wherever it was.

I have much more faith in the American people than I have in our ability to define what makes us a people, or to determine what kind of people we should be in the future. We will evolve, and in another 250 years we’ll be as unrecognizable as today’s America would be to a young Ben Franklin. That is as it should be.

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  • Rothschild  On September 25, 2017 at 12:10 pm

    I am sorry but I smell something off about this article – I smell racism, I smell a good person, I smell some self-righteousness, some ignorance, and I smell some intelligence. Who are you, my friend? What truly is tearing you apart?

  • Mikel Aickin  On September 25, 2017 at 12:41 pm

    Nationalism. It seems just about inescapable that nationalism involves an elevation of one culture over others, and this almost always involves elevating one ethnic (or “racial”) group over the others. In civilized nations this is generally opposed by a majority, assuming they have reasonable security and personal welfare. It follows that ethnic-based nationalism must start out seeming to be something other than ethnic-based nationalism, in order to overcome the opposition by lulling it into a passive slumber.

    In the1920’s in Germany (before Hitler) the legal system began persistently disfavoring Poles, Jews, Roma, and a few others. It started sending them to hard-labor prisons that were the predecessors of the death camps. It got worse relatively slowly, and the majority of Germans, who were not affected, validated the process by not opposing it. The lesson seems to be that not standing up to the first signs of nationalist racism, however innocent or temporarily justified it might be made to seem, amounts in the end to a vote to promote further racism.

    Before WW1, the Ottoman Empire dominated much of what we now call Balkan or eastern European states. The persecution of non-Muslims over 500 years is well-documented. When the Empire entered the war on the side of Germany, one result was the attempted annihilation of Armenians. Again we see the pattern of gradual and gradually increasing ethnic nationalist racism leading to a human catastrophe.

    In the US we think this cannot happen to us because we are more inclusive and ethnically-assimilated than either Germany or the Ottoman Empire. Read Colin Woodard’s book, American Nations, and look at his maps to see that this is not quite true. Compare them with the 2016 election map, and with a map of eastern Europe (Austria to Turkey). There is more than just a hint that we are in some ways a foned-down version of the Balkans. We now have a president who systematically supports one set of ethnicities (red) over others (blue). Yes we have a common language, and yes, the various races are spread (not entirely equally) across our sub-nations. But we do not have a common religion, a single legal system, an identified ancestry, nor common ideas of what constitutes a national ideal. There are ways in which our “states” have become little “nation-statelets”, with divisions partly along race or ethnic ancestry lines, and partly along political philosophy divisions.

    In this setting, taking Bannon-level apologists at their word is like standing by and watching German Jews persecuted by the legal system and send to death camp prototypes. When Bannonites talk about us all coming together as “Americans” they mean their version of “American”, not a humane and tolerant America that we like to believe we already live in. It is clear where an appeasement strategy will take us, and we need to oppose it before we lose the power to do so. Measured and “balanced” judgments of an inhuman nationalist philosophy are as objectionable as the nationalism itself.

    • Monala  On September 29, 2017 at 3:54 pm

      This article had a repeated line which resonates with me:

      “What we allow will continue. What continues will escalate.”

      View story at

  • Dennis Maher  On September 25, 2017 at 2:45 pm

    Ray Suarez spoke to a huge gathering of Latino-Americans in Denver a few years ago. He told them “In 50 years your grandchildren will not speak Spanish, and probably won’t understand it.”

    • Anonymous  On September 25, 2017 at 9:24 pm

      He’s probably right. The grandchildren of the “flood of German immigrants in the early 1800s” mostly gave up on speaking German. Same for the grandchildren of Italian immigrants, Polish immigrants, etc.

  • Tom Stites  On September 25, 2017 at 3:19 pm

    Looking at this fine piece from the obverse, and from the middle of Ken Burns’s Vietnam documentary series, and just as the Kurds in what’s known as Northern Iraq are about to vote to proclaim themselves independent, three observations:

    1) Never fight a war with the aim of propping up a “nation” that lacks a national essence. South Vietnam certainly did not have one, Iraq has three (and therefore none), and has there ever been a big swath of territory with less national essence than Afghanistan? The Allies of World War II were effective because each had a strong national essence.

    2) The Kurds have a national essence but no nation, thanks to the Brits who thought they were clever to draw lines on the map after World War I with the aim of setting up “nations” of peoples they could count on to fight with one another and therefore not be much of a bother to their colonial overlords. In a divide-and-conquer move, the Brits split the powerful Kurds into four of these “nations.” Now, a century on, the Kurds are finally setting out to make a nation their own nation — one with a national essence akin to Iran’s.

    3) Remember how long it took for Europe to overcome the Ostrogoths and Visigoths and stop needing walled cities? The Middle East is just embarking on the same process: The Kurds in the other three “nations” the British map-makers created will want to join in the new Kurdistan, and there’ll be lots of grief for a long time as the regions’ national essences sort themselves out.

  • Dr. R.  On September 25, 2017 at 5:08 pm

    Is nationalism super-sized tribalism? Is organized religion yet another form of tribalism? It seems we evolved to “belong” — but to belong means that others don’t belong and that they may be a threat. Oxytocin may be the “love” hormone, but it also contributes to protecting one’s own — just ask mamma bear. What happened to pluralism? Can differing groups live in harmony? In Sunday school (interesting as it should have been Saturday school), we discussed are we Jewish Americans or American Jews? Can we all fit under the umbrella of “American?” On the other hand, I think of my daughter as a “world citizen.” She has lived and worked in Europe and the Middle East (on both sides of the fence) and speaks passably several languages.

    There is a most interesting book recently published called “How Emotions Are Made.” One can infer from the book that all of this is “man-made.” Concepts are critical. When we see our unity, we don’t need to fight. When we see differences and separation, then we create identities and fight for our side. And there is suffering. This is probably the key message of H.H. the Dalai Lama.


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