The Alcove

Asking the Right Question About Nationalism

Put aside “whether” for a moment, and consider “what kind.”

By Nathan Pippenger

Tagged nationalism

John Judis argues, in The New York Times, that liberals, confronted with a surge of nationalist politics, have generally indulged in dismissal and denunciation instead of attempting “to acknowledge what is valid” in the backlash against globalization. This is a major intellectual limitation, he contends, since revitalizing the left begins with understanding that many global initiatives have “sailed over the heads of ordinary citizens”: “[T]he decline of liberal and social-democratic parties is a result at least in part of their inability to distinguish what is legitimate and justifiable in nationalism from what is small-minded, bigoted and contrary to the national interest it claims to uphold.”

Judis advances this argument partly through a quasi-sympathetic interpretation of (some) Trump Administration policies that he identifies as “nationalistic.” It bears noting here that all of the policies for which Judis reserves even this faint praise (he is willing to say little more than they “have not been without merit”) concern trade and manufacturing. Judis is chiefly worried about the destructive global mobility of capital and the possible risks to domestic workers of high levels of low-skilled immigration. (For what it’s worth, evidence supporting the latter concern is spotty at best, in part because of the extraordinarily complicated set of factors that influences employment levels and wages. In any case, as Judis acknowledges, a President who was truly concerned about American workers would pursue a very different domestic policy agenda from Trump’s.) Of course, Judis (whose writing has long brought a social-democratic perspective to more mainstream liberal outlets) is no right-wing revanchist; he has no kind words for the features of Trumpian nationalism that delight in menacing various groups of Americans. But even in this limited sense, I’m not convinced by his examples. For instance, it’s not at all clear to me that Trump’s signature combination of belligerence, simple-mindedness, and love of symbolic gesture justifies the conclusion that he has “boldly challenged” China on trade. There’s a difference between boldness and recklessness. And yes, he has “chided footloose companies like Nabisco, Ford, and Carrier,” but all his huffing and puffing seems to be ineffectual or simply ignorant.

Where Judis is on more solid ground, it seems to me, is in his reminder that liberals should not be too dismissive of nationalism, since nationalism, “by itself, is neither good nor evil, liberal nor conservative.” You wouldn’t know it from the way the term is tossed about in popular discourse, but as a historical matter this is more or less incontestable: The nationalism of Donald Trump is only one of many varieties. It’s not the nationalism that emerged amidst the French Revolution, as part of an attempt to make sense of the revolutionary doctrine of popular sovereignty. Neither is it the anti-colonial nationalism marshaled to support a range of twentieth-century independence movements. Nor is it rooted in philosophical ruminations on the identity-shaping role played by language, or culture, or history—any one of which could be associated with a range of thinkers who would be appalled by the MAGA-hat crowd.

Recognizing nationalism’s protean nature is, in fact, a first step toward what might be a productive exercise for anybody hoping to revitalize the left at this moment in history. Assume that, at least over the short and medium term, the current global system of bordered nation-states is not going to disappear (even if it is undergoing transformation). And assume that, for many people, everyday thought and behavior will adhere to (largely unconscious) scripts that serve to locate them in particular settings, communities, associations, and so on.

Given these realities, what kind of collective self-understandings would it be useful to promote? American history doesn’t lack for precedents; there are left-nationalist themes in texts like the Gettysburg Address, in FDR’s 1936 nomination speech (the one featuring his denunciation of “economic royalists”), and in Martin Luther King Jr.’s metaphor of a promissory note. Samuel H. Beer, one of the twentieth century’s leading scholars of American politics, once described the great moments of American reform as responses to crises of nationhood:  “[T]he crisis of sectionalism, culminating in the Civil War; the crisis of industrialism, culminating in the Great Depression and the New Deal; and the crisis of racism, which continues to rack our country.” In Beer’s view, these moments of active reform counteracted destructive centrifugal forces; they made the nation “more of a nation.” This emphasis on “making” a nation through politics is a good reminder that nations were not found, but invented; they are not immune to political refashioning. And if they’re unlikely to disappear anytime soon, it might be a good idea to start thinking about which kinds we can live with.

Read more about nationalism

Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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