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Why We Need Inclusive Nationalism

Trump offers reactionary and exclusionary nationalism. There is a different, and better, kind.

By John Halpin

Tagged coronavirusDonald TrumpFranklin D. Rooseveltnationalismpolicepolitics

America faces enormous challenges at home and abroad that our political system is ill-prepared to handle. Mired in compounding health, economic, and social crises arising from the coronavirus pandemic—on top of years of broken politics, widening inequality, and growing threats to liberal values around the world—our nation needs a common vision for renewal that speaks to all Americans. We need an inclusive American nationalism, in opposition to Donald Trump’s reactionary and exclusionary nationalism. We need a new framework for economic and social reform that takes seriously our constitutional promise to build “a more perfect Union” and to secure the rights, liberties, and opportunity of all people post-COVID.

A government that successfully mobilized America to get out of the Great Depression and help win World War II in the twentieth century has completely failed over the past few months to work with other nations to identify, prepare for, and contain the pandemic; it failed to plan for the medical emergencies that followed; and it failed to ensure the basic well-being and economic security of many citizens in the aftermath. Although the coronavirus is affecting people across the socioeconomic spectrum, the unprecedented economic downturn exposed glaring inequalities in job security and wages, access to health care, and economic safety nets. It’s no accident people across the country erupted in anger and remorse not only in response to the unjust killing of George Floyd at the hands of the police but also in reaction to the diminished life opportunities of so many people across the country.

As the nation confronts this crisis moment, we need to ask ourselves: “What comes next? What should Americans do to successfully rebuild, repair, and reshape our economy and society for the betterment of all people?” As difficult as it may seem given current political divisions, national renewal after the crisis will require our people and leaders to temper their ideological battles and try to forge a spirit and agenda of collective action committed foremost to American economic and social strength.

America Needs a National Plan of Action

Unfortunately, American politics under President Trump is stuck in a cycle of mutual recrimination and division with no comprehension or even acknowledgement of what constitutes the common good for America in a time of crisis. President Trump’s model of racial and ethnic nationalism coupled with tax and regulatory policies tilted toward the wealthy and powerful will not hold. There have been too many failures and too many contradictions in his approach and no longer enough public support to maintain his populist right framework of politics outside of a particularly fervent base. But getting rid of Trump alone won’t solve our problems. Activists, intellectuals, and political leaders need to develop and promote an alternative philosophical vision grounded in the best ideas from the left to the center that is wide enough to enlist all Americans in a common project of national rebuilding.

As FDR and other liberal reformers understood well, our country’s political system works best with ongoing experimentation that combines public investments in our economy and robust social insurance provisions with private initiatives, research, and innovation that can drive overall growth and rising prosperity.

What we require today is a national plan of economic action built on domestic manufacturing, improved infrastructure and clean energy transformation, and community-based investments in those rural and urban areas left out of economic growth. In addition, America needs a stronger social welfare system that ensures all people have good paying jobs and adequate health care, housing, education, and retirement savings. We need to unify our domestic and foreign policies to more effectively ensure that policies on trade, immigration, defense, and public health strengthen us at home and improve our influence abroad. This will require a new framework for international cooperation that can handle transnational challenges from pandemics and global warming to terrorism and rising threats from authoritarian nations like China and Russia.

The details of this agenda will require robust analysis, debate, and trial and error from people across the partisan and ideological spectrum. And a liberal nationalist framework of “stronger at home, stronger in the world” can help to drive these efforts and is better than the alternative framework currently on offer.

Pluralism, Not Culture Wars

Politics works best for the country when it provides legitimate institutional arenas for reasoned debate and common endeavor and compromise. It loses credibility when it descends into a never-ending series of cultural wars designed to force people who think differently to acquiesce to abstract sociological theories about interlocking webs of oppression and privilege or angry “us vs. them” social media fights targeting and reducing people to racial, ethnic, or religious categories. Rather than helping citizens better understand actual forms of discrimination and barriers to success for all people, these culture wars leave people confused, divided, and without tangible plans for improving the situation. Americans don’t need to fully adopt the worldview of critical studies to understand that deepening wealth inequalities and diminished job opportunities and health conditions for low-income people across racial lines undermine our national economic strength.

A liberal nationalist model believes that people remain distinct individuals embedded in important family, religious, and community networks. We need to respect differences while acknowledging shared universalist values that unite people around common moral and political ideals. As stated most clearly in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” A nation committed to liberal values by definition must reject all forms of discrimination, racism, and bigotry. On top of full equality under the law, America must promote positive economic and social measures to ensure that all people are truly free and equal citizens capable of determining the course of their own lives.

In this current moment of crisis, this means directly addressing the multiple economic and social problems confronting the African-American community specifically and other low-income and vulnerable communities facing discrimination, limited job and health-care prospects, and social isolation. We cannot prosper as one nation if any segment of our society faces undue legal or economic barriers that limit their freedom, equality, and humanity.

To do so will require our political leaders to speak less about abstractions or symbolic gestures and more about concrete problems such as racial profiling, job discrimination, lack of health care, inadequate public schools, and residential segregation. For example, in my hometown of Baltimore, the death of Freddie Gray at the hands of the police in 2015 led to important protests against police misconduct—but also a surge of crime, population decline, and economic breakdown in the years following the incident. The national attention given to the protests and surrounding violence was not followed up by sustained efforts from city, state, and national officials to deal with the myriad problems associated with poverty, underfunded schools, inadequate transportation, and low-wage jobs that hurt the entire city and primarily lower-income, Black communities most affected. Baltimore became a culture war and media battle between those seeing it as a form of justified “unrest” by marginalized people and those seeing it as little more than “social breakdown” and failed urban leadership, when what the city really needed was effective leadership and resources to deal with concrete problems in the daily lives of many of its citizens.

With national attention again turned to police accountability following the killing of George Floyd and those in other communities, we must not let this moment again turn into a series of rhetorical battles and media fights between mostly unaffected political elites that fail to fundamentally address the basic economic inequalities underlying many of these injustices. A framework built on liberal nationalism instead seeks to offer a way for disparate Americans with divergent cultural values to recognize these economic inequalities and be part of a common effort to steadily bring all people into American life based on the core American principle that all people deserve equal dignity, rights, and opportunity.

A New Politics of Liberal Nationalism

Democratic and Republican leaders who align themselves with dogmatic economic ideologies or unresolvable culture wars fail to serve our country well. American renewal will require intellectual and ideological diversity within the two-party system. But it will also require consideration of alternative political structures, such as a multi-party system or ranked choice voting, that better represent these views and encourage people to resolve their differences through reasoned and principled dialogue. Our crisis will not be solved within the rigid and artificial bounds of existing ideologies and politics.

Americans who think likewise should join in a common effort for national renewal and start building a network of engaged citizens committed to building a new politics that can help our country emerge successfully from this crisis. This is not an easy project given the structure of American government. No one ideological approach alone is likely to build and sustain state and national majorities durable enough to overcome the multiple veto points in our constitutional system. Liberal nationalists must therefore work strategically to knit together large majorities of voters across racial, class, and ideological lines to back steady improvements that lead to higher pay for workers, more secure families, true universal health care, a revitalized national economy, and smarter international action.

We must not lose hope that Americans of all stripes can work with one another—and those in other nations—in good faith on big challenges. As President Franklin D. Roosevelt stated in his famous Four Freedoms address in 1941: “This nation has placed its destiny in the hands and heads and hearts of its millions of free men and women; and its faith in freedom under the guidance of God. Freedom means the supremacy of human rights everywhere. Our support goes to those who struggle to gain those rights or keep them. Our strength is our unity of purpose.”

America has been knocked on its heels from failed leadership in the midst of multiple health, economic, and social crises. But with a new commitment to a genuinely inclusive American nationalism perhaps we can regain our footing and begin the long process of recovery and rebuilding that will make our union truly stronger and more equal.

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John Halpin is a senior fellow and co-director of the politics and elections program at the Center for American Progress.

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