October 21, 2022
The new nationalism
“Nationalism” has a bad name today, thanks in part to various forms of misuse on the American right, including “white nationalism.” It needn’t be so and, at times, the term has had a positive connotation.
An example is the New Nationalism proclaimed by Theodore Roosevelt in a speech in 1910. His program has been described as follows: “[A]n espousal of active federal intervention to promote social justice and the economic welfare of the underprivileged. . . . His program called for a great increase of federal power to regulate interstate industry and a sweeping program of social reform designed to put human rights above property rights.”
Nationalism is not merely a set of policies, but an attitude toward one’s country and its people. An illustration was set out in a recent column by David Brooks, referring to Ukrainian resistance to the Russian invasion: “They are winning because they are fighting for a principle which has two parts: The first is liberalism, which promotes democracy, individual dignity, a rule-based international order. The second idea is nationalism. Volodymyr Zelenskyy is a nationalist. He is fighting not just for democracy but also for Ukraine — Ukrainian culture, Ukrainian land, the Ukrainian people and tongue.”
Combining liberalism and nationalism seems illogical today; we think of them as political opposites. That view is not entirely without foundation but, as Brooks points out, there are two kinds of nationalism: “the illiberal nationalism of Vladimir Putin and former President Donald Trump,” and the liberal nationalism of Zelenskyy. “The latter nationalism is forward-looking, inclusive and builds a society around the rule of law . . . .”
The alleged nationalism of the contemporary American right is, rather, a form of tribalism. It does not include us all, but is divisive, resentful and frequently involves racial, religious or ethnic bias. It has two forms. The first is essentially insurrectionist, aiming to seize or retain power by deceit, falsehood or force. The events surrounding January 6, 2021 illustrate this form.
The second is separatist, either by preference or as a fall-back if controlling the country proves impossible. This form is, in no small part, the old South in modern dress: exclusive, defiant, rebellious, ready to separate and set up a rival regime. Several states have taken a step in that direction by toying with nullification of federal laws. The League of the South combines faux nationalism with tribalism: it is a “Southern nationalist organization . . . whose ultimate goal is ‘a free and independent Southern republic’.“ Some Republican politicians have talked of secession. It is not a coincidence that January 6 rioters carried Confederate flags; at times we seem to be reliving the mid-nineteenth century.
However, it is not only those on the right who have given up on America. Polls show that Democrats and independents also toy with the idea of seceding. Rather than reforming the nation, too many people are ready to destroy it.
Liberals should not reject the concept of nationalism. In their better moments, they revere the Constitution, but often fail to remember that it created not merely a set of individual rights, but a society, a more perfect union. We must somehow recapture that view and save that union.