To Mend Our Divided Country, Globalists Need a Dose of Nationalism.
America looks like two countries. One sees a zero-sum game, where every time someone wins, another person loses. The other country sees a plus-sum game — when someone gets ahead, everyone is better off.
We have seen drastic economic and social change in our lifetimes — in many ways for the better, but not always for the good of everyone. We tend to forget that we don’t all experience the world and its changes in the same way. We surround ourselves with people who mostly think like we do, who value the same things. We inhale the points of view that confirm our assumptions, and we block out those we find unacceptable.
Political differences have steadily widened — in the last 20 years, according to the Pew Research Center, the share of each party with a highly negative view of the opposing party has more than doubled. Most of these intense partisans believe the opposing party’s policies “are so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being.”
What’s lacking is a sense of trust at the national level. While we still may find it within smaller communities, our trust in the common values of the greater community is at an all-time low.
Is it possible to get it back? Let’s start by looking at what separates us.
I mentioned the “Zero-Sum” and “Plus-Sum” Americans.
First, who are the Plus-Sum Americans? They are generally optimistic about our power to change things for the better. They believe the more access people have to opportunities, the better. They believe in the rights and humanity of other people, whether close by or on the other side of the globe. They believe in the potential of anybody to succeed, but they also believe that the same standard of justice should apply to all. They believe that collaboration with allies and trading partners is good for everyone, and if workers in another country succeed, workers in our country will have more customers. They believe that no one is owed anything but an opportunity and fair treatment. They see a generally optimistic consensus around globalization and an end to discrimination on many fronts — a convergence of opinion around a set of values.
Now, who are the Zero-Sum Americans?
They are generally afraid they can’t maintain the status quo, let alone get ahead. Worried about the future, worried about keeping their job and finding another if they lose it. Their rate of employment has fallen along with their real wages. They don’t know what can help them. They see government abandoning them. They feel sold out by globalization and technology — they are the only ones paying the price with lost jobs. And with jobs scarce for this group (a lot of them didn’t go to college), they wonder why we are letting in immigrants to take whatever jobs are left. They long for a different time, when they felt like they belonged and were valued for their work. They see all the people who are doing better than they are and feel left behind. This can extend beyond their economic competitors to the groups that society is making changes for — and by comparison they feel powerless and voiceless.
There’s one other important characteristic they share. A significant portion of the zero-sum Americans tend toward nationalism, and a subset of that group toward authoritarianism. Karen Stenner, author of The Authoritarian Dynamic, identifies “a psychological predisposition of some people to become intolerant in response to a threat — they suddenly become intensely focused on defending their in-group, kicking out foreigners and non-conformists, and stamping out dissent within the group. At those times they are more attracted to strongmen and the use of force. At other times, when they perceive no such threat, they are not unusually intolerant.”
As luck would have it, the values of the Plus-Sum group can directly threaten the Zero-Sum group.
Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt describes “how globalization and rising prosperity have changed the values and behavior of the urban elite, leading them to talk and act in ways that unwittingly activate authoritarian tendencies in a subset of the nationalists. That’s one reason immigration has been so central in nearly all right-wing populist movements.”
It’s not simply racism, Haidt says. It relates to “the general human need to live in a stable and coherent moral order.”
If we understand where nationalists are coming from, we may begin to figure out ways to reduce the friction.
According to Haidt, “Nationalists see patriotism as a virtue; they think their country and its culture are unique and worth preserving. Nationalists feel a bond with their country, and they believe that this bond imposes moral obligations both ways: Citizens have a duty to love and serve their country, and governments are duty bound to protect their own people. Governments should place their citizens’ interests above the interests of people in other countries.
“Having a shared sense of identity, norms, and history generally promotes trust…. Societies with high trust … produce many beneficial outcomes for their citizens: lower crime rates, lower transaction costs for businesses, higher levels of prosperity, and a propensity toward generosity.”
Seen this way, there is nothing necessarily racist about it. It’s love of country, community, and mutual trust.
But played out between the Plus-Summers and the Zero-Summers, it becomes a clash of moral visions.
The challenge is to balance the desire to live in a mutually supportive, trustworthy community with the obligation to “welcome the stranger.”
Sounds simple. But what if you feel deeply threatened by the changes to your world and the challenges to your worldview that the “stranger” represents? What do you do? Especially when the other half of the country — the Plus-Sum globalists — treat you like you’re a rabid racist and xenophobe, where do you turn? You may gravitate toward the far right-wing nationalist and authoritarian politician.
And if we want to reduce the collision between the two world views, what do we do?
Karen Stenner ends The Authoritarian Dynamic with some advice that may rub the globalist Plus-Summers (of which I am one) the wrong way. But it may be a small price to pay.
Stenner writes, “[A]ll the available evidence indicates that exposure to difference, talking about difference, and applauding difference — the hallmarks of liberal democracy — are the surest ways to aggravate those who are innately intolerant…. Paradoxically, then, it would seem that we can best limit intolerance of difference by parading, talking about, and applauding our sameness…. Ultimately, nothing inspires greater tolerance from the intolerant than an abundance of common and unifying beliefs, practices, rituals, institutions, and processes.”
In other words, minimize the backlash against efforts to build a more open and inclusive society by stressing the importance of a strong and affirming society in the first place. While remaining true to the principles of inclusion and equality, we need to understand the impact those “new” values have on others with more “traditional” values— the threat that values like globalization and openness pose to those with different priorities.
Ironically, the globalist Plus-Summers are usually attuned to honoring diverse cultural identities around the world.
They may need to start applying that same tolerance and inclusiveness to cultural difference at home.