Last week, I wrote about the nationalist subcurrents in Trump’s State of the Union address. I argued that there are basically two types of nationalism: Civic nationalism, the kind usually embraced by left-liberals, which implies a powerful, emotive loyalty to the ideas of liberalism itself — equality, liberty, self-determination, and so forth; and ethnic nationalism (also ethno-nationalism), the more familiar kind, which contends that feelings of enduring national unity issue from ‘organic’ bonds like race, ethnicity, language, mystical destiny and so forth.
Civic nationalism is basically dead in America, as evinced by historically low levels of confidence in American ideas and institutions, and historically high cynicism about liberal principles like freedom and democracy. My private (somewhat eccentric, though by no means unique) theory is that this was more or less always destined to happen; as Mark E. Button writes in Contract, Culture, and Citizenship: Transformative Liberalism from Hobbes to Rawls, “The modern social contract theorists…address the even more vexing problem of sustaining ethical attachments to artificial bonds over time…The project of securing fidelity to promises and allegiance to political institutions over generations motivates a significant transformative ethos within the heart of modern liberalism that is often overlooked by critics and defenders alike.” I think Button is right: Keeping people hyped up and emotional about theoretical principles over time is a central challenge of liberalism, and I differ from Button only in observing that, in America, it appears to have gotten the better of us.
Ethnic nationalism in America is an even stranger proposition, seeing as its success — that is, an ethnic group attaining political autonomy — would mean the destruction of America itself. It’s an existential threat to the republic only insofar as people take it seriously, but it mostly appears to me that Americans are so thoroughly liberal that the vast majority of them — even avowed racists — can’t get behind the organic-unitive-collectivist aspects of ethnic nationalism, which subjugate the individual will. America isn’t a nation-state, and it has no national identity in the proper sense.
With this, the National Review Online’s Jonah Goldberg took exception. Per Goldberg:
First, of course America is a nation-state. This isn’t a philosophical point. As a matter of law and lexicology, we are nation-state. We have borders and a government. Other nation-states recognize us as a nation-state…
Goldberg points out many people don’t know what they’re talking about and say “nation state” when they mean “country,” though I’m not sure why he would indulge this kind of mistake. (And they say the right is the party of words having meanings!) Consider Walker Connor:
“Whatever the American people are (and they may well be sui generis), they are not a nation in the pristine sense of the word. However, the unfortunate habit of calling them a nation, and thus verbally equating American with German, Chinese, English and the like, has seduced scholars into erroneous analogies…Far more detrimental to the study of nationalism, however, has been the propensity to employ the term nation as a substitute for that territorial juridical unit, the state.”
Connor points out that the willy-nilly usage of nation eventually led to a similarly promiscuous deployment of the term nation-state, despite the fact that only about 10% of all states worldwide, per his count, were actual nation-states. The USA is not among them: Our statehood is not the fruit of any one nation’s achievement of political autonomy. Goldberg is correct that people are often wrong and wrong to regard them as correct anyway. He goes on:
The difference between me and many of the liberals decrying Trump’s nationalism and populism is that I dislike nationalism and populism of the Left and the Right, regardless of the brand names they hide behind. They just don’t like nationalism and populism when it’s not on their terms.
What Goldberg cites as ‘nationalism’ is something more like an extremely weak form of communitarianism. He cites the following Obama speech as an example of “liberal nationalism.”
More than that, the mission only succeeded because every member of that unit trusted each other — because you can’t charge up those stairs, into darkness and danger, unless you know that there’s somebody behind you, watching your back. So it is with America. . . . This nation is great because we worked as a team. This nation is great because we get each other’s backs.
First things first: this isn’t nationalism. Nationalism holds that unity, an organic and inescapable wholeness, precedes and outranks the individual will. Obama seems to be arguing, quite to the contrary, that American greatness arises from the mutual choice individual make to “[work] as a team,” which is a notably optional kind of unit. You join a team; you’re born into a nation. Obama is not a nationalist; he’s maybe a communitarian. That even that soft intervention to try to save liberalism from its acidic hyper-individualist impulses is too much for Goldberg perhaps helps explain why civic nationalism, that modest proposal to keep liberalism afloat on bonds of ideological loyalty, has collapsed.
Which raises the real issue, in my view, with what Obama said: he’s wrong. America is not a nation that gets each other’s backs. It’s no longer a country with a citizenry that trusts the institutions charged with bearing the weight of its founding ideals. What Button worried about has come to pass. Spinoza said that “the preservation of the state chiefly depends on the subjects’ fidelity and constancy,” and it doesn’t appear we have that anymore.
Goldberg’s mistake is thinking that this is a prescriptive statement having to do with the way American conservatives exploit nationalist impulses. But I am not arguing that conservatives should do nationalism better or differently or more like liberals; I’m arguing that the nationalism we see in Trump is a reaction to the dissolution of prior forms of social cohesion, and that it’s doomed to fail and fail in a particularly ugly way. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men will not put America together again, but they may turn us into something even worse.