Could eNationalism Be a Thing?
And Is It a Threat to National Identity?
Today I’ve got another one of my periodical posts where I speculate rampantly about theoretical concepts with very little empirical falsifiablity, and then hope someone finds it interesting enough to disagree in an informative fashion. As usual, my thinking is about what it means to be a “nation.” I am preoccupied with the idea of the nation, as I’ve written about before: how immigrant integration can be improved, how Emperor Palpatine can teach us about national identity, a brief history of immigration, the appropriate size of a state, the rising expatriacy of Americans, and the difficult politics of Southern identity. Today, I want to dig into the how national identity relates to the Internet. Here’s the sort of thinking that has prompted by musings:
Let me start with an axiomatic claim: The nation exists in the minds of its people, nowhere else. The nation is not genetic, it is not physical. The French nation only “exists” as long as there is a group of people who recognize each other as French, and probably who are recognized as French by others. When that identity is seen to be a primary basis for some kind of culture, geographic, ethnic, or political identity, rather than just some kind of club, we start to call it a nation. Nationality is particularly notable for its being, one way or another, heritable. But crucially, nations are imagined communities of people who view each other as connected, despite never having met. Identify yourself as an American, and other Americans cluster to you when in non-American places. And that clustering has some kind of ethno-political meaning.
So, what creates national identity? Common examples include shared historical identification, shared language, or a shared traumatic experience, such as war. Solid candidates, all. Crucially, they all related to sharing, that is, experiencing something together. Nationality is, on some level, about togetherness: we Americans are a group that is together for some valuable reason. We share something in common that, say, the villainous Canadians do not share. We’ve got that special American je ne sais quoi. And when you’ve got American-ness, or Roman-ness, or French-ness, or Arab-ness, your fellow ethnics welcome you into their community.
American identity has been historically unique in that it is not closely tied to a specific, narrow ethnic lineage. While many groups have struggled to be included as Americans, broadly speaking American identity has constantly been broadening to include more and more formerly disparate groups, absorbing them into American-ness.
But how? Here, I argue the defining factor is not language or shared trauma, but physical proximity. Immigrants were cut off from the old country and immersed in a new land. And the land, I mean the physical rock and dirt, is meaningful for the nation. Americans have viewed themselves as spiritually land-connected since the beginning. The “new world” had symbolic and emotional significance by virtue of physical separation from the “old world.” It would be a City upon a Hill. The purple mountain majesty, the land of the free… our physical land, or great wildernesses, the empty prairie (of course not actually empty, but viewed as such by Americans of the day), was inspiring to early Americans.
The vision of settlement created an American identity: the common experience of building a new nation. This experience included elements like frontier wars, large-scale immigration, progress of legal reforms, high levels of domestic migration, cheap or free land, expansive democratic enfranchisement, and ultimately an ideology of democratic superiority. But all of this rested on the shared experience of building a nation, a new nation, a young nation.
But today, America has been built. Yes, there are still changes, but we are now an ancien regime in our own right. History has happened to us, and there is no longer “open land” for economic settlement, nor the equivalent of “open land” in terms of legal development. We have interests and institutions as settled and entrenched as any as were ever found in the “old world” our ancestors fled. Thus, the founding experience and essential creator of American identity is dead.
Nonetheless, the American dream is not dead. The vision of settlement and uplift neatly segued into a vision of America as the protector of the free world. The benefits we received from the land, we would return to the world that sent us here. We would advance democracy, capitalism, and freedom against autocrats, communism, and totalitarianism. You can think we failed at this and still recognize that this was the package sold to Americans, and the vision we have made for ourselves.
Bolstered by highly centralized national media outlets, and especially the advent of TV and the traumatic experience of WWII, the United States developed a traditional nationhood. WWII was truly annealing, and national cable news helped promote a shared culture and identity. The homogenous 1940s and 1950s were not, in this view, an aberration, but rather were the moment when American identity revealed its post-war transition from the “settlement nationality” of our past into a modern, and more typical, ethno-nationalism, more likely to be closed off.
This nationalism worked, especially as long as it was constantly reinfored by the contrast with communism. The victory over communism then enabled celebratory nationalism in the 1990s. But with 9/11, the vision of the U.S. as the bringer of capitalism and freedom was challenged: now the very people we’d been bringing it to were recoiling against us. The enemy was at the gates. What to do, what to do?
The Internet came into its own in the 1990s, but really reached full-blown adulthood, permeating into all of our everyday lives, in the 2000s. With the advent of smartphones and social media, the Internet has become an incredibly powerful tool for social connectivity.
Many older people lament the decline of face-to-face socialization brought about by social media. They suggest that traditional, valuable social forms are being destroyed, and fear young people are becoming isolated and disconnected. I think that fear is wrong in the United States. Rather, something far more dangerous is happening.
The Internet is successfully enabling people to form communities of common interest, experience, and identification that can compete with, and indeed overrule, nationality. Home-grown “lone wolf” terrorists are an obvious case of this. The only other serious cases in U.S. history that are similar are the Fenian Raids of the 19th century, but those, if anything, prove my point, as they relied on newfound improvements in communication between Ireland and the United States, enabling competition for identity. But beyond this, the rise of “alternative” news media, and of huge platforms with mass traffic that explicitly cater to one ideological view or the other, enable far less costly coordination of ideological communities than ever before.
These coordinated communities also enable shared experiences, such as communal grieving or outrage over tragedies, or the shared experience of boycott participation or shame-campaigns. By coordinating these actions, these communities succeed in creating common experiences, and enabling their members to feel like they have a shared trauma as well. This annealing force creates a community that identifies with each other across distance. In the past, only religion and nation could reliably command such long-range identification and loyalty. But today, the coordination and communication costs are very low, even as the legitimacy of many nation-states is at an all-time low.
So in come the Ideological Nations: the Bernie Bros, the Trumpkins, the Alt Right, Black Lives Matter, etc. I’m not saying these groups have the same goals or are morally equivalent, I’m saying their rise and prevalence as communities of interest and concern is unlike the rise of organized political movements in the past. These groups are at least as concerned with identifying members of the tribe and expressing solidarity as they are with any particular political agenda or policy goal. Their strategies often seem suboptimal for achieving specific goals, and their rhetoric is explicitly communitarian, couched in the language of validating each others’ experiences and promoting solidarity around a shared sense of identity.
This is sometimes erroneously referred to as identity politics. I avoid that term, however, because I think it explains both too much and too little. All politics somehow relates to a question of identity, while the new political movements crucially relate not to specific identity, but to a new community of shared or common identification. These are the Twitter-swarms, the trolls, the SJWs, pick your derogatory term for them, what you’re really seeing is a community of solidarity.
This is the kind of community that inspires soldiers to stay in line in battle. Not just love of the abstract country, but belief that the community of combat has your back, that you have solidarity, that you have a shared experience and motive and interest. Except for soldiers, that sense is created by actually risking life and limb and sometimes dying. For many new political movements, that solidarity is created through information dominance by narrow political outlets, interjection of community-generated news into previously “apolitical” parts of life, and the aggressive proselytization of political ur-narratives that presume to explain the deep structures of society: “privilege” as an all-consuming explanation is matched by the conspiratorial contrarianism of the “Neoreactionaries.”
So what’s my point? My point is that nationalism is really useful. Nationalism lets us coordinate resources under the aegis of the nation-state so that we can alleviate poverty, go to the moon, establish rules of conduct, etc. Nationalism, in the sense of a common identification of each other as sharing common identity and interest, is what makes good governance and an ordered state possible. Without nationalism, the nation-state lacks legitimacy. If people feel that their nation is not represented, then they will ultimately seek to create a new and different state.
You can see where this is going.
If the advent of social media, the Internet, and the deep integration of political content with everyday life has indeed created intensely-networked ideological communities of shared identity and experience, then we have a serious problem. These new Ideological Nations represent a threat to traditional nationalism, and ultimately a destabilizing force to the nation-state. The fact that an Alt-Right troll and a BLM-SJW probably don’t view each other as having anything in common is more dangerous than either side’s policy preferences. The fact that these groups basically don’t see the other side as being part of the same community, means they see each other more like how Americans of 50 years ago saw the communists than how they saw the other party. And that is incredibly dangerous. That eats away at a nation-state. The festering sore of multinationalism destroys the fabric of liberal democracy, steadily chipping away at public willingness to sacrifice for one another and empathize with one another.
In other words, the old folks were wrong: the danger of the Internet isn’t that it destroys community, but that it creates community. It’s just that it creates communities that don’t always fit into the current structures of nation-states, which can lead to violence, instability, and extremism.
Historically, the way this ends is either civil war (which we’ve done before the last time we had a multinational USA), or a clever outside conqueror. But we live in a new age, and that could never happen to us.
Check out my Podcast about the history of American migration.
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I’m a graduate of the George Washington University’s Elliott School with an MA in International Trade and Investment Policy, and an economist at USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service. I like to learn about migration, the cotton industry, airplanes, trade policy, space, Africa, and faith. I’m married to a kickass Kentucky woman named Ruth.
My posts are not endorsed by and do not in any way represent the opinions of the United States government or any branch, department, agency, or division of it. My writing represents exclusively my own opinions. I did not receive any financial support or remuneration from any party for this research. More’s the pity.