Three Cheers (and Three Arguments) for Liberal Nationalism!


This past Fourth of July weekend reminded me that there are two kinds of nationalism: good and bad. Everybody knows about the bad kind. I am a big fan of the good strain though, exemplified by the American founders, Lincoln, MLK, Churchill, and possibly figures like Mazzini in Italy and Renan in France. Listen to the “I Have a Dream” speech again; it is a staggering manifesto of American nationalism.

A healthy liberal nationalism has several important benefits. First, nationalism is a form of deep community that binds together in bonds of quasi-kinship individuals who are not personally known to each other, who may be separated by vast physical and social distances, and who may not have any close common ancestry. This community seems to fulfill a deep-seated psychological need and contributes to large-scale social cohesion. Nationalism is the political manifestation of the inherent human need for connectedness and community beyond mere family and tribe.

Second, nationalism is the main reason that the most destructive wars have become obsolete and near-unthinkable. The main causes of war in the 20th century  had to do with the quest for empire — either expanding it, or preventing other great powers from doing so. In the West, the final nails went into the coffin of the imperial project in 1989. The main reason is that nationalism makes imperialism too costly. World War II was the last war of imperial expansion – indeed, it was the final paroxysm of the Age of Empire. Building or expanding a multinational empire – whether called the “Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere”, “Third Reich” or the “New Roman Empire” – was the explicit primary war aim of all three Axis powers. For Britain and France, defending and preserving their existing empires was an important secondary war aim. As the Red Army crossed over into Eastern Europe in 1944, building an empire became a co-equal war aim of the Soviet Union, on par with retribution and the permanent destruction of Germany as a major world power.

As all these powers came to learn, nationalism makes empire — pursued either through direct military conquest, occupation and domination, or through client regimes that need to be subsidized, monitored and controlled — prohibitively expensive, requiring both material resources and a commitment of political will that are difficult to mobilize, even for a totalitarian dictatorship. For the Soviets, holding on to their Eastern European satellites after the 1956 Hungarian revolution proved ruinous. The United States learned a similar lesson in Vietnam: fighting a determined and well-armed foe motivated by nationalism on his native soil requires more effort than a democratic superpower with global commitments is able to muster. As a direct result of nationalism, the former great powers have quit their empires, abandoned wars of conquest, and either chosen softer means of projecting power within more limited zones of influence or, like Germany and Japan, dropped out of the great power game altogether.

Third, liberal nationalism makes democracy work better. This may seem counterintuitive, given nationalism’s association with war, head-breaking, and far-right movements, but it is true nonetheless. It is often repeated in reference to the EU that there cannot be a European democracy without a European demos. Without a widespread sense of national allegiance and public spirit, it is difficult to make democracy work. Multi-ethnic empires cannot be democratic. Ethno-states, by contrast, while not necessarily democratic, at least contain that possibility. One can, of course, find examples of anti-democratic ethno-states. But examples of democratic multi-ethnic empires are much harder to come by. And of course nationalism does not need to be ethnically-based, as the U.S. proves (or used to prove). It is one of Russia’s tragedies, incidentally, that it became a multi-ethnic empire before it became a nation. This is the principal reason why there has never been a democratic Russia. 

Unfortunately, we live in a post-nationalist America that is unraveling along economic, ethnic, racial, social, regional and political lines. Even more unfortunately, unlike previous ruling classes, our current elite rejects nationalism wholesale, and instead embraces a utopian and explicitly anti-nationalist ideology that rejects the country’s past as irredeemably morally tainted and that deliberately exacerbates and revels in the unraveling. 

Don’t believe me? Watch this video of Nancy Pelosi speaking after visiting the southern border to observe the slow motion catastrophe there. 

One of the things she says is, “This is a community with a border going through it.” This has got to be one of the single dumbest things ever uttered by a nationally prominent politician since Marshal Pétain said something similar in 1940 after watching 100,000 Germans march down the Champs-Élysées. And yet, this is obviously what the Administration and its allies believe — that Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Mexico and the United States are a “community” with borders cruelly lacerating it. Oh yeah, she also says, “We are all Americans,” referring to Central and South America.

When I was in college, I was taught that nationalism has been the main driving force in international affairs since the French Revolution. My guess is that just as the rise of nationalism has had enormous consequences for world politics, so will its downfall. For example, the demise of nationalism is not uniform, either within states or across states, so the tension between nationalism and anti-nationalism will definitely produce some interesting conflicts. The whole red state/blue state phenomenon in the U.S. is a reflection of this tension, for example. And there is no shortage of nationalism in Russia, say, or China.

We in the West need to seriously reexamine the way we think about nationalism. And so, in belated celebration of liberal nationalism, here is Ray Charles:


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  1. user_2505 Contributor

    A brainy and interesting post, Oblomov. Intuitively, I know I don’t agree with every word 100%, but you’re coming so close to the bulls’-eye of truth that I’m not inclined to quibble.

    Your post is like Rubik’s Cube; I’m rotating some of the points, looking for the patterns, failing to find a major weakness. Call it Oblomov’s Cube. 

    Pretty heavyweight, though. Are you sure you’re not (Rico member) Son of Spengler’s father Oswald?

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  2. Cow Girl Thatcher
    Cow Girl

    I LOVE it! I mean the parts about “deep community” and “human need for connectedness” and “bonds of quasi-kinship.”  Yes–that is what I love about America. We are so different from one another because we live in such a vast nation, and we have different traditions and cultures. BUT…we can join together as “relatives” in our love of country. Why do we love our country? Because we don’t bow to a king. Because we feel, as individuals, that we are important to the whole. Because we know that America is an idea, not a leader, or a bloodline. Because this has always been a place with a sense that limits are only self-imposed.

    I’m still processing the rest of your essay. But, I’m a huge fan of those first two paragraphs.

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  3. user_2505 Contributor

    And we’re only at two comments for one of the most thought-provoking posts on Ricochet today. I wonder if it’s because of the partly ironic (but not once Oblomov explains it) title. 

    One thing that always makes me shake my head at conservative publishers like Regnery is their compulsion to add the word “liberal” to the title, like “Spin Sisters! How Women’s Magazines Sell Liberalism”. The problem is they mean progressives or leftists. Using “liberal” to describe them is state of the art 1962.  Whereas Oblomov is craftier and more careful. This post deserves more attention. 

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  4. Oblomov Member

    Oblomov: Are you sure you’re not (Rico member) Son of Spengler’s father Oswald?

     Gary, thanks for the kind words. No, I’m not Oswald. Shucks, I’m just a regular Joe trying to make the best sense I can of this crazy old world.  And no, I’m not David Goldman either, unfortunately:

    Please, quibble away!

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  5. Oblomov Member

    Thanks Cow Girl!

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  6. user_48342 Member

    You can’t possibly expect us to believe that ethnic states are less prone to wars.  Just look at Europe at any time its history; heck, just look at the preset situation there.  There’s a reason the Europeans have suffered so much more than us for a equivalent amount of fiscal austerity: petty nationalism has poisoned the austerity process, something we in America simply haven’t had to deal with.

    Also, I disagree that liberal and ethnic nationalism are comparable in any way.  Liberal nationalism has built-in limiters on nationalist extremism; ethnic nationalism has no inherent limits at all (Nazi Germany and WWI-era Turkey come to mind).

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  7. Oblomov Member

    Joseph, I am making a different claim: that nationalism makes 19th century-style imperialism practically impossible. That kind of imperialism is what brought us the big wars of the 19th and 20th century. I think Europe has learned this lesson the hard way. I would be surprised, for example, if Russia went on to conquer Ukraine in the traditional way. Putin prefers to do it through subversion and subterfuge instead. Why? Because he has permanently solved Ukraine’s nationalism deficit. 

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  8. Oblomov Member

    Now, you could argue that it’s nukes, not nationalism, that makes big wars unthinkable. That would be a pretty good argument. But I think that even without nukes major wars between big powers would be pretty hard to imagine. It just doesn’t pay to conquer people who don’t want to be conquered.

    I also don’t see any reason why ethnic nationalism can’t be liberal. I can think of several examples. 

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  9. Gaius Inactive

    Joseph Eagar:

    Just look at Europe at any time its history;

    Before the French revolution, Europe consisted largely of dynastic states with the occasional republican city state. The century following the failure of Napoleon’s imperial ambitions was characterized by the peaceful coexistence of nation states through the “concert of Europe.” It’s no accident that this peace unraveled due to a crisis originating in one of Europe’s remaining multi-ethnic imperial states–Austria Hungary. Another one of these states, the Ottoman Empire, did not fully transform into the nation state of turkey until after the war.


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  10. Gaius Inactive

    heck, just look at the preset situation there.

    The current crisis in Europe has it’s roots in Ukraine’s failure to to create a working multi-ethnic state.

    Liberal nationalism has built-in limiters on nationalist extremism; ethnic nationalism has no inherent limits at all

    The U.S. probably would have annexed the whole of Mexico in 1848 were it not for reluctance to create an unworkable multi-cultural republic.

    (Nazi Germany and WWI-era Turkey come to mind).

    Hitler’s bizarre racial theories and the factor they played in Nazi expansionism, are such an outlier that they can hardly be used to make a larger point about nationalism

    History bears out Oblomov’s thesis.

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  11. user_48342 Member


    heck, just look at the preset situation there.

    (Nazi Germany and WWI-era Turkey come to mind).

    Hitler’s bizarre racial theories and the factor they played in Nazi expansionism, are such an outlier that they can hardly be used to make a larger point about nationalismcau

    History bears out Oblomov’s thesis.

    What about the Armenian genocide? The Turks didn’t even have outlandish racial theories to justify their actions, they just did it.  I also don’t see how Mexico is relevant to this discussion; liberal  nationalism and multiculturalism are not the same thing.  You can have a monocultural multi-ethnic national identity; it’s called assimilation.  Refraining from biting off more territory than you can assimilate is perfectly compatible with liberal nationalism.

    Finally, Europe’s problems go much deeper than one outlying country losing territory.  European fascist groups made most of their gains before Russia invaded the Crimea.  Why have there been more nationalist extremism in Europe than America since 2010?   We’ve had the same amount of fiscal austerity.

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  12. Inactive

    We’ll done, Mr. O! I, like Mr. McVey, need to rotate the tiles some more on the Oblomov Cube before posting anything of substance to this very  thoughtful essay. I’m also now going to take a very deep breath and watch the Pelosi video.  Having heard much from the minority leader, however, not sure I will find it to be her  “dumbest”. (But my gag reflex likely won’t discern a qualitative difference.)

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  13. Oblomov Member

    The U.S. used to do assimilation; we don’t do it anymore because our ruling class doesn’t believe in it: it is contrary to our state religion, i.e., multiculturalism.

    As far as the resurgence of malignant nationalism in France, Hungary, Greece and elsewhere, the blame for this lies squarely with the European elites and their hare-brained notion that abolishing the nation state is a good idea.

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