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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:Published in