How Important Is the Nation-State?


Today I’ve been reading over the first issue of American Affairs, a new intellectual journal that appears to have grown out of the (largely Claremont-based) American Greatness movement. American Affairs seems to understand itself as a possible seed-ground for exploring an intellectual foundation to Trumpism.

I should admit forthrightly that I look on this project as a skeptic, and as one who considers that the founders of this project have taken a large (not to say foolhardy) burden on themselves. I’m not, in general, the sort of person who seeks to shut down ambitious intellectual projects. But to my mind, the trouble with American Greatness was always the extent to which it understood itself in rejectionist terms. The spirit of the thing seemed not to be, “The right could use some fresh ideas around now, so let’s explore,” so much as, “The whole conservative movement is intellectually and (probably) morally bankrupt, so we’re starting over. Sign onto our program or be rendered irrelevant.”

That kind of “convert or die” attitude makes it hard to climb aboard, especially if you think (as I do) that there’s quite a lot of good to be found in the conservative movement from Buckley through the dawn of Trump. I’m in favor of exploring new ideas and making needed adjustments, but I’m also quite opposed to chucking free-market economics and neoconservative geopolitics as though they were groceries past their expiration date. Reading the American Greatness blog, I regularly have the same thought: This is all fine, but apart from the overt belligerence, these arguments could easily have been advanced in the conservative movement of yesteryear. What has your blanket excommunication accomplished, except to insulate yourselves from critique that would likely be quite helpful?

Having said all this, I pulled up the first issue of the new journal resolved to give it a fair shot. I could only read three articles without subscribing, so I haven’t gone through the whole thing. Here’s my reaction thus far: This reads to me like choir-preaching. It’s hard to see how these arguments would be compelling to anyone who wasn’t already deeply sympathetic to the perspective being advanced. Perhaps that’s the idea; after all, if the rest of us anachronisms have already been excommunicated, maybe we’re not worth the trouble. Or we could just say (to put the point less snarkily) that it can be acceptable to have a journal. It still seems a little unfortunate, because after all, Buckleyite conservatism has been developed across many years, and even its origins involved some large and very theoretical brains. If the Great Americans are looking to toss out whole realms of conservative theory (or perhaps I have misunderstood?), they should really be revved to start laying some serious, theoretical foundations. I would have expected that to be the point of starting a journal.

Of course, it’s only the first issue. Maybe they’ll get there. But here’s a concrete example of where the argument seems so thin that I can only suppose that the author is presuming a sympathetic readership. In his opening article, Joshua Mitchell argues that Trumpism is not populist, because it in fact represents a struggle against a real enemy (globalists) on behalf of a real good (national sovereignty). Once we understand the evils of globalism, we will appreciate that Trumpism, as a part of the global war against globalism, is substantive and entirely coherent, and not (as detractors like me suspect) an emotion-driven uprising whose goals mostly boil down to a resentment-and-nostalgia-tinged wish-list. The globalists are deeply wrong, Mitchell argues, because they do not appreciate that national sovereignty is, “the final word on how to order collective life.”

At this point in the 9.000-word article, I was intrigued, presuming that Mitchell would now undertake to argue for the extraordinarily strong privileging of the nation-state that, in his view, is the motivating and justifying principle behind Trumpism. Although I have encountered a great many people who assert the primacy of the nation-state, I have yet to hear a really thorough defense. Here’s what Mitchell gives us to justify his principle:

The Peace of Westphalia, which formally inaugurated the modern European system of nation-states, came into effect in 1648. Shortly thereafter, in 1651, Hobbes wrote one of the great works in the history of political philosophy, Leviathan. In a now-common reading of that work, and correct so far as it goes, Hobbes’s Leviathan provides us with the individuated self, oriented by self-interest and the fear of death. These ideas are in Leviathan, but they only scratch the surface of that great work. Hobbes’s deeper concern in Leviathan was the English Civil War, which in no small part was a religious war involving the claims of Roman Catholics and Presbyterians. The doctrinal difference between the Roman Catholics and the Presbyterians need not concern us; what matters is where each of these Christian sects located sovereignty. Hobbes thought that Roman Catholics were guilty of what we might call “false universalism,” because they vested sovereignty at the supra-state level, in Rome. Hobbes thought that the Presbyterians were guilty of what we might call “radical particularism,” because they vested sovereignty at the sub-state level, in private conscience. The English Civil War occurred, on Hobbes’s reading, because of these religious wagers that peace and justice were possible without national sovereignty. In his estimation, these supra- and sub-state alternatives are perennial temptations of the human heart. Their defenders may promise much, but neither “commodious living” nor justice are possible through them. Only by vesting sovereignty in the state can there be improvement for citizens and workable understandings of justice.

The post-1989 experiment with globalism and identity politics demonstrates that Hobbes was correct, so long ago, that supra- and sub-state sovereignty are perennial temptations of the human heart. The post-1989 version of that temptation saw global elites use the apparatus of the state to bolster so-called free trade, international law, global norms, and international accords about “climate change,” the advances towards which purported to demonstrate the impotence of the state itself. In such a world managed from above, the only task left for the Little People was to feel good—or feel permanent shame—about their identities, and perhaps to get involved in a little “political activism” now and again, to show their commitment (on Facebook, of course) to “social justice.” The Little People in such a world were not citizens, they were idle “folks,” incapable of working together, because what really mattered was not rational deliberation with their neighbors, but what they owed, or were owed, by virtue of their identities. Determining the calculus of their debt, in turn, were Very White Progressives in the Democratic Party who cared not a jot about the real outstanding debt of $19 trillion owed by the U.S. treasury. These Very White Progressives sought to adjudicate justice from above, by legal carve-outs or, if necessary, by executive actions pertaining, for example, to transsexual bathrooms, so that all “identities” could have their due. Fortunately, 2016 was year the American electorate decided this ghastly fate was not to be theirs.

That’s it. In two paragraphs, Mitchell dispenses with the absolute prioritizing of national sovereignty, and moves right along to lambasting universities, discussing different possible strains of nationalism, and complaining about the undue influence of European thinkers on Buckleyite conservatives. This is an absolutely crucial piece of his argument (and indeed, in his view, a dividing line so critical that people who fail to side with him should not even be regarded as Americans but rather as “proxies for globalism”). Nevertheless, he evidently regards those two paragraphs as sufficient to establish the point.

This seems to me like a pretty blatant example of what I call “the Fallacy of Confusing Complexity.” Political and moral reasoning are really so much easier and less complicated if we presume that we don’t have significant moral obligations to non-Americans. Once people start thinking they might have obligations that go “above” (cosmopolitanism) or “below” (individual conscience) national boundaries, who knows where we’ll end up?! Probably fighting among ourselves, like the English did! The only solution is to insist that national sovereignty is absolutely primary, and that no other sources of obligation can really count.

As a pragmatic claim it might be true. But of course, life often seems simpler when we dismiss as too messy or complicated obligations that may in fact still exist. I think patriotism and shared nationality mean something, but I don’t they don’t mean everything. I believe that I can have obligations to non-Americans for all sorts of reasons: Because they are my blood relatives or personal friends, or because they are my co-religionists, or because our nations are allies and have assumed obligations towards one another, or possibly just because they are human beings in great need. Any of those might, in some respect, affect my compatriots as well as myself, thus going outside (either above or below) national sovereignty.

In other words, I don’t see how national sovereignty can be the absolute “final word” on collective life. Moral obligation is indeed quite complicated at times! But we aren’t entitled to dismiss moral truths just because they’re complicated and confusing.

What do others think? Is there more to this argument than I have appreciated, or is it really as thin as it seems to me?

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  1. Mike LaRoche Inactive
    Mike LaRoche

    My irony meter just broke again.

    • #241
  2. RightAngles Member

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):

    DocJay (View Comment):
    Jamie I have zero intention of altering my perceptions. Feel free to have the last word if you choose . I’m out.

    I don’t seek to alter your perceptions, just implore you to abide by our community standards and not insult someone because you have an inferiority complex about her intellect.

    Oh that’s very funny. Because I know what DocJay’s IQ is.

    • #242
  3. Jamie Lockett Inactive
    Jamie Lockett

    RightAngles (View Comment):

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):

    DocJay (View Comment):
    Jamie I have zero intention of altering my perceptions. Feel free to have the last word if you choose . I’m out.

    I don’t seek to alter your perceptions, just implore you to abide by our community standards and not insult someone because you have an inferiority complex about her intellect.

    Oh that’s very funny. Because I know what DocJay’s IQ is.

    One can be smart and still have an inferiority complex.

    • #243
  4. Jamie Lockett Inactive
    Jamie Lockett

    Apologies to @docjay for an unwarranted assumption made in frustration.

    • #244
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