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Nationalism: The Conservative Dilemma

nationalism is a dilemma for conservatives

Soon after President Trump’s inauguration, National Review published a “defense of nationalism” by Ramesh Ponnuru and Rich Lowry. Although they acknowledged the dangers of ethnocentrism, Ponnuru and Lowry contended that “inclusive” nationalism can evade these risks. What would this brand of nationalism look like? Here is the essay’s key passage:

The outlines of a benign nationalism are not hard to discern. It includes loyalty to one’s country: a sense of belonging, allegiance, and gratitude to it. And this sense attaches to the country’s people and culture, not just to its political institutions and laws. Such nationalism includes solidarity with one’s countrymen, whose welfare comes before, albeit not to the complete exclusion of, that of foreigners. When this nationalism finds political expression, it supports a federal government that is jealous of its sovereignty, forthright and unapologetic about advancing its people’s interests, and mindful of the need for national cohesion.

Although there is some debate about whether it would be better described as “patriotism,” few conservatives would object to this sentiment. The question is whether it has any basis in American experience or is accessible to us today. Otherwise, it’s a Goldilocks confection—neither too hot nor too cold, but just right.

Ponnuru and Lowry are evasive about the sources of benign nationalism. They allude to “the sensible and moderate form that nationalism has taken in America,” but give few examples of figures, laws, or institutions that might represent it. If American nationalism has traditionally been sensible and moderate, why is it so hard to document?

One reason is that our nationalism wasn’t so inclusive until fairly recently. Before the twentieth century, it revolved around the idea that Americans were an “Anglo-Protestant” people. This conception of national identity excluded not only blacks and Asians, but also Slavs, Catholics, and Jews. Even Germans were suspect, particularly when they engaged in non-Yankee practices such as frequenting beer gardens.

Anglo-Protestant nationalism became difficult to sustain in the face of increased immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe toward the end of the nineteenth century. This situation provoked Theodore Roosevelt’s famous exhortation to “true Americanism.” True Americanism was a compromise: it was open in principle to all citizens, but required the rejection of any foreign loyalties, distinctive cultural practices, or alien habits of thought.

True Americanism seems to be the kind of thing Ponnuru and Lowry had in mind when they described benign nationalism. Although they were reluctant to acknowledge the historic connection between American nationalism and racism, they might have pointed out that Roosevelt was, by the standards of his day, a supporter of black civil rights. As a matter of political theory, in any case, it is not difficult to extract true Americanism from bigotry. TR’s demand—to “stand shoulder to shoulder, not asking as to the ancestry or creed of our comrades, but only demanding that they be in very truth Americans, and that we all work together, heart, hand, and head, for the honor and the greatness of our common country”—is color-blind.

An updated version of true Americanism seems like a solution to the Goldilocks objection, then. It is inclusive without being attenuated, moderate but principled, and energetic without being mindlessly aggressive. TR might be a better model for Donald Trump than the slave-trading Indian fighter Andrew Jackson.

But there is a problem with true Americanism, or whatever it may be called, that’s almost invisible in the current debate among conservatives. That is its dependence on state coercion.

TR and other advocates of American nationalism did not imagine that speeches were enough to make the right kind of citizen. In addition to immigration restrictions and laws promoting the use of English, they advocated a program of enforced assimilation that involved compulsory public education and restrictions on civic association. So-called Blaine amendments that prohibited the direction of public funds to Catholic schools were a precursor to this agenda.

So there is serious tension between the ends nationalists pursue and the means that conservatives are usually willing to endorse. School choice, for example, is hard to square with the centralizing policies on which American nationalism has historically relied. Protecting the freedom to join institutions and communities based on religious, cultural, or indeed ethnic affiliations means accepting that these identities will sometimes be more intense than generic Americanism.

The close relationship between nationalism and war is even more disturbing. It is during wartime that the federal government has claimed the powers necessary to promote a unitary national identity. TR, whose militarism became almost maniacal during the First World War, understood this. That’s why rhetoric of nationalism often evokes troops on the march.

War was a pretext for the legal suppression of German-American culture during World War I. Across the Midwest, German newspapers, theaters, and even the language itself were banned. The historian Christopher Cappozolo dates the earliest proposal for a cabinet-level Department of Education, long anathema to conservatives, to this period. He writes, “Wartime nationalists thought federal control was the only way to ensure 100 percent Americanism.”

But the nationalizing power of educational coercion pales before that of the draft. From Bull Run to the Battle of Bastogne, it was in the trenches and foxholes that generations of immigrants and their children learned to think of themselves as Americans first. Yet conscription is among the greatest conceivable invasions of individual freedom. It may sometimes be necessary but is nothing to be celebrated.

It’s not an accident, then, that American nationalism reached its peak in the decades after World War II. The sense of loyalty, membership, and common purpose that characterized the period, and which many American remember fondly, was not spontaneous. It was produced not only through sharp restrictions on immigration but also by the draft. Mobilization was not limited to those in uniform, either. During the Cold War, bulwarks against the Communist enemy were also constructed in the economy and media.

These were among the policies that the early conservative movement rejected as steps toward leviathan. But opposition to centralized education, a symbiotic relationship between culture and government, and coercion in the service of ostensibly collective ends had unintended consequences. American nationalism was undermined from the left by multiculturalists who thought they could sustain the authority of the state in the absence of a shared national identity. It has been undermined from the right by conservatives who thought such an identity would flourish in the absence of coercion.

Writing in First Things, Pete Spiliakos suggests that “what we are lacking in our politics is a humble understanding of America as a political community in which government and citizens have important (but limited and conditional) reciprocal responsibilities.” If only the problem were so easy as improving our understanding. Even if we agreed on what nationalism means, few conservatives would be willing to accept the compulsion and centralization that are historically inextricable from it. Freedom has a price.


Samuel Goldman is an assistant professor of political science at the George Washington University, where he is executive director of the Loeb Institute for Religious Freedom. He is also literary editor of Modern Age. The opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect positions of the George Washington University or the Loeb Institute.

Photo by Courtney Hedger on Unsplash.


Complement with Samuel Goldman on whether America is a Christian nation or not, Mark David Hall on the faith of our Founders, and Peter Augustine Lawler on human dignity


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