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The Nation as a Gift
Nationalism is the best and most liberty-promoting sociopolitical arrangement humans have yet discovered.
Written by Bo Winegard.
Many liberals, progressives, and other cosmopolitans view nationalism as a moral failing—at best an unnecessary concession to human flaws and fallibility and at worse a manifestation of primitive barbarism. And whatever rank of badness they judge it, whether damnable barbarism or mistaken concession, they agree that it should, as soon as possible, be discarded for a broader, less divisive international order, perhaps one motivated by the concept of a universal humanity. The thesis in this essay is that this disdain for nationalism, though widespread, is mistaken. Though not without costs, nationalism is the best and most liberty-promoting sociopolitical arrangement humans have yet discovered.
It is not difficult, of course, to imagine a future without borders or government—or, for that matter, to imagine a future without strife or conflict. But what one can imagine is quite different from what one can realistically practice or predict. In the real world, human nature intrudes upon our imagined paradises like a rampaging army. And human nature is implacably tribal. We divide the world into groups, into Us and Them, and compete against each other in battling coalitions. Importantly, these coalitions are not just defined by what they share, but also by what they do not share with other coalitions; differences are as crucial to identity as similarities.
Thus, tribalism is based on (1) a sense of sharing beliefs, values, and kinship with a group of people and (2) a sense of being different from other groups of people. Many have lamented this, but such lamentations are as futile as lamenting death. It is unavoidable. There is absolutely no reason to expect that humans will ever transcend their tribalism.
Nationalism, then, is one way to guide, channel, corral the human propensity for creating tribes. It is the product of a long period of cultural evolution, likely because it creates groups that are large and coherent enough to compete effectively against other groups, but not so large and diverse that they are alienating to individuals. Nations, like all coalitions, unite and divide. But these divisions do not need to be bellicose. Countries are not doomed to war against each other, even if they are fated to compete against each other.
Whereas the progressive may see only the divisions, the factitious and inevitably conflicting identities nations create, the nationalist sees the unities, for the nation creates sympathies across social classes, ethnic groups, and religious groups. It can cause somebody in Grand Rapids, Michigan to empathize with the plight and pain of somebody thousands of miles away in Bakersfield, California. It can cause a Christian to sympathize with a Muslim and an Atheist with a Buddhist.
But the nation does more than this. It also gives a sense of meaning and purpose. Most people will never achieve greatness. They will never write a bestselling book, direct a blockbuster film, invent an important technology, or paint a celebrated masterpiece. But they can belong to a great nation. And they can contribute to that nation. They can laud it, revere it, defend it. They can hang its flag in the morning; and take it down at night. They take pride in its achievements and hope to right its wrongs.
Furthermore, the nation gives a sense of perpetuity. Life is tragically short. Each person is an ephemera. But a nation can persist for hundreds, even thousands of years. And the culture that shapes a nation can last even longer. Although the desire for permanence may ultimately be futile, nations at least mitigate the fear of the transient and offer a kind of continuity that many find attractive.
Those who assail nationalism, who ridicule it for being limited, insular, bigoted, shortsighted, primitive, are eroding meaning for many people. And, ironically, they are likely reducing support for public programs and investment, which they often advocate, since humans support such things precisely because they are willing to sacrifice their own immediate interests for the greater good of the nation. Vitiating the nation decreases support for progressive economic priorities.
Worse, though, those who assail nationalism are likely making ethnic and religious conflict more probable, for tribalism doesn’t die with the nation. Therefore, as national unity declines, people will find meaning with other tribes. And two very natural tribes are ethnic groups and religious groups. So, people will replace the dying coalition of the nation with the exciting and lively coalition of the ethnic or religious group. And that type of tribalism will encourage factionalism as ethnic or religious groups compete for limited resources and social status. Which will further increase polarization and further destroy the nation.
Suppose one accepts that nationalism is, in fact, a healthy sociopolitical arrangement. That raises a crucial question: What kind of nationalism? Four possibilities come to mind: (1) ethnonationalism; (2) cultural nationalism; (3) civic nationalism; and (4) cosmopolitan nationalism.
(1) Ethnonationalism is the view that ethnic groups deserve their own countries and that nationalism is thus best practiced and promoted by relatively homogenous countries.
(2) Cultural nationalism is the view that countries should be coherent cultural units and that they will likely be predominated by one ethnic group, but that other ethnic groups can and should participate equally in the country and deserve full citizenship and equal rights.
(3) Civic nationalism is the view that countries are held together by commitments to liberal law and a broad creed and little else. This, thus, is an extremely liberal and minimalist mode of nationalism.
(4) Cosmopolitan nationalism is the view that nationalism is just a stage on the path toward a larger global unit. It thus sees the nation as a cocoon that will eventually be burst apart by the butterfly of the global tribe.
Some variant of cultural nationalism is the most reasonable approach for most Western countries, including the United States (on which the rest of this essay will focus). The United States is a very diverse country, so ethnonationalism is absolutely a non-starter, and, in fact, would be terribly immoral to promote because it might encourage hostility toward the many different minority ethnic groups in the country. This does not mean that demographic concerns are entirely illegitimate. Those whom Eric Kauffman calls ethno-traditionalist nationalists should have a place at the table. And, indeed, we must avoid the perils of too much diversity.
For civic nationalism, full of riotous diversity and multicultural attitudes, does not seem to have sufficient force to hold people together in a coherent political unit. Something stronger, more binding, more unifying, more respectful of past traditions is necessary. Cultural nationalism does this. And it accepts diverse ethnic groups, but also strongly promotes cultural assimilation. Without assimilation, ethnic animosities are inevitable. And the fabric of the country will be torn apart by competing groups.
Cultural nationalists believe in cultural unity at home and cultural diversity in the international sphere. Perhaps in an ideal world, people would have relatively free movement in such a way that a person from Europe who identifies strongly with Japanese culture could become a citizen of Japan (and respect their norms and values); but this might be infeasible. Countries need to protect their borders and to limit immigration to prevent irrevocable alteration of their cultures. This protectionism is a form of pluralism, since it means that the international arena will be a garden with many different cultural flowers. Cultural diversity should not be crushed on the wheel of global liberalism. Instead, cultural groups should be allowed to pursue their unique self-interests within a framework of basic rights.
Thus, cultural nationalism can be a middle-ground for both conservatives and liberals. It doesn’t insist on the futile and immoral attempt to eliminate ethnic diversity. It embraces it. But it does so within a coherent cultural framework that encourages assimilation. The goal is to provide meaning, order, and significance, while also avoiding a descent into the dangers of crude ethnic or religious tribalism.
A culture, a nation, is a gift from innumerable ancestors stretching back into the mists of time and our duty, as I see it, is to maintain it, modify it, adjust it, and then pass it on to the next generation. And that means that everybody in the coalition, in the country, the nation, the culture, matters. From the wealthiest CEO to the humblest worker at Walmart, from the most celebrated athlete to the unknown mother, everybody who contributes to the nation matters. And this is the great strength of nationalism; it mitigates the intense competition between individuals by offering a superordinate vision that transcends the paltry concerns of the ego.
Bo Winegard is the Executive Editor of Aporia.
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