The Virtues and Vices of Nationalism


Joseph de Maistre said that he had never met a man. He had met Frenchmen, Italians, and so on, but as for “man,” he’d never met one. So, too, I have never met a “nationalist.” Canadian nationalists, American nationalists, even Quebec nationalists, yes. But never a nationalist tout court.

So I can’t say anything about nationalism, or whether it be good or bad. I am persuaded that there are perverse forms of nationalism, but as an American nationalist I needn’t take any interest in them. If Hungarian nationalists seem to flirt with illiberalism, what is that to me?

If you’re an American, the nationalism that defines you as an American is a special kind of nationalism, and that’s what should interest you. This is especially true today, when so many on the left complain of American nationalism and too many on the right give them cause to do so.

Properly understood, American nationalism is benign, unlike that perhaps of Hungary. But to explain why this is so one must understand the logic and limits of the American brand.

American nationalism is benign because: (1) it is a liberal nationalism; (2) it is a multicultural nationalism; (3) it is a fraternal nationalism. That is its logic.

A Liberal Nationalism

The core icons of American identity are the liberal ideas of our Founders. They are what make Americans out of Americans. That is why American nationalism is necessarily a liberal nationalism.

This was Lincoln’s idea of American nationhood, in an 1858 speech on the meaning of the Fourth of July. For some in his audience, the holiday was a reminder of their ancestors’ patriotism and bravery. But in 1858 half the country was foreign-born or the descendants of people who had lived elsewhere in 1776. It didn’t matter, said Lincoln. They were still entitled to celebrate the Fourth, to call themselves Americans. And what made them so was something other than ties of blood. Lincoln said in his speech at Chicago, July 10, 1858:

When they look through that old Declaration of Independence they find that those old men say that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” and then they feel that that moral sentiment taught in that day evidences their relation to those men, that it is the father of all moral principle in them, and that they have a right to claim it as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh, of the men who wrote that Declaration, and so they are. That is the electric cord in that Declaration that links the hearts of Patriotic and liberty-loving men together, that will link those patriotic hearts as long as the love of freedom exists in the minds of men throughout the world.

In other countries, nationalism is a matter of dynastic houses and cultural icons, but America does entirely without the former and increasingly without the latter. Instead, the focal point for nationalist and patriotic sentiments is the sense that America has a special mission to promote liberty, as promised by the Declaration of Independence and guaranteed by the Bill of Rights. These have assumed the status of what historian Pauline Maier called “American Scripture.”

President Trump’s critics were quick to detect the whiff of fascism in his nationalism. It doesn’t take a history degree to recognize how hysterical this is, but if historical perspective were needed, Jean-François Revel provided it when he observed that, while the dark night of fascism is always said to be descending in America, somehow it lands only in Europe. And that’s because constitutional liberties are what define us as Americans. For Americans, as Americans, illiberalism is self-defeating, and if some Americans in the past have been illiberal, in time they’ve been seen to be un-American, and we reject them as a body rejects a foreign object.

Some American conservatives pretend to be nationalists while rejecting the liberalism of our Founders. They tell us that the American idea is charged with secret Enlightenment codes that dissolve all they hold dear. If that’s what they think, it would seem to follow that they regret the American Revolution. (Possibly they’re covert Canadians. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

At a minimum, they’re anti-liberals. But if American nationalism is necessarily liberal, anti-liberal American nationalism is self-defeating. In some cases, their beliefs are self-defeating in a second way. They say they object to liberalism because it’s employed to attack religious freedom and free speech, but in doing so they pay homage to the creed they profess to denounce. If their problem with liberalism is that leftists have made it illiberal, they’re not really anti-liberal, just anti-leftist. What they want is an authentic form of liberalism, untarnished by progressive illiberalism.

Of course, I might be wrong about them. They might simply be hypocrites. They might fault the progressives for departing from John Stuart Mill’s liberalism, while all the while rejecting Mill themselves. Their real objection to the progressives is not that they force their ideas upon us, but that they force the wrong ideas. In that case, they not only reject the creed of the Founders, which will make them un-American, but if they’re Christians they also reject the liberalism implicit in their faith—for which see Sir Larry Siedentop’s Inventing the Individual. (This is by no means to make the fatuous claim that Christianity has always been a model of liberalism.)

Some conservatives will tell me I’ve missed something. I’ve defined American nationalism in terms of the beliefs of the Founders. They tell me that that’s not what a nation is. It’s more than an idea, a creed, they say.

A Nation Is Its History

What then is a nation? That’s a question Ernest Renan asked in the nineteenth century. A freethinker when most French nationalists were Catholic, and a republican when most French nationalists were royalists or Boulangists, he wrote an essay entitled “What Is a Nation?” in 1882. Like Americans, he had a charter of rights to which he might have appealed as the icon of French identity. But nationalism meant something more than that to him.

It wasn’t race or religion either. It wasn’t even a common language. Rather, it required a memory of the glorious moments in French history, as well as an amnesia about the inglorious ones. “Forgetfulness, even historical errors, are essential in the creation of a nation. If the citizens of a nation have something in common, they have to have forgotten a good many things about their origins.”

A nation is constituted by its past and its present, he wrote. The first is the possession of a rich legacy of remembrances. The other is the actual consent to live together and to value the heritage they’re received, the idea that we’ve accomplished great things together and wish to make the nation great again. These are things that cannot be created afresh. “Man does not improvise.”

If there is a nation, then, it will draw from its citizens a loyalty to something greater than themselves, their tribe. It will remind them of the sacrifices made for the nation in the past, and that they might be called on to make their own sacrifices in the future.

There is something to this. But if Renan was right, is America a nation? On the left there is a concerted effort to remember all that is shameful in American history and to suppress the great deeds done by Americans. Not so very long ago, it was permitted to honor Robert E. Lee as a gallant leader. After the Civil War, he asked his fellow southerners to abandon their animosities and come to terms with their defeat. President Grant invited him to the White House. President Eisenhower said that he admired him extravagantly and hung a portrait of him in his office. Literary critic Edmund Wilson saw him as America’s last eighteenth-century hero. He was portrayed on four U.S. stamps.

When we were told better, in recent years, most Americans, even conservatives, quietly went along with this. And then it was Washington’s turn to be demoted. A school district in California will cover a mural of Washington because it offends the sensibilities of a politically correct school board.

As someone who for nearly all his life was a Canadian citizen, I quite understand this. It’s nothing more than anti-Americanism, and Canadians invented the genre. But, on Renan’s definition of nationalism, we’re no longer a nation. When so many Americans on the left see us divided along lines of race, sex, gender, and heritage, when identity politics is the touchstone on which all political questions are judged, there is little left of a common identity.

We’re less united today than we were at any time since the Civil War, separated by our politics, religion, and culture. The bitterness, the contempt for opponents, the growing tolerance of violence, all invite us to think that we’d be happier were we two different countries. In all the ways that matter, save for the naked force of the law, we are already divided into two nations, just as much as in 1861.

We are what Lord Durham saw in his 1839 report: two nations warring in the bosom of a single state, where a common set of beliefs and affections are absent and replaced by gridlock and rancor. We are deux nations, without even the saving grace of reticence and politeness that permit different peoples to get along.

So if that’s what makes for nationalism, the sincere American nationalist is or ought to be a secessionist. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

Second, American nationalism must necessarily be multicultural. In 2017, speaking to a Polish audience, President Trump said, “We write the symphonies.” Actually, we don’t. At least, Americans don’t much. We write jazz and bluegrass, rock and Latin fusion. We write both kinds: we write country and we write western.

So that’s our culture, and if you’re a cultural nationalist, that’s what I’d expect you to like. Not that you’re bound to do so. You can be an American if you don’t like baseball and apple pie. You can be an American if you don’t like Coolio and Johnny Cash, Thelonious Monk and Dave Brubeck, Carlos Santana and Doc Watson. If you don’t, and you tell me you’re a nationalist, I get it. You love America. It’s just Americans you dislike.

Third, American nationalism is fraternal.

Nationalism can take two very different forms. Vertical nationalism desires its country’s glory, its preeminence over that of other countries. The vertical nationalist will want to make his country great, with the biggest military, with all the guns in the room.

But there’s another kind of nationalism: horizontal nationalism. Entirely without the jingoism that might disfigure vertical nationalism, horizontal nationalism rests on a sense of fraternity with fellow citizens. And that in turn implies free-market policies that create the economic conditions that provide jobs, as well as a generous social safety net for those who can’t work.

The horizontal nationalist distinguishes between citizens and noncitizens. The open borders crowd, right and left, doesn’t. The right-wing version would deny welfare benefits to both. The left-winger would extend the same benefits to both. But, like Kent in King Lear, the horizontal nationalist says, “I’ll teach you differences.” He would deny benefits to noncitizens, but in doing so he’d extend greater benefits to citizens. Otherwise his pose of nationalism is a pious fraud. Nationalism has a gravitational force that pulls one leftward on social welfare policies.

Historically, Republicans have been the party of vertical nationalism, and Democrats the party of horizontal nationalism. Republicans wanted the biggest military in the world—and got it. But when it came to horizontal nationalism, the Republicans found this in conflict with their right-wing principles. That kind of nationalism they left to the Democrats, to people like Franklin Roosevelt who communicated a sense of caring about all Americans, a feeling one didn’t quite get from Mitt Romney.

What was remarkable about the 2016 Republican victory was that, almost for the first time, a presidential candidate ran on a platform that united the two strands of nationalism. We weren’t going to gut entitlements, much as the Republican right-wingers might have wished. We wouldn’t just repeal Obamacare—we’d repeal it and replace it with something beautiful.

Donald Trump found the sweet spot in American presidential politics—the famous upper-left quadrant of the ideological chart that I wrote about two years ago in the Wall Street Journal, the place where presidential elections are won—with a combination of social conservatism and economic liberalism and a slogan to make America great again that implied both vertical and horizontal nationalism.

Let me say something to Americans who might disagree with what I’ve said: the anti-liberal who rejects the American creed; the conservative who dislikes our minority cultures; and the right-wingers who hate welfare benefits for the disabled.

A Prudent Nationalism

Turn now to the limits of American nationalism.

The American nationalist is proud of his country. But he should guard against vulgar shows of national pride and an overweening pursuit of glory.

Glory is an old-fashioned word. It evokes images of Knights of the Round Table. But it’s an ineradicable part of human nature. It’s what foreign policy realist Hans J. Morgenthau identified as the principal cause of conflict between nations.

The London East Ender in Kipling’s day might think that, poor as he was, at least he had part ownership over the pink bits on the map. In America, missteps in foreign policy can be blamed on the chauvinist’s pursuit of national glory and the ignoble wars and those we have lost. It’s led to unwise adventurism and the liberal imperialism identified by Graham Greene in The Quiet American.

But after the Second Iraq War, this has been discredited by virtually all sides, save for a dwindling band of NeverTrumpers. True, they have the donors, the magazines, and the think tanks. But politically they’re a big fat zero, and the chauvinism that disfigured past foreign policy excesses is much less to be feared today. That debate is good and over.

Second, if nationalism is a virtue, so too is prudence. In the Laches, Socrates asked for a definition of courage and found that it couldn’t be reduced to a single thing. Laches was a brave Athenian general and suggested courage came down to endurance in the face of the enemy. But that must admit of exceptions, answered Socrates, since even the courageous man will retreat when it’s foolhardy to remain. There are times when that’s the prudent thing to do, and prudence is also a virtue.

So, too, one can’t define one virtue in isolation from other virtues, such as prudence. And the prudent nationalist must support the economic policies that make his country wealthy. It’s an odd kind of nationalist who is content to see his country impoverished.

Today’s conservative nationalist tells us we’ve paid undue attention to the economists and that libertarians have an inadequate understanding of the common good. He’s right about that. But if we want to see a strong America, we have to attend to the economist’s messages, and to the libertarian’s, too. Do you have problems with crony capitalism, burdensome licensing requirements, a regulatory state on steroids, overcriminalization, the American litigation lottery? In these, and so many other areas, the free-market libertarian was there first.

The conservative nationalist often seems stuck in 2016. It’s true that the left still defends all the things that have made us unequal and immobile, things they say they oppose. They’re against school choice and sensible immigration reform, things that would make us more equal and more mobile. They oppose these in their narrow self-interest. Fine—they’re vile hypocrites and need to be called out as such, loudly and rudely. But these are things we’ve said a thousand times before, and it’s time to move on, at the risk of being a bore if one doesn’t.

The Democrats have moved on. Now they embrace socialism. Does the conservative have an answer to that? The economists and libertarians do. And the nationalists? I shouldn’t expect to hear an answer from the economic illiterates who, in a time of full employment, propose infrastructure spending to give people jobs. In their ignorance of markets and incentives, the nationalists have made libertarianism respectable again.

Let me be clear. I am not embracing
that split-it-down-the-middle and milquetoast doctrine called fusionism, embraced by people who’ll tell you that all sides are right in the end. I say just the opposite: that both sides are wrong, both the false nationalist and the libertarian, and both need to understand the strength of their opponent’s arguments.

Finally, a jusqu’au bout nationalism is not a virtue if it excludes moral requirements to noncitizens. Don’t get me wrong: we owe more to Americans than we do to non-Americans. But what we owe the latter is more than nothing at all.

Some nationalists, and this includes President Trump, say that nations should concern themselves only with their own citizens. If that were true, Harry Truman and George Marshall might be faulted for the Marshall Plan. Jimmy Carter might be blamed for admitting two million Vietnamese after the fall of South Vietnam. We had some responsibilities to the people who supported us in that country. And should we now be ashamed of our generosity?

In 1939 some countries declared war on Nazi Germany even though they were not threatened by it. Were they simply thick?

The nationalist gets no props for condemning the false internationalist—the person who doesn’t really care about either citizens or noncitizens. He’s a straw man, and victories against straw men don’t count. But what if you came across a sincere internationalist? He might be a member of Doctors Without Borders. He might be a pope. Is your nationalist morally superior to them? I am not sure that Teilhard de Chardin was entirely wrong when he said that everything that rises must converge.

Nationalism is only one element of a complete moral code, and not the most important one either. If there were nothing but nationalism, then Bismarck’s Kulturkampf and the anticlericalism of the Combes ministry in France might be defended in the name of nationalism. In both cases, the Church that was being attacked claimed the right to oppose the state’s teachings, on behalf of an international institution. Today, too, the Church and its teachings might properly be opposed by a certain kind of American nationalist. When nineteenth-century American liberals complained that there was something un-American about Catholicism, and when modern progressives say the same thing about the Church’s forays into politics, they weren’t and aren’t entirely wrong. No church worthy of the name is a national church.

There are limits to nationalism, and unless the nationalist can articulate them, he reveals the moral poverty of his nationalism.

In sum, the recent revival of nationalism offers Americans a choice. On the one hand, some nationalists fail to distinguish between the nationalism of this country and that of other countries. They’ve failed to recognize the centrality of our adherence to the liberal principles of the Founders, and some are dismissive of our minority cultures and our responsibilities to the less fortunate among us. On the other hand, an authentic American nationalism is liberal in both the classic sense and in its understanding of the need for a welfare safety net. Such a nationalism also recognizes the different minority groups than comprise our country, and genuinely enjoys the diversity. The first kind of nationalism is illiberal, narrow, ungenerous, and unpopular. Only the second could ever commend itself to American voters. ♦

F. H. Buckley teaches at Scalia Law School. His next book is American Secession: The Looming Threat of a National Breakup. This essay is adapted in part from remarks given at the National Conservatism conference in Washington, D.C., this past July.

Subscribe to Modern Age

Founded in 1957 by the great Russell Kirk, Modern Age is the forum for stimulating debate and discussion of the most important ideas of concern to conservatives of all stripes. It plays a vital role in these contentious, confusing times by applying timeless principles to the specific conditions and crises of our age—to what Kirk, in the inaugural issue, called “the great moral and social and political and economic and literary questions of the hour.”

Get the Collegiate Experience You Hunger For

Your time at college is too important to get a shallow education in which viewpoints are shut out and rigorous discussion is shut down.

Explore intellectual conservatism
Join a vibrant community of students and scholars
Defend your principles

Join the ISI community. Membership is free.

You might also like