Nationalism in These United States

Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru‘s cover essay on nationalism in the latest National Review drew responses from Jonah Goldberg, Ben Shapiro, and Yuval Levin (and a reply from Lowry) that largely survey the waterfront of the issue.  Nevertheless, I have several thoughts around the edges of the debate.

First, as I noted when starting this blog, this sort of debate is the sort of thing that National Review uniquely does well.  It’s one of the reasons NR is an invaluable resource for political discussion.

Second, while I generally side with the cover story’s critics, its important to remember that the debate here is not the binary sort that has largely taken over the internet.  Rather, it’s a discussion over the type and amount of nationalism that can be healthy — or at least not destructive.

Third, given some of the caveats carefully sprinkled in their piece, Lowry and Ponnuru probably would not have received as much critique if it had been structured to explicitly highlight the differences between their concept of nationalism and Pres. Trump’s version, rather than seemingly tacking them onto the end.  They chose not to go that route.  Given that both men are excellent writers, it is not surprising that the approach they took at the time they did was taken by some as an attempt to mend fences with Trump-friendly readers.

Fourth, while the debate at NR covered the “nationalism vs. patriotism/exceptionalism” aspect thoroughly, Levin’s secondary point about “nationalism vs. localism” still has some meat on the bone.

Lowry and Ponnuru write: “The elements of American nationalism that Trump scants are moderating influences on it.  They push in the direction of decentralization and localism rather than an all-powerful central government.  They appropriately situate loyalty to the nation within a set of concentric circles of concern starting with the family and ending with the globe.”

Yet that graf comes well after they declare “[t]he nation is a community writ large, and it is natural for people to love it — to revere its civic rituals, history, landscape, music, art, literature, heroes, and war dead.”

“The nation is a community writ large” smacks a bit of taking a village to raise a child or government just being the name we give to the things we choose to do together.  Given their later distinction, it would be unfair to attribute those more statist sentiments to them — but the fact that so many forms of nationalism are rooted in sentiment makes it easy for less rigorous claims about nationalism to slip through unexamined.

Moreover, as Lowry and Ponnuru note: “During the campaign, Trump policy director Stephen Miller introduced him at events with speeches that were notably communitarian in emphasis.”  We have not had much communitarianism from Trump since the transition-period Carrier deal.

It strikes me as a little odd that there has been relatively little directly revisiting the debates over right-wing communitarianism of the mid-90s, or of 2013, through the lens of Trumpism.  After all, when you read what Trump’s core supporters said during the campaign, it is obvious their concerns about immigration and trade stem from the impact those issues have on their local communities and traditions.

Lastly, it strikes me as odd that the discussion of nationalism in these United States has proceeded without much mention of federalism.  This nation, in addition to having launched with a statement of principles, is also distinguished by having been a voluntary alliance, confederation and ultimately union of sovereign states.

For a fair amount of this country’s history, its citizens were just as likely to think of themselves as citizens of their state or commonwealth.  A Civil War and the transportation technologies of the industrial revolution ultimately moved our vast country to the point where a “national” nationalism could predominate over more local attachments.

Even now, people notice that California, Texas, Maine, Louisiana, Florida, New Jersey, Ohio, etc. all retain distinct flavors of America.  A renewed commitment to federalism (minus the slavery and Jim Crow, obvsly) would be another important check on the unhealthy aspects of nationalism — and one Congressional Republicans have already devoted thought to achieving.

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