Further Notes on Nationalism

April 14, 2008

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In the comments thread of my nationalism and patriotism piece, Aaron Wolf raises an important question: what is the American nation? Does a conservative nationalism have to be “white nationalism”? I’ll answer the latter quickly by saying that conservative nationalism cannot be white nationalism, since white nationalism is contrary to the traits of the American character that conservatives want to preserve. A white nationalist pantheon would have no place for John Adams or Barry Goldwater—let alone Zora Neale Hurston. If conservatives cherish the principles of those figures, conservatives must abjure white nationalism.

That’s not to deny the obvious: the United States is a majority white country, has been for all of its existence, and the settlers to whom most of us look back as our mythic (if not biological) forebears were mostly of English stock. The political, religious, and cultural institutions that have shaped the country have come to us primarily through continental Europe and Great Britain. Any American nationalist, but especially a conservative one, is going to want to preserve as much as possible of this institutional and cultural patrimony.

In several places in my essay I refer to “ethnocultural” identities and solidarity.  The word is carefully chosen: over time different ethnicities—not just white and black, but French and German, Welsh and Scottish—have produced different cultures. None of this has occurred in hermetically sealed capsules; both cultures and the peoples who make them tend to intermix, and that is all to the good. Intermixture is not necessarily the same thing as homogenization or assimilation, however. Welshmen and Scots are still distinct nationalities, despite their intercourse over millennia.

Ethnocultural identity is not unproblematic in the Old World, but it is far more complex in the New. Europeans and Africans of many different backgrounds settled continents with a great diversity of peoples already living upon them, and all of this took place quite recently. Europe, too, has had its phases of transmigration and settlement of new peoples, but the Americas have seen relatively more dramatic population transformations in the last 500 years.

For the people of the United States, nationhood takes a particularly unusual form, one highly influenced by the ideological cast of our Pilgrim fathers and Revolutionary forbears. Serious writers on American nationalism and nationhood, on all sides, have taken note of this. John Lukacs, for example, writes:

The traditional ingredients of nationality are common language, common institutions, common culture, sameness of race, consciousness of history, consciousness of territorial limits, ancestral ties, permanence of residence. … In the United States some of these ingredients do not exist, which is why being an American is still something different from being a Frenchman or a Pole. The American idea of nationality has been ideological rather than patriotic, populist rather than traditional, universal as well as distinctly particular in its portents, more superficial but also more generous than nationality in Europe. Nomen est omen: the United States of America, like the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, is a general and open term; it suggests not a national society but rather something that is, at least implicitly, universal: like ‘Soviet Citizen,’ ‘American citizen’ marks adherence to certain political principles rather than a certain nationality; there is theoretically no limit to what it may include.

Although traditional conservatives (including me) have often made sport of Irving Kristol’s remark about nations “whose identity is ideological, like the Soviet Union of yesteryear and the United States of today,” there is an element of truth in it. But America as proposition nation is not the whole truth, as even a left-nationalist, Michael Lind, observes: “A nation may be dedicated to a proposition, but it cannot be a proposition—this is the central insight of American nationalism, the doctrine that is the major alternative to multiculturalism and democratic universalism.”

Samuel Huntington also acknowledges the role of ideological “creed” in American nationhood—but he emphasizes that it is tied to a specific cultural heritage:

The Creed was the product of people with a distinct Anglo-Protestant culture. Although other peoples have embraced elements of this creed, the Creed itself is the result… of the English traditions, dissenting Protestantism, and Enlightenment ideas of the eighteenth-century settlers. … The Creed is unlikely to retain its salience if Americans abandon the Anglo-Protestant culture in which it has been rooted. A multicultural America will, in time, become a multicreedal America, with groups with different cultures espousing distinctive political values and principles rooted in their particular cultures.

American nationality is a specific historical compound of cultures, religions, lineages (not only white but also Indian, Hispanic, and black; and among whites not only English, but predominantly so), and geography—just like other nations—but also has an ideological component. Ross Douthat is right to saythat “there’s a sense in which imagining an America governed by an emperor or a military junta is a little like imagining a France whose inhabitants no longer speak French.”

What I have argued is that the element of traditional nationality in American nationhood ought to be strengthened against the hypertrophy of the ideological component of American nationhood. Traditional nationalism seems to me to be a fair term for a movement to strengthen the “nation-among-nations” qualities of the United States—with an emphasis on national sovereignty, national borders, and national security (rather than ideological promotion of freedom and democracy). Some would add “economic nationalism”—protectionism—to the desiderata as well.

America cannot entirely cease to be an ideological nation without ceasing to be America. That’s maybe the tragic, and ultimately fatal, dilemma of American traditionalism. It is by no means clear that a lasting synthesis of radical ideology—and both the American revolutionaries and the Puritan fathers were radical of their times—and traditional nationhood can be achieved. One side of the American character may ultimately destroy the other. Right now, the risk is greatest that the ideological side will destroy the traditional national side.  Sentimental patriotism can take root in either facet of the national character: I fear that too few paleoconservatives appreciate this.  The key to understanding neocon appeals to the American public is that they speak this language of ideological Americanism well. We choose to define only our “Little America” patriotism as real patriotism, and so we fail to understand how the neocons are able to win over so many of our countrymen, and conservatives especially. The neocons themselves may not be American patriots, but their patriotic rhetoric resonates because it is predicated on something real: ideological patriotism in the hearts of ordinary Americans.

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