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The American Identity Is Not Just About Ideas, But Also Its People And History


In the early stages of the Trump presidency, the alliance between Trump and American right is tenuous. The schism between Trump’s populist nationalism and doctrine-based American conservatism remains, despite the president’s generally well-received cabinet picks and his nomination of Judge Gorsuch to the Supreme Court.

In the latest cover story of National Review, titled “For Love of Country,” Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru attempt to bridge this divide. They offer a strategy by which conservatism could temper the more volatile aspects of European-style nationalism, creating what they call a “benign nationalism”.

Writing in response, Ben Shapiro, one of the more consistently principled critics of Trump on the American right, has argued that this endeavor is hopeless, and that European-style nationalism and American conservatism are fundamentally incompatible.

What Is The Basis For ‘American Nationalism’?

The National Review editors and Shapiro mainly disagree over whether America is merely a propositional nation—“America as an idea”—or whether there is some other basis for nationalism besides adherence to, and reverence for, the ideology of the founding as articulated in the Declaration, the Constitution, and the Federalist Papers.

Lowry and Ponnuru, while recognizing that the founding ideas are essential to what America is, argue that “American nationalism is not merely about them.”

However, they fail to articulate a basis for this nationalism apart from the ideas of the founding. Shapiro detects this failure, and maintains that the validity of American nationalism depends solely on the nation’s adherence to its principles, which he lists as: “limited government, individual liberty, God-given natural rights, localism in politics, religious freedom, freedom of speech and of the press, and so forth.”

The Problem with ‘America-as-an-Idea’

This brings us to an interesting problem at the heart of “America as an idea”-style conservatism: its patriotism and loyalty towards America is fundamentally conditional, and contingent upon the country’s fulfillment of a specified criteria. If America is merely the embodiment of a set of abstract ideas, then America only exists insofar as it is continues to manifest those ideas. The moment it ceases to do so, it is no longer worthy of loyalty or devotion. It effectively loses its essence. Shapiro, surprisingly but unavoidably, makes this concession himself:

Conservatives love America because we believe it is a nation founded on an idea. Our interests ought to prevail because our principles ought to prevail: limited government, individual liberty, God-given natural rights, localism in politics, religious freedom, freedom of speech and of the press, and so forth. If America ceased to believe those things or stand for them, we would not deserve to win. [Emphasis added.]

It is difficult for American conservatives to admit this, because they know how far we have fallen from our founding ideas. American conservatives see the essence of the country in its founding governmental structure—a governmental structure that, according to almost all conservative legal thinkers and pundits, is no longer operational, and has not been for quite some time.  We are told that the Bill of Rights is one Supreme Court justice away from extinction, and, constantly, that we must “restore the Constitution.” These admissions do little to reinforce our faith in the sustainability of the founding ideas.

But by conservatives’ own account, America is merely the current embodiment of the principles articulated in the founding, the vessel of the (supposedly) successful melding of classical liberal and pre-modern republican concepts. By their own admission, conservatives should have just as much loyalty to any state that successfully embodies those principles, be it a New Republic of Texas or a Peter Thiel-Newt Gingrich-Alex Jones-fronted lunar colony.

If the United States is but the mechanism that secures our individual rights, we need only construct a new social compact—as per Lockean theory—which should capture our devotion insofar as it serves its purpose. Unless, of course, a nation is more than ideas, and more than a social compact.

Propositional Nationalism vs. European-style Nationalism

In contrast to American “propositional patriotism,” nationalism is unconditional. This means that it can be irrational and dangerous, but also admirable in a sense that is foreign to Americans, whose collective identity is, somewhat ironically, built on individualism. The French or Japanese nationalist loves something beyond the structure of his country’s government, even if this love motivates in destructive ways. There is something else there, between the individual and the state, that defines what the nation actually is.

This means that the nationalist loves his country not only because of its philosophy, but in many cases despite its philosophy. The German dissident under the Third Reich could still claim to love his country while resisting the current government and sentiments that had taken hold. But could the propositional conservative say the same about a post-Constitutional United States that has lost its cultural connection to the founding? It is difficult to see why.

Shapiro’s confidence in “America-as-an-idea” seems misplaced, then, as does his dismissal of what he calls “blood and soil” nationalism (a term that has certain distasteful connotations). His second concession makes this clear:

Once nationalism is tribalism, the question becomes why America should remain one nation rather than many. My connection to my local community is stronger than my connection to bureaucrats in Washington, D.C. My connection with those who share my faith and my ideas is stronger than my connection with somebody living 2,000 miles away in an area I’ve never visited … . Nothing holds us together, once we rule out idea-based nationalism in favor of blood and soil based nationalism. [Emphasis added.]

America would seem to lack both the “blood and soil” nationalism of Europe and the ideas-based nationalism advocated by American conservatism. Over the course of our history, we have opted for multiculturalism over ethnic identity, and ideological and religious pluralism over civic nationalism. We cannot appeal to any shared “American ideals” such as liberty or equality because we have such wildly divergent interpretations of what those words mean, interpretations that are expressed through culture and which then manifest in law. A common grounding for a national identity is therefore elusive.

The Challenge of American Nationalism

Rather than ideas shaping a nation, as Shapiro claims, it is more likely that a nation precedes, and gives meaning to, ideas. A belief in ideas as the basis for a nation would have to also maintain that those ideas are universal; that is, that American governing institutions could be copied and applied to any given population. To deny universalism forces the propositionalist to identify those cultural characteristics of a population that could successfully adhere to American ideals. (This question was, of course, dealt with in greater length by Samuel Huntington in his book “Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity.”)

The task of constructing a new foundation of national identity is, of course, much more difficult than critiquing other foundations. The challenge conservatives now face is to identify an essence to the country worth preserving that is more secure than ideas alone. By focusing only on theory, propositional conservatives have neglected the organic, human processes that have created the nation throughout its history, and which can more effectively serve as a basis for American nationalism. These are the collection of practices, customs, beliefs, and shared history that remain despite the changes in governmental structure and reinterpretation of the founding ideology.

Perhaps the sheer size and diversity of the United States makes this task impossible, and we should commit ourselves to more local allegiances through a renewed approach to federalism. However, constructing a new basis for American nationalism will be an easier task once we acknowledge the difficulties inherent in our existing theories, the most central being that America is merely an idea.