Nationalism is an old idea. Often seen as an outgrowth of the Romantic movement of the early 19th century, its roots in truth go far deeper. Whenever a group of individuals conceive of themselves as a people, whenever they share a common history and culture, there develops a national feeling. It is the feeling of a unity, a shard purpose, a common destiny.
That idea was unjustly cast aside decades ago—by the people in charge, anyway. Blamed for war, considered old-fashioned compared to the universal value systems of socialism or liberalism, nationalism faded from the thought of the politicians in advanced democracies. But it never did the same among the people.
Although they were made to feel embarrassed about it, many people in the United States and elsewhere still believed in a national destiny. Slowly, in the past few years, political leaders here and abroad have been reminded that their people still believe in the greatness of their respective nations, even if elite opinion does not.
In The Case For Nationalism: How It Made Us Powerful, United, and Free, Rich Lowry gives a thoughtful and heartfelt defense of nationalism, and of American nationalism in particular. As the tides of national fervor toss the transnational political establishment this way and that, Lowry’s book provides a useful guide to nationalism’s origins and helps us define what it is and is not. In the process, he gives the reader an argument for American nationalism that is free of the negative traits attributed to it by transnational elites.
A People, Not An Idea
Lowry, the editor of National Review, begins by rejecting the popular trope that America is an idea, not a nation-state. Our national ideas are important to us, but we also have a people, a land, a culture, a language, and a history. We have ideas, as other countries do. But, as Lowry writes, “what makes us different is that our ideas are true.”
It’s a bold claim, and one sure to have anti-nationalists shaking their heads. But the rightness of our ideas and the shared history that follow from that make up an important part of the distinction the author draws between patriotism and nationalism. Patriotism means supporting your country, but no more than that. It says nothing about the nature of the country.
Nationalism, in Lowry’s telling, must include the idea that the nation has collective rights, claims, and interests. Just as a family is not simply the folks living in one house or sharing some DNA, a nation is more than just a bunch of individuals within some set of borders. A nation is a people.
And Americans are a people, no matter how much some of us try to deny it. Having made the claim, Lowry piles up evidence to back it up. Even as they were leaving England, the colonists who settled this country saw themselves as a people apart. They shared a language and a history with their fellow Englishmen, but religious disputes were driving a wedge between them. Heavily influenced by proto-republican ideas that would later lead to civil war in Britain, the early American settlers had a different outlook on government from the start.
These differences can be seen as early as 1620 when the Pilgrims—religious separatists who had left England for the Netherlands years earlier—drew up a compact to govern themselves right at the start of their venture. In deriving government from the people, they distinguished themselves from the monarchies across the sea. That sentiment was the cause of many disputes with the mother country, especially as king and Parliament attempted to exercise more control over the colonies in the years to follow.
In the Revolution, Lowry writes, we made a state for our nation. In our Constitution, we repeated the point, starting the document with the immortal words “We the People.” The phrase references the source of the Constitution’s legitimacy, but more importantly it presumes a fact: that there was, even then, an American people. That people now made a nation for themselves and became a nation-state, the equal of any in the world.
One Nation, Indivisible
Lowry takes the story of American nationalism forward from there, from Washington’s Farewell Address to Manifest Destiny, from Civil War to the Second World War. All along the way, the American people were nationalistic, and not bothered by the idea. In contrast to the modern-day view of nationalism in the academy, it was seen then as a positive force for this nation and the world.
Nationalism, like the family, allows for diverse opinions within the group. The nation itself is more important than the current disagreements or differences of opinion. That is not to downplay those differences, which run hot at times, but to say that they are family squabbles, best hashed out indoors and without the interference of neighbors.
A nation that was only based on ideas would find intellectual disagreement to be an existential threat. On the other hand, a true nation can include people who disagree even about some very important ideas. More important than that is they are all Americans. Nationalism unites us.
Lowry uses that point to draw an important distinction between the United States and the Confederacy. Men like Abraham Lincoln were American nationalists. While Lincoln abhorred slavery and worked to contain it, he valued the nation even more.
The author quotes Lincoln’s famous letter to Horace Greeley, in which he says “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.”
There is no doubt that Lincoln hated slavery and looked for ways to end it, ultimately succeeding in that effort. But he loved America more than even his most important political fight. Contrast that with the rebels, who loved the idea of slavery so much that they tore apart their own nation to preserve it. The elevation of a political fight over the well-being of the whole nation led to a million Americans being killed or wounded in the four-year conflagration.
Was there Confederate nationalism? Maybe, but theirs, more than America’s, was an idea and not a nation. They rejected our common history, language, and culture in monomaniacal pursuit of that idea, and the result was war.
Out of Many, One
The connection between Confederate anti-nationalism and war is important, as it is one of many data points that stand against the claim that nationalism leads to violence. Likewise, the so-called “white nationalists” of today use an old term for their own purposes, perverting its meaning. There is no “white nation” in the United States, there is only the American nation, one that has seen contributions to its culture and heritage from Americans of every race and religion. Racism still exists, but the mixture of various people into one nation can never be undone. We came from different places, but are now are one and indivisible.
Franklin Roosevelt advocated a nationalism along these lines. While its opponents claim that nationalism leads inevitably to fascism, Roosevelt‘s anti-fascist nationalism is a powerful counter-example. His rhetoric united the American people around a nationalism that was anti-racist and anti-imperialist. Roosevelt joined Winston Churchill in signing the Atlantic Charter in 1941; one of that document’s eight points was that all people had a right to self-determination.
Self-determination is the essence of nationalism. It was used to oppose the fascist states that wanted to crush other nations into obedience. Later, the same principle stood against communism, which sought the same worldwide conquest. Nationalism does not rule out cooperation, trade, or alliance—the Atlantic Charter calls for these things, too—but it depends on each nation having a path of its own, which it alone may choose.
The only significant flaw in the book is one common to all discussions of nationalism: It does not tell us which nations are “real” nations and which are merely sub-groups within a larger nation. Lowry makes a good argument for why the Confederacy was not a separate nation and why so-called white nationalists are just racist fools, but where does one draw the line? Is Catalonia a nation? People in Madrid and Barcelona have different answers to the question. The same can be said for any number of secession movements. They all come down to fact-based judgment calls, with plenty of disagreement over the facts.
In his 2018 book, The Virtue of Nationalism, Yoram Hazony calls the self-determination inherent in nationalism “national freedom.” Lowry emphasizes that freedom here in his more America-focused book, as well, both in the sense of self-determination and in the sense that individual freedom is a part of America’s national culture. Freedom’s centrality in American nationalism matters. It tells us why utopian schemes like communism must never hold sway here and why attempts to promote them will fail.
It is also a warning against the misuse of nationalism. Fascists saw their projects in Europe as the extension of their countries’ nationalist ideals, but that leaves out the self-determination piece of the puzzle. Just as my right to swing my fist ends where your nose begins, Germany’s right to drive tanks ends at the Polish frontier. Nationalism requires accepting other nations’ national freedom, too.
Nations can co-exist peacefully, and political opponents can live together within a nation. Our transnational elites consider this idea passé and focus on the undemocratic international institutions they prefer. But the people—the demos—prefer the old ways. Our anti-nationalist elite class could learn from those they seek to rule. Reading this book would be a good start.