A terrific conversation over lunch a couple weeks ago got me thinking about an important distinction between two concepts of nationalism. (To be clear, anything of intellectual merit in what follows is the fruit of my far superior interlocutor in that conversation).
The first concept is the nationalism of national greatness. It is a nationalism of building high and travelling far, of lasting glory and heroic accomplishment, of emancipating slaves or enslaving freemen. This is the sort of nationalism underlying that common lament: “We just don’t do big things anymore.”
The second concept is the nationalism of cultural particularism. It is a nationalism that builds out from tangible life and which identifies the nation as an embodiment of a distinctive culture and set of mores. This is the sort of nationalism that can be described as properly traditionalist, clinging to parochialism and prejudice (words I do not hurl as terms of abuse).
Both concepts of nationalism are united in their hostility to globalism, in their rejection of a cosmopolitan worldview that admits of no relevant distinctions or differences across peoples or cultures. Similarly, the two concepts are united against the derisive anti-nationalism of a certain strand of the radical left, which castigates the nation (and in particular our nation) as a continued source of grave mischief and injustice. But that thin unity produces frequent political commonality, making it harder to see just how radically opposed these two conceptions of nationalism are.
The nationalism of greatness is, of course, given its most powerful statement today by Donald Trump. But it would be a mistake to read that guiding vision of nationalism as merely an extreme, populist explosion. To the contrary, restoring national greatness has been a central conviction of most of our recent, significant political figures and thinkers. Bill Kristol and David Brooks for example, two staunch members of the #NeverTrump movement, vigorously lamented in 1997 the loss of a great American spirit. In their words, “What’s missing from today’s American conservatism is the appeal to American greatness.”
The nationalism of greatness finds expression too in our progressive politics. It is reflected in a collective yearning to fully draw out the dialectic of American liberty, in a conviction to fundamentally transform the nation in alignment with our guiding ideology. No clearer statement of that progressive vision of American greatness exists than President Obama’s 2012 inaugural address. There President Obama placed the state of our political present in the context of a great unfolding narrative, a constant struggle to make more real the founding ideological purpose of our nation:
We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths—that all of us are created equal—is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone: to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on earth.
In this regard, both conservative and progressive nationalisms of greatness share common ground. The right of course cannot insist that American conservatism bears much in common with the blood and soil, throne and altar conservatism of the Old World. Instead, the great project our nation has undertaken is an essentially creedal one. Our nation’s greatness is a function of her loyalty to our ideological mission. As a result, the nationalism of greatness finds itself utterly incompatible with the nationalism of the particular. For if the nation’s greatness is to be assessed by its collective strivings, little time can be spent on the little platoons of social life, on the complexities of parochial communal life.
Likewise, the nationalism of the particular is skeptical of the grand abstraction of “national greatness.” Such a modern construction forces contrived unity where none exists and tramples genuine commonality when it organically springs forth. The worship of national greatness leads inexorably to the vulgarity and atomization of mass society the particularist detests. To the particularist, “America” as an idea is far too big a thing to love. She loves her family, her school, and her neighbors. She loves the small rituals that give meaning and dignity to the pedestrian. But it's more than just that litany of communitarian goods; she values the norms that structure her society, the shared cultural expectations of how things ought to run. Her patriotism, so far as it exists, is an abstraction of a sort, but an abstraction that coheres the concrete, tangible sources of value. She does not begin from America’s ideological purpose and work her way down, but rather begins from the communities of meaning that surround her and builds up. The American flag does not represent Liberty, it represents the way of life she has inherited.
The difference between these two concepts of nationalism is the difference between gigantism and localism. A partisan of national greatness would be quite comfortable equating patriotic citizenship with voting every few years and paying taxes. Indeed, as a friend notes, this is precisely the account David Brooks recently espoused. Citizenship to the localist, on the other hand, has virtually nothing to do with participation in a distant government—what Tocqueville denounced as the “administrative centralization” wholly divorced from true patriotism. It builds instead from the simple duties and reciprocities of ordinary life.
An example might help here to fix some intuitions. Consider loyalty to one’s alma mater. I root for Yale over Harvard every November not because Yale better expresses my ideological worldview, not because Yale is a greater institution or even a better one. Frankly, I have little interest at all in Yale as such. I root for Yale because of the friends and professors and clubs I found as an undergraduate. Those personal, intimate loyalties I built up at Yale are affecting for all sorts of different reasons. Some friendships were forged over academic argument, others through decidedly non-academic shared personal difficulties. When I root for Yale, I don’t intend to honor her administrators or her institutional worldview. I intend merely to honor a constellation of personal loyalties that mean a great deal to me. That’s the sort of thing I mean by a nationalism grounded in the particular.
I conclude with a passage from Alasdair Macintyre’s After Virtue:
Patriotism cannot be what it was because we lack in the fullest sense a patria. The point I am making might be confused with the commonplace liberal rejection of patriotism. Liberals have often—not always—taken a negative or even hostile attitude towards patriotism, partly because their allegiance is to values which they take to be universal and not local and particular, and partly because of a well-justified suspicion that in the modern world, patriotism is often a façade behind which chauvinism and imperialism are fostered. But my present point is not that patriotism is good or bad as a sentiment, but that the practice of patriotism as a virtue is in advanced societies no longer possible in the way it once was. In any society where government does not express or represent the moral community of the citizens, but is instead a set of institutional arrangements for imposing a bureaucratized unity on a society which lacks genuine moral consensus, the nature of political obligation becomes systematically unclear. Patriotism is or was a virtue founded on attachment primarily to a political and moral community and only secondarily to the government of that community. … When however the relationship of government to the moral community is put in question both by the changed nature of government and the lack of moral consensus in the society, it becomes difficult any longer to have any clear, simple and teachable conception of patriotism. Loyalty to my country, to my community—which remains unalterably a central virtue—becomes detached from obedience to the government which happens to rule me.Though his point is somewhat orthogonal to mine, Macintyre's dichotomy between a patria that embodies the moral community and a state as brute, institutional bureaucracy is a close cousin to the dichotomy between the nationalism of greatness and the nationalism of the particular.