Is nationalism really dead?

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Is nationalism really dead?

July 15, 11:00 PM July 15, 11:00 PM

Five years ago, it seemed to many observers that something called “nationalism” had returned to U.S. politics and culture. After a period stretching from the end of the Cold War to the election of Donald Trump when Americans, or at least the elite, had been confident about economic globalization, internationalist foreign policy, and mass immigration, it appeared that much of the Right was now rejecting that consensus. Crucial to this perceived shift was the revival of the idea of America as a “nation,” a specific place and distinct people whose values and political projects are not necessarily addressed to the rights and needs of humanity as a whole.

Half a decade later, it is much harder to believe that nationalism is, or ever was, resurgent, or that it offers a way forward for conservatives. Many Republican voters and politicians continue to support Trump, who has largely taken leave of his earlier nationalist orientation in favor of railing against the 2020 election. A handful of think tanks and small magazines, such as American Affairs, have separated themselves from the former president while persisting in efforts to sketch the possibilities for a conservative nationalism after Trump. Other intellectuals on the Right are trying to imagine what comes, as political theorist Samuel Goldman puts it, “after nationalism.”

In his short new book, After Nationalism: Being American in an Age of Division, Goldman argues that a renewal of nationalism is neither possible nor desirable. He supports this argument with a historical account that distinguishes among three different understandings of “nation” that have shaped politics over the past four centuries. The one closest in time to us — and closest to the values of the centrist, anti-Trump conservative intellectual class — is “creedal nationalism,” in which American identity is based on agreement with a “creed,” a set of values derived from founding documents such as the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights.

Creedal nationalism, which flourished in the mid-20th century, emphasized legal equality and some degree of economic equality. Its adherents connected this egalitarianism to an interpretation of American history according to which our founding values, at first applied only partially or even hypocritically, were over the course of many political struggles wrested from the control of white land-owning elites and extended to all. As Goldman observes, that creedal account of identity as both a philosophical commitment to certain ideas and the historical process of their realization was a powerful force for collective action. It told people that who they were depended on what they believed and assured them that their beliefs had been, and therefore could continue to be, not merely an abstract ideal or a vision of the past but a program for political change. They had an identity, an ideology, a history, and a program for the future.

Goldman claims that the creedal form of nationalism was a “failure” and disappeared during the crisis of the 1960s and 1970s. According to him, activists from racial, sexual, and other minorities contested its interpretation of American history, which they came to see not as the gradual expansion of the democratic promise of our founding but as a series of conflicts between oppressors and oppressed. Undermining faith in America’s basic goodness, understood as its capacity to integrate an ever-widening circle of people into an ever-expanding notion of freedom and equality, these activists also overloaded narratives of national history with demands for inclusion of “their” perspectives. Histories written in the aftermath of this cultural revolution tended to be either polemically “anti-American,” a confusing muddle of multicultural perspectives, or both. But conservatives and old-fashioned liberals have failed to produce a cohesive new narrative, resorting instead to unconvincing arguments about the need for politically useful, if historically false, national myths that can generate consensus.

Creedal nationalism, however, may neither be as obsolete nor as opposed to multiculturalism and activist politics as Goldman suggests. We seem, in fact, to be witnessing the emergence of a new form of woke creedalism: a historical account of American identity organized around the efforts of minorities to overcome white supremacy, patriarchy, and other evils. Unlike the earlier form of creedalism, this new iteration does not present America’s founding ideals as essentially good — it is more likely to see them as irredeemably tainted by the original sins of slavery and colonialism. It does, however, have the same structure and purpose as the earlier creedalism. It offers adherents a sense of who they are (victims of America), what they believe (a particularly strident sort of American egalitarianism), where they have been (oppression), and what they must do (defeat, rule over, and eventually assimilate or annihilate their oppressors). The identitarian Left does not operate in an era “after nationalism.” Rather, it promotes a form of creedal nationalism that defines itself against a certain understanding of America.

If the Left has not moved beyond nationalism, one may doubt that the Right will. Goldman calls on readers to imagine a new kind of American identity divorced from any “coherent and enduring sense of shared identity and purpose.” Such commitments, he insists, can only fuel the culture wars by stoking debates about who Americans are and what they value. He urges us instead to move toward a minimal loyalty to the liberal democratic process, which we should appreciate as a means of diffusing our political, cultural, and ethical divisions and allowing us to live decently together.

This proposal, which amounts to an appeal to fellow conservative intellectuals to distance themselves further from nationalism, has at least two problems. First, Goldman hopes people will stop looking to politics to express their cultural identities and turn instead toward “associational” life: unions, churches, etc. But the associational life of much of working- and middle-class America has been hollowed out in the last two generations, largely because of economic policies that have left average people facing lives that are ever more isolated, precarious, and brief. Second, although he briefly acknowledges in his introduction the “impulses” and “grievances” that lead the Republican Party to shift away from “globalism,” Goldman seems by his conclusion to have forgotten that Americans face serious material problems that cannot be solved without collective action through the state. Pursuing this collective action will require a long and intense process of political mobilization that seems implausible if people are not united by a shared belief similar in intensity to the creedal nationalism of the past — and counter to the creedal nationalism of the contemporary Left.

Blake Smith is a historian of modern France and a literary translator.

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