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Is Nationalism Good for America?

Ari Blask
June 2017

Is Nationalism Good for America?

On Tuesday June 6th, The Conservative Reform Network, Renew, and the Hoover Institution hosted a Pizza, Pints, and Policy discussion: “Is Nationalism Good for America?” The topic came out of a February 2017 National Review cover article, “For Love of Country,” by Ramesh Ponnuru and Rich Lowry, and a response, “The Trouble with Nationalism,” by Jonah Goldberg. Ponnuru and Goldberg joined the Hoover Institute’s Tod Lindberg on the panel. Renew’s Adam Klein moderated.

In their National Review piece, Ponnuru and Lowry argued that a moderate sense of nationalism bolsters such conservative values as civil society, democratic citizenship, and American exceptionalism. They credit President Trump’s politics for serving as a necessary corrective against an increasingly globalist post-cold war conservative politics, offering a sense of cohesion and purpose for disengaged and disenchanted voters. They worry, however, about Trump’s seeming lack of appreciation for the American idea or engagement with traditional conservative values, describing him as a “flawed vessel.”

Goldberg’s response distinguished between nationalism and patriotism. Nationalism, for him, is a pre-rational impulse toward tribalism. By contrast, American patriotism consists of an appreciation for a specifically American package of ideals and institutions, and, as such, transcends both innate psychology and ethnic origins.

Nationalism and the American Idea

The discussion fostered further thinking on the conservative approach to nationalism in the age of Trump. To kick things off, Adam Klein asked the panelists whether this is a merely a semantic debate, or whether there is real daylight between nationalism and the patriotism that all the panelists agreed was beneficial. Ponnuru explained that he views nationalism as the political expression of patriotism: It is a political program or philosophy that emphasizes sovereignty, the national interest, and social cohesion. For Ponnuru, Trump put forth political ideas stemming from patriotism at a time when most other conservative politicians were not sufficiently nationalist.

Goldberg defined nationalism much differently. Building off the ideas in his article, he described nationalism as a “pre-rational passion.” Trump’s nationalism plays off that passion while ignoring the more noble elements of American patriotism, like an appreciation for the country’s Enlightenment roots and its classical republican conception of citizenship. There is nothing to Trump’s nationalism that is specifically American.

Klein attempted to flesh out the underpinnings of these different views of nationalism by asking the panelists about their understanding of the American nation. Tod Lindberg responded by stressing the difference between nation and state. Nationalism doesn’t presume a state, while patriotism is specifically about support for the state. The classical liberal idea of a nation comes from the American Revolution, a political movement about rights, freedoms, and self-determination rather than ethno-centrism. For Lindberg, then, nationalism can be a good thing even though it is a distinct phenomenon from patriotism. Lindberg warned, however, that “nationalism is dangerous if unmoored from principles that are good and virtuous.”

Goldberg’s idea of the American nation extends beyond the classical liberal stress on the political rights of citizens. There is a distinct American culture, a culture that reflects the spirit and tradition of American independence and rugged individualism. That said, this catchall culture is scarcely represented in nationalist movements. Populism, both today and in history, supposedly represents the people, but in actuality tends to represent only part of the public, and a part that wants to separate itself from the whole at that. For Ponnuru, the American nation requires some degree of cultural cohesion. There must be a balance between the excessive and dangerous idea of a “volk” on one hand and complete fragmentation on the other. The scales currently tip towards fragmentation, hence a dose of nationalism is healthy.

Nationalism and Public Policy

After exploring the theoretical disagreements at the heart of the National Review back and forth, Klein moved the discussion towards an analysis of how nationalist politics might translate into public policy.

Klein began with foreign affairs, asking how important Trump’s Jacksonian approach to foreign policy was to his electoral success. Lindberg colorfully described Jacksonian foreign policy “as a kind of kicking ass.” Distinct from isolationism and narrow realism, the Jacksonian approach emphasizes strength and results while eschewing lofty idealism or cosmopolitanism. Jacksonianism is in vogue now because the broad liberal foreign policy consensus resulted in overreach in Iraq. Ponnuru agreed that Jacksonianism, by putting American interests back at the forefront, is a necessary corrective to the excesses of the Bush era.

Next, Klein asked Ponnuru whether economic nationalism can be squared with traditional conservative free-market positions, particularly on trade. Ponnuru contested the premise, arguing that Trump’s trade policy is right in principle to subordinate economic freedom to the national interest but wrong in practice because it doesn’t actually promote the national interest.

Goldberg interjected, using the issue of trade to argue that nationalism, when applied to policy, is hard to distinguish from socialism. The nationalist tendency towards trade restrictionism is but one example. Nationalist health care policy is no different from socialized medicine. That President Obama favored a more nationalist economic policy, or that the lines between nationalism and socialism are currently blurred in Venezuela, is no accident.

For Goldberg, the discussion of policy illustrated therefore illustrated that nationalism easily bleeds into statism, putting it at odds with core conservative tenets like individual rights, rule of law, and limited government. Goldberg challenged Ponnuru to identify a single policy that is both free market and nationalist. Ponnuru pointed to Trump’s anti-globalist stand on environmentalist regulations, “Pittsburgh not Paris,” as one example, and argued that Reagan successfully connected supply-side economics to nationalist rhetoric in the 1980s.

Video, and Future Discussion

Video of the entire Pizza, Pints, and Policy discussion, “Is Nationalism Good for America,” can be found here. And, keep in mind, there are more discussions on conservatism, political ideas, public policy to come. We hope to see you at the next event!