First Things - Religion and Public Life First Things on your tablet & mobile
Login forgot password? | register Close

I love my country – I fear my government. I first saw that mantra as a bumper sticker in the Clinton nineties. It then began to sprout as billboards and rock-paintings in the Obama years, and it has now become the chorus to almost every song of complaint composed by American conservatives.

It is an oddly schizophrenic sentiment, since it suggests that it is possible to feel loyalty to the nation but not to the state. But it is mirrored in a similar schizophrenia that infects the American left, where it is the apparatus of the state which is praised as the restraint on the greed, folly, and stupidity of the nation and which keeps the United States from collapsing into a cesspool of racism, pollution, and school shootings. Conservatives love the nation and are suspicious of the state; liberals prefer the state and dread the ascendancy of the nation.

Maybe this schizophrenia is simply the price we pay for the complications of being a modern society. Any sociologist will be happy to tell you that human societies depend on trust, as a way of fending off the Hobbesian war of all against all. Societies begin as families, where biology forms the surest basis of trust; then expand to clans, where ties of blood are abetted by shared practices for survival; and then extend to the tribe, where those shared practices become enforceable norms. Caesar found Gaul a honeycomb of tribes, where “all are different from one another in their languages, institutions, and laws.” But give a tribe sufficient numbers and sufficient territory, along with enough similarities of language, belief, and practice, and they assume the lineaments of a single nation, along the pattern of the tribes of Israel, the Roman tribes, the Helvetii, and the Sioux.

They can do this because, as nations, they have preserved that crucial starter quantity: trust. They reinforce trust through shared institutions, shared symbols and religion, and eventually art and literature. And the bonds forged by them can be a powerful force even if the nation itself has only vague political outlines. Students at the University of Paris in the 1200s sorted themselves out into four “nations” based on language: French, Norman, Picard, and English. These student groups regularly clashed in street riots and required the intervention of the pope.

But trust within nations has limits, and the greater the number of people involved, the less a nation is able to ensure safety or happiness, the twin goals of trust. It is to the aid of the nation that the state is called into being, an organized apparatus of rule-forming, rule-enforcing, and decision-making. Sometimes the state takes the form of tribal assemblies (the origin of the Roman Senate), sometimes the form of monarchy by a single ruler. Whatever the structure, the state becomes the reliable means of assuring trust on a broad scale. Thus emerges that peculiar hybrid, the nation-state. A formal political structure is built like scaffolding around a fluid and dynamic cultural unity. The trouble begins when the state forgets that it is a means by which the nation does its business, and begins to consider itself an end. From this forgetting rose the absolute states of Louis XIV and Peter the Great.

The Enlightenment had little use for nations. The philosophes considered themselves to be citizens of a Republic of Letters. They mocked the trappings of nations with the same energy with which they mocked monarchy, as a species of irrationality. Montesquieu, in The Persian Letters, used Usbek the Persian to criticize European cultural norms as tribal oddities; Voltaire cheerfully extolled the English merchant “who enriches his country . . . and contributes to the well-being of the world” over the French nobleman “who gives himself airs of grandeur while playing the role of slave in a minister’s antechamber.” But they also had little use for absolute states. The philosophes believed they had discovered a different basis for trust and unity: the natural physics of Newton and Galileo and the political physics of reason, natural law, and natural rights.

In no place was that discovery put on better display than in the new American Republic, where the federal Constitution of 1787 not only declined to sanction any particular national culture, but created state structures cleansed from the taint of absolutism. “What then is the American, this new man?” asked Michel-Guillaume Jean de Crèvecoeur in 1782. This “new man” derives his identity not from some mystical nationhood but from a series of natural law propositions contained in his founding documents, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. And while the state is not explicitly religious, those natural rights encourage a religious disposition that the state does nothing to discourage. This makes the American “a new man, who acts upon new principles,” Crèvecoeur wrote, and so “the name of Englishman, Frenchman, and European is lost.”

As Lincoln said in 1858, “perhaps half our people . . . are men who have come from Europe—German, Irish, French, and Scandinavian.” They had no living memory of the Revolution; they had no family connection to the revolutionaries themselves. Yet “when they look through that old Declaration of Independence they find that those old men say that ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,’ and then they feel . . . as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration, and so they are.” In America, the Enlightenment state, formed around a politics of rationality, had, in effect, become a nation.

Americans would have been happy to see this pattern reproduced in Europe, and for a short while, with the outbreak of revolution in France, they thought it would be. But the collapse of the French Republic into Napoleonic authoritarianism and the overthrow of the Revolution by the Holy Alliance in 1815 doomed that prospect. Worse still, the restoration of the ancien régime gave birth to a Romantic reaction against natural law and Enlightenment reason. It was a reaction that not only glorified monarchy, but found new ways of renewing trust. Joseph de Maistre proposed a virulent new form of nationalism, and G. W. F. Hegel glorified the Prussian state as the handmaid and director of nationalism. From this exploded a century of empire-building in Europe. It combined the most extravagant appeals to national identities based on peculiar historical or racial inheritances (the Black Forest for the Germans, the birch woods for the Russians) and the creation of equally extravagant state structures to prop up trust between the diverse economic and regional classes of the new empires (Bismarck’s Wohlfahrtsstaat, William Beveridge’s Social Insurance and Allied Services report).

The Romantic welding of nation and state did not produce a particularly stable alliance, however, and the catastrophe of two world wars effectively wiped out the appeal of nationalism in Europe. But the growth of the state remained unaffected. If anything, it swelled to fill the vacuum caused by the discrediting of nationalism, to the point where state structures acquired a life of their own, as in the European Union, with no connection whatsoever to national identities.

The United States was by no means immune to the blandishments of the Romantic union of nation and state, although in practical effect, it was race which assumed the role played in Europe by the nation. We fought a bloody civil war to put down the effort to insert racial identity into the principles of the American state. But by the end of the nineteenth century, the apparent successes of European states had convinced American Progressives that our small-scale state was inadequate to the larger task of organizing a modern nation now based upon an industrial economy. From the New Deal onward, we have witnessed a steady and almost unopposed expansion of state administration, to the point where the self-determination praised by Crèvecoeur has decayed into a pulseless indifference, and administrative law has taken on the force of a fourth branch of the American government.

These days, the descendants of the modern Progressives pledge their loyalty to the apparatus of the state and scoff at their opponents—flag-wavers, gun-toters, and religion-huggers—as worshippers of some bygone national identity that, at best, has no relevance in our globalized economy and multicultural world, or, at worst, is nothing but a holdover of Romantic racism.

I’m afraid the other side of our political divide has an equally exaggerated outlook. American conservatives never adopted a blood-and-soil mentality the way German, Italian, and French nationalism did in their heydays. When Lincoln delivered the funeral eulogy for his “beau ideal of a statesman,” Henry Clay, in 1852, he described Clay’s patriotism as only partly a love of his country “because it was his own country.” That reflected the usual patriotism of the tribe or the nation. The real engine of Clay’s patriotism, Lincoln argued, was that America “was a free country; and he burned with a zeal for its advancement, prosperity and glory, because he saw in such, the advancement, prosperity and glory, of human liberty, human right and human nature.” Much as Clay “desired the prosperity of his countrymen . . . because they were his countrymen,” his fundamental desire was “to show to the world that freemen could be prosperous.” Clay was devoted to the ideals of America that are encoded into the founding documents that structure the American state. Eleven years later, Lincoln applied this kind of patriotism to himself when, at Gettysburg, he described the foundation of the American Republic resting “under God,” not on family or language or ethnicity, but on “the proposition, that all men are created equal.” This proposition animates a system of government, our system.

Conservatives should love their country—but their country is the country of the Declaration, of universal natural rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness with which they are endowed by their Creator, not merely of purple mountains’ majesty or amber waves of grain, and certainly not a particular bloodline or racial identity.

Thus, it is not the state we should fear, if that state is the one praised by Crèvecoeur or Clay, since that is a state devoted to the fostering of the “prosperity” of “freemen” irrespective of any national or racial origin. The question is whether a state built on natural rights can foster trust in a society of individualism and suspicion. For certain it is that the Leviathan created by the Romantic revolt inspires no trust whatsoever. Our motto needs to be “I love my country and our system of government, but I fear their perversion and betrayal.”

Allen C. Guelzo is the 2017–18 James Madison Program Garwood Visiting Professor and Visiting Fellow at Princeton University.

This is the first of your three free articles for the month.