Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

The Case for Nationalism:
How it Made Us Powerful, United, and Free

by rich lowry
broadside books, 288 pages, $26.99

Since the election of Donald Trump, “nationalism” has become the national obsession of our chattering classes. Trump’s embrace of the term ensures that progressives universally despise it, while conservatives, navigating their own complicated relationship with the president and their identity crisis over the meaning of “conservatism,” are split on how to respond to the nationalist awakening. In his contribution to this crucial conversation, Rich Lowry of National Review throws in his lot with the emergent “national conservatives,” arguing that America’s strong nationalist tradition should be preserved.

He contends that nationalism should not be a partisan issue; the left, too, has a noble nationalist tradition that it would do well to recover. He highlights the nationalism of FDR and Kennedy and declares, “Democrats—and the country—would be much better served if they countered Trump’s nationalism with a version of their own.” Still, Lowry is unlikely to win many friends on the left with The Case for Nationalism, which will appeal to the already-sympathetic rather than win over convinced opponents—who are quick to hurl charges of racism and fascism at proponents of any sort of nationalism.

He begins by defining and justifying nationalism in general. But the bulk of the volume traces the historical roots of the American nation, highlights the nationalist consensus of our political history, and finally answers recent challenges to this older consensus. Lowry is unabashedly pro-American, in ways that are sure to ruffle the politically-correct feathers of all but the most unreconstructed members of the intelligentsia.

But what exactly does Lowry mean by “nationalism”? Lowry approvingly quotes Anthony Smith, who defines nationalism as “a belief that all those who shared a common history and culture should be autonomous, united, and distinct in their recognized homelands.” We can break this down into two distinct propositions, both once widely held but now sharply contested.

First, individuals naturally form a sense of identity much larger than themselves, becoming conscious of belonging to a people, defined by shared language, customs, laws, religion, experiences, and land—in short, of belonging to a nation. Among the many “isms” minted in recent times, “nationalism is natural.” It has a non-ideological meaning that identifies our collective sense of belonging and is not a modern myth, Lowry contends.

Second, not only does this naturally happen, but this is a good thing, and ought to be widely promoted. Nationalism, Lowry argues, is very different from racism, is distinct from fascism or Nazi imperialism, promotes democracy and self-government, and does not mean “my nation over all others.” Nationalism encourages a principled commitment to the goods of national coherence and independence everywhere.

Determined critics will no doubt take Lowry to task for being somewhat vague on both these points—especially the first. But if read alongside Hazony’s fuller account in The Virtue of Nationalism of how nations emerge from their more anthropologically basic constituents, tribes and clans, Lowry’s argument holds up fairly well.

Too often critics demand a Cartesian “clear and distinct idea” of nationalism, as if political theory is akin to geometry and requires rigorously defined concepts. Our recent debates over nationalism have much in common with contemporaneous debates over gender. Deconstructive progressives demand that unless we can distill with philosophical precision the essence of what it means to be male and female, or what it means to be a “nation” with a “tradition,” we must discard these outmoded concepts. We should answer these critics, like the good Dr. Johnson, by kicking a rock: The common experience of humanity attests to these realities, even as they elude easy definition.

Even more common in our era of moral self-laceration, critics suggest that America does not deserve our loyalty because the country is built on genocide. Lowry has no compunction about speaking the language of Manifest Destiny: “It is understandable that the Indians fought us. . . . But theirs was a losing battle, militarily and culturally. . . . Their way of life was not going to survive competition with the dynamic, churning engine of wealth and power next to them.” As a matter of hardheaded historical reality, he argues that it “wasn’t realistic” for thinly-spread Indian tribes to control most of the continent while multiplying whites remained confined to the Atlantic coast. Lowry admits on occasion that American nationalism had its darker side, but moves quickly past such admissions to celebrate American accomplishments. It is this aspect of the book that is likely to most rankle the critics, even if the problem is more with Lowry’s rhetoric than the substance of his claims.

Another weightier objection remains. In Federalist No. 39, Madison famously declared that the U.S. Constitution “is, in strictness, neither a national nor a federal constitution: but a composition of both.” Our regime is “of a mixed character, presenting at least as many federal as national features.” And yet as we scrutinize Lowry’s flattering portrait of America, we look in vain to find any federal features in its remarkably uniform countenance. The great debate between Hamilton and Jefferson on the meaning of the American nation is glossed over by emphasizing Jefferson’s enthusiasm for the Louisiana Purchase. The century-long conflict between the several States and the singular Union is narrated as a triumphalistic march of ever-closer union.

At the National Conservatism conference this past summer, Patrick Deneen worried there was a deep tension at the heart of the conference’s title. Historically, he noted, the nationalist agenda in America had often been pursued at the expense of localism (or “sectionalism,” as its disparagers called it). In the early twentieth century, progressives stressed the abstract qualities that made us all one people and ignored or weakened the organic bonds that conserved smaller communities and traditions. This process has been ongoing, both economically and culturally.

The founders were keenly aware of the tension between the local and the national, a tension that even the genius of the Constitution could not resolve without a violent civil war and many ongoing conflicts since. Lowry’s chronicle of American nationalism does not address the fact that many of the conservative temperament have strenuously defended local and federal visions of America, opposing the more expansive and national visions preferred by progressive elites for most of our history. In truth, many progressives still prefer these national visions. After all, much of the recent expansion of LGBT rights and attacks on religious liberty have proceeded by imposing a national vision of personal liberation on more traditionalist states and communities.

Lowry succeeds in demonstrating the pervasiveness of nationalism in human history and its role in America’s success. However, the worries of both progressives and conservatives are apt to remain: Can nationalism unite us without trampling underfoot differences that deserve recognition?

Dr. Bradford Littlejohn is a Senior Fellow of the Edmund Burke Foundation and President of the Davenant Institute.

Photo by Gage Skidmore via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles