In Defense of Nationalism

Nationalism sometimes fails, but we abandon it at our peril.

by Tanner Jones | 4/4/19 2:15am

The word “nationalism” calls to mind some of the darkest chapters in history. When I hear the term, I immediately think both of the divisive posturing that precipitated World War I and the fascist regimes of World War II. Nationalism seems pernicious. It appeals to tribal instincts, making people forget their opponents’ humanity and inviting catastrophic human-rights abuses. What’s more, nationalism seems irrational. In an interconnected world of increasingly fluid borders, one might think it foolish to promote the arbitrary identities that underlie the nation state. Following this logic, some are quick to condemn nationalism as a plague of the 20th century and an anachronism that society must eradicate whenever it reemerges in the modern world. 

This line of thinking has merit, but ultimately, I consider it wrongheaded. A healthy skepticism of nationalism should not blind people to nationalism’s tremendous capacity for good. I reject any blanket condemnation of nationalism and instead endorse a nuanced understanding, one that acknowledges both the benefits and drawbacks of the diverse set of ideas encompassed under the term “nationalism.” The right form of nationalism can prove beneficial. In his appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” Democratic presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg criticized white nationalism and other far-right ideas. However, he argued, “We could actually be building out the best forms of nationalism, which is when you rally people around a sense of identity that we’re building each other up.” 

Buttigieg’s suggestion is wise. Whether for good or for bad, nationalism is a force for unity. With this in mind, our society must wield nationalism for good. 

Buttigieg’s assertion has solid historical backing. Just as nationalism fueled the genocidal totalitarianism of World War II’s Axis powers, it also rallied the nations that defeated them. A nationalist spirit propelled the United States out of its firm isolationism of the 1930s and into the war effort of the early 1940s. The U.S.’s national spirit prevailed afterwards, eventually ushering in the fall of Communism. A desire for national supremacy even pushed the United States to the moon. History makes clear that nationalism brought the U.S. some of its greatest triumphs.

American nationalism dates back to our nation’s founding. The American Revolution, a repudiation of British colonial rule, was a nationalist project. A nationalist desire for a separate state, one free of monarchy and high taxes, drove the 13 colonies to rebellion and victory. With the signing of the Constitution, the ideals of the Revolution — ideals spurred on by nationalism — were embedded within our nation’s governing institutions. 

This isn’t to say that all U.S. nationalism is positive. Throughout U.S. history, nationalist currents have pushed for injustice. In 1860, as southern states threatened to secede, the spirit of an inclusive nation-state faced a formal challenge from a rival nationalist project, one that sought to entrench exclusion and oppression. The bloody civil war between the two nationalisms set the stage for subsequent battles, sometimes legal, sometimes political, over America’s national vision. In the 20th century, exclusive nationalism spurred the creation of the House Un-American Activities Committee and incited Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist paranoia. Today, some opponents of liberal immigration policies base their concerns in an exclusive vision of the United States. This is just the latest resurgence of nationalism’s dangerous, exclusive form, an iteration that coexists with its inclusive counterpart. The recent spike in hate crimes and the resurgence of white nationalism provide yet more evidence of the continued existence of exclusive nationalism in the United States. 

Nationalism in the United States is complicated. At its best, American nationalism has stood as a force for inclusion and an opponent of tyranny. Its success stories include the American Revolution, the Civil War and World War II. At its worst, American nationalism has inspired exclusion and oppression, whether through slavery and segregation in the 19th century or white nationalism and calls for a “Muslim ban” in the 21st century.

Whether we like it or not, the nation state is the ultimate political unit in the modern world, and given that, nationalism isn’t going anywhere. Nations follow different systems of government, pursue vastly-different goals and contain wildly-varying cultures. For better or for worse, one’s national identity continues to come before one’s identity as a member of the human race. The emergence of some form of nationalism is thus inevitable. Given that, our society should reject not nationalism, but the exclusive, divisive form of it. 

We as a society have a choice to make. On one side stands exclusive nationalism, which seeks to limit the boundaries and character of the state. To an exclusive nationalist, group identity serves as the primary means of political organization. This identitarian nationalism defines outgroups in the negative space of the nation, thereby denying them the privileges afforded to the ingroup. Inclusive nationalists think differently. They consider certain rights inherent to all individuals and task the nation with upholding those rights. Inclusive nationalism defines a nation by values, not by group identities. This sort of nationalism is a matter of pride, not of resentment. Inclusive nationalism calls individuals to their highest potential; it challenges them to exercise and defend the inalienable rights of all Americans.