Monday, December 5, 2016

Part I: The Nation of Liberalism

Part I in a series of posts about the state of liberalism in the West.

The liberal era has been defined by the rise of what Will Wilkinson called the "multicultural, liberal-democratic, capitalist welfare state". There's a lot of adjectives to unpack there, but let's start with the noun: state, by which I presume Wilkinson means nation-state. Since at least the Peace of Westphalia, the nation-state has been the dominant actor in the international political landscape. 

This post will deal mostly with the American nation-state, since that is the one I know best. The "state" part of the term refers to our physical borders; the fifty states and assorted territories where the United States of America exercises political and legal control. In the American and European cases, the borders of states are fairly set - we aren't engaged in many international territorial disputes anymore (another success of the liberal international order).

The part that has seems to have challenged liberals today is the concept of the nation. I would argue that the West is fractured along nationalist and internationalist lines: on one hand, the internationalists envision a multicultural nation, engaged in international treaties and conflicts, with relatively open borders and low trade barriers. The nationalists would prefer a relatively homogeneous nation with tightly controlled borders and high trade barriers. Traditionally, America's political parties each had elements of nationalism and internationalism to them: the GOP supported free trade and foreign interventionism but wanted limited immigration, while the Democrats supported some trade barriers and favored international treaty-making, but generally opposed sharp limits on immigration. With the election of Trump, however, it seems that the parties have re-aligned: The Democrats are now the primary home of internationalists and post-nationalists, and the GOP the home of nationalists.

Nationalism frightens liberals because it has historically been organized based on ethic, religious, or racial identity; the Nazis in Germany being the most obvious example. Nation-states where race, religion or ethnicity is the central organizing idea behind the national identity tend to purge minorities when nationalism hits a fever pitch - with predictably genocidal results. Any honest accounting of American history must also acknowledge that America was a de-facto white Protestant ethnostate which oppressed religious, racial, and sexual minorities until relatively recently.

In Europe, the legacy of Nazi oppression and genocide has led most liberals to abandon nationalism in total. American-style flag waving tends to be frowned upon, Reddit forums are filled with posts from Europeans wondering why Americans have so many flags up everywhere. In Ayaan Hirsi Ali's Infidel, she recounted her pride in having become Dutch, but noticed that most of her native-born Dutch friends had no concept what being "Dutch" meant as an identity. To Ali, who had only ever previously lived in oppressive theocracies and corrupt autocracies, being Dutch meant having the freedom to worship when and if she wanted to, to vote for her leaders, to love who she wanted and wear what she wanted. To her native-born Dutch friends, it meant nothing.

And yet despite all this, I consider myself to be a liberal nationalist. I work for the government, and I carry a copy of the Constitution with me at work. I fly an American flag in my home, and generally get upset when the flag is disrespectfully treated. I support our troops, I respect our laws, and I respect the President, even if I don't really like or agree with him.

This is not because I believe in the greatness of the American ethnostate that was - I don't. It is because while the de-facto American ethnostate did exist, the de-jure ideas behind the United States of America are decidedly inclusive. There is nothing to say that the ideas espoused in the Constitution and the great political works that accompany it are exclusively for white Protestants. In fact, I would argue the opposite - the aspirational ideals set out in our Constitution, Declaration of Independence, Bill of Rights, and the various Constitutional Amendments are what eventually set the stage for the ultimate destruction of the ethnostate and empowerment of minorities.

In theory, American nationalism could be a nationalism for everyone. In this conception of the nation, all you need to be a "real American" is to believe in some simple liberal ideas: voting and elections, secular government, individual rights, freedom of religion, due process, equal protection, and the rule of law. The liberal nationalist doesn't decide who is an American based on a person's class, race, religion, or national origin, but rather on their willingness to abide by this basic social contract. These ideas are represented by our national symbols: the flag, the eagle, the national anthem, etc. This kind of liberal nationalism stands in stark contrast to the illiberal racial and religious nationalism promoted by the worst elements of the American political right.

The brilliant liberal leaders who preceded us used liberal nationalism as a tool to destroy the illiberal ethnostate. Abraham Lincoln, locked in a war with an explicitly racist Confederacy, cited the Declaration of Independence to begin his Gettysburg Address:
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
A century later, Martin Luther King Jr. cited the same document in his famous "I Have A Dream" speech:
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." 
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
Quite notably, both of these speeches were and are extremely popular to this day, even among white Americans. Why? I would argue that it is because they are an appeal to the documents and ideals which underlie the national identity of all Americans. The historically oppressive American ethnostate was not established because of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence - it was built in spite of them. When the promises made by the Founding Fathers were actually enforced as written, the illiberal ethnostate collapsed, and the modern liberal order was born.

Dr. King marches; accompanied by numerous American flags.
Modern liberals have not been nearly as smart about using the ideas and symbols of nationalism to their advantage. If anything, the patriotic liberal nationalists that once dominated the Democratic Party have been drowned out by post-nationalist leftists, who seem to routinely go out of their way to insult the idea of the American nation and the people who founded it. This trend is especially evident in academia...

... but it's also evident in other areas of leftist thought:
By contrast, the Trump-led GOP has sought to appropriate the symbols of nationalism in an attempt to associate them with distinctly illiberal ideas. Trump's campaign was an explicit appeal to nationalism: "Make America Great Again". He repeated this slogan endlessly, plastering it on hats, shirts, signs, and the podium he was speaking from. Historically, the GOP has done a lot to try and tar Democrats as "un-American", usually with some success. They've been aided in recent years by the Obama administration, which has sometimes waffled when it comes to nationalism.

Hillary Clinton, to her credit, tried to steal the symbology of nationalism away from the GOP. She embraced American exceptionalism. She sold hats that said "America is already great". The Democratic National Convention was so patriotic that the editor of the National Review complained that Democrats are "taking all our stuff". But it wasn't good enough, partly because post-nationalist voices have become so prominent on the left.

Some will argue that nationalism is inherently illiberal because it implies we must abandon the kind of internationalist policies that define liberalism and support the kind of policies that Trump has championed like isolationism, high tariffs, and an end to immigration. I disagree. Rather, a liberal nationalist would approach these issues with a question: what policy best benefits the nation as a whole? After all, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that free trade, immigration, and foreign engagement have been beneficial to Americans. The problem is that liberals, subverted by leftists, have been making much weaker arguments - for example, why argue that opposition to immigration is racist, when we can simply point out to opponents the ways in which immigration could benefit them?

The difference between post-nationalist leftism and liberal nationalism is clearly illustrated by the responses to President-elect Trump's extraordinarily illiberal tweet about banning flag burning:
Nobody should be allowed to burn the American flag - if they do, there must be consequences - perhaps loss of citizenship or year in jail!
Here, Trump is promoting two clearly illiberal ideas: first, that people ought to be punished for free expression, and second, that those people ought to have their citizenship stripped away from them.

Post-nationalist leftists expressed opposition to these ideas by burning the flag.

Liberal nationalists expressed opposition by pointing out that the flag itself is a symbol of free expression, and while they wouldn't burn one, shutting down free expression is even more anti-American than flag burning.

Ultimately, for liberalism to survive the coming political re-alignment, liberals must move away from post-nationalist leftist ideas and return to the liberal conception of nationalism that has previously been so successful in protecting and promoting liberal ideals.

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