Skeptic Magazine commissioned the following essay for a special issue on the theme of nationalism (vol. 27, no. 4 / Dec. 2022). We are pleased to republish a slightly revised version of the essay, with permission, in New Ideal. Part 2 will appear next week.
America is being torn apart. Amid growing strife, many people are experiencing angst concerning the future of this country, a country once renowned for its exuberant spirit of discovery, progress, liberty. From across the increasingly tribal political landscape, one can observe attacks on the ideas that fueled America’s spectacular rise: reason, individualism, and political freedom. From the illiberal left the “woke” phenomenon has emerged, rising to dominance in cultural institutions and calling for “canceling” those institutions, symbols, and even thoughts it deems heretical. Standing in opposition to it is another new movement that promises to reunite us and rebuild a society true to the American vision. That latter promise calls for embracing the ideology of nationalism.
The movement to rehabilitate nationalism has a fervent vanguard. Among its leaders is the scholar Yoram Hazony, and his organization, the Edmund Burke Foundation. Under the banner of “national conservatism,” the Foundation has sponsored major international conferences. The most recent event in Miami, FL, featured more than 100 speakers, including keynote talks by Gov. Ron DeSantis, Sen. Josh Hawley, and entrepreneur Peter Thiel. The national conservatives are joined by still other factions, who often describe themselves as the “illiberal right.” And it was a significant moment when then-president Donald Trump thrilled a crowd at one of his rallies by telling them that he’s a nationalist.1
The reemergence of nationalism is a worse problem than it may seem. Nationalism in the last century ravaged Europe. Nationalists today would have us believe their agenda will somehow lead to different results. Despite wrapping themselves in the Stars and Stripes, they push essentially the same destructive ideas. The more power and influence nationalism gains, the bleaker our future. What’s needed to counter this movement is a deeper understanding of, and a commitment to fully realize, the Enlightenment ideals at the foundation of the American experiment.
America’s foundation: reason and individual rights
The original American political system was an innovation in political thought. For most of human history, government was an instrument of domination over the individual. Individuals were duty bound to kneel before some authority, whether embodied in a tribe, throne or church. The individual was literally a pawn at the disposal of the rulers. With the dawn of the Age of Enlightenment, however, the ground began to shift. Thinkers such as John Locke advocated a fundamentally different view of the relation between individual citizens and the state. That political shift stemmed from a philosophical emphasis on reason. The individual, these thinkers believed, is capable of observing the world, understanding it and discovering truths; and so, people could use their reason to guide their own lives. What emerged was a recognition of the individual as sovereign — in thought and in action.
Consequently, a new view came into focus regarding the individual’s relation to the state. The state’s purpose was not to dominate and exploit, but rather to protect the individual’s sovereignty. This view informed the Founders, and it reverberates in the words of the Declaration of Independence. The individual — every individual — has the rights to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” and government exists “to secure these rights.” When government “becomes destructive of these ends,” it is the right of the governed to abolish it and institute a better system that “shall seem most likely to affect their Safety and Happiness.” Thus, the state’s raison d’être is to protect individual rights, that is, to protect individuals’ freedom to pursue life and happiness based on their rational judgment.
It is important to recognize, however, that in the implementation of America’s founding principles there were contradictions and moral failings. The most obvious was the institution of slavery, which persisted until the Emancipation Proclamation (which only freed slaves in those territories still under Confederate control) and the ratification of the 13thAmendment (which abolished slavery throughout the entire nation). Even after those landmark actions, Jim Crow laws, which institutionalized legal racial segregation, remained on the books through the mid-twentieth century. It took the 19thAmendment, which was ratified just one hundred years ago, to enable women to vote. These were genuine, if much belated, steps toward a more consistent application of the principle of individual rights.
One feature of the original American system deserves special emphasis: the safeguarding of intellectual freedom. The principle of church/state separation fenced religion off from political power.
The First Amendment leaves individuals free to form their own conclusions and to express their ideas — emphatically including criticism of religion and the state. This reflects a view of the individual as capable of rational thought, owing no submission to dogma, and, above all, entitled to pursue the truth by their own best judgment. The unshackling of individuals to gain new knowledge about the world, without fear of retribution from religious leaders, would prove to be both a cause and an accelerant of progress.
Despite failing to protect the rights of all individuals, the United States remains a stunning example of the power of (albeit incomplete) liberty to fuel progress. Once a backwater of the British Empire, the United States became the world’s most scientifically, technologically and economically advanced nation. The Scientific Revolution not only accelerated human knowledge but also instilled a cultural norm of truth seeking, replacing conformity to the specific dogmas of the dominant church. The Industrial Revolution, coupled with a significant degree of economic liberty, supercharged economic progress.
The myriad advances in science, technology and industry demonstrated the power of the rational mind to understand nature and reshape it to serve the goal of improving life. Look around at the world we live in: Life expectancy in the twentieth century has roughly doubled. Refrigerators, microwave ovens, air-conditioning, televisions and mobile phones are fixtures even in the homes of Americans who live in poverty. Thanks to the pioneers of Silicon Valley, the number of digital screens — smartphones, tablets, laptops — outnumber the occupants of a typical household, putting at our fingertips access to practically all music, films, books and the accumulated knowledge of humanity. Medical science has tamed or cured terrible diseases. And during a once-in-a-century pandemic, biotech companies were able to produce not just one, but multiple, vaccines for COVID-19 in a matter of months rather than years.
These material advances, coupled with a culture in which liberty is protected, have made the United States a beacon to the rest of the world, an inspiration to be emulated. That is why the brightest and most ambitious people from all over the world have sought and continue to seek to immigrate to America. What made America such a success story? Its foundational ideals of reason, individualism, and freedom — and the human spirit they unleash.
Nationalism is hostile to all of those.
What is nationalism?
Nationalism is not synonymous with loyalty to one’s own country; it is a specific political-social doctrine. The essential feature of nationalism is the very un-American notion of elevating the group over the individual.'Nationalism is not synonymous with loyalty to one’s own country; it is a specific political-social doctrine. The essential feature of nationalism is the very un-American notion of elevating the group over the individual.' Click To Tweet
German romanticists — the original nationalists — held that the “nation-state or folk-state was not a societal organization based upon human law with the purpose of assuring man’s liberty, security and happiness, but an organic personality, God’s creation like the individual himself. . . .”2 The German philosopher Georg Friedrich Hegel, a major influence on both nationalism and Marxism, did not see the state as an association of individuals, but rather as a kind “person” transcending and subsuming them. “A single person . . . is something subordinate,” Hegel wrote, “and as such he must dedicate himself to the ethical whole. Hence if the state claims life, the individual must surrender it.”3 The state, in Hegel’s view “is the Divine Idea as it exists on Earth.”4
Because nationalism devalues the individual, it is at odds with the principle of protecting individual liberty. Indeed, nationalism is best understood as a species of collectivism. Fundamentally, writes the philosopher Leonard Peikoff, collectivism “holds that in human affairs, the collective — society, the community, the nation, the proletariat, the race, etc. — is the unit of reality and the standard of value. On this view, the individual has reality only as part of the group, and value only insofar as he serves it.” It is predicated, observed Ayn Rand, “on the view of man as a congenital incompetent, a helpless, mindless creature who must be fooled and ruled by a special elite with some unspecified claim to superior wisdom and a lust for power.”5
Nationalism is thus a cousin of tribalism. Both define membership based on accidental or unchosen characteristics (place of birth; “race,” ancestry, language). Both demand unthinking loyalty, obedience and self-sacrifice, one to the “nation,” the other to the “race,” family, clan, tribe. Nationalism, unlike tribalism, typically relies on some theoretical scaffolding, enabling today’s advocates of nationalism to pass off their ideology as civilized. But nationalism, like tribalism, has a bloody legacy.
With its stress on “race,” language and ascriptive group identity, nationalism is primed for in-group supremacism and out-group conflict. In Germany, the National Socialist party built a totalitarian state, in keeping with the idea that the individual citizen is but a cell in the organic nation. It was essential, in Hitler’s words, that the individual should “realize that his own ego is unimportant when compared with the existence of the whole people, and that therefore the position of this single ego is exclusively determined by the interests of the people as a whole, . . . above all he must realize that the freedom of the mind and will of a nation are to be valued more highly than the individual’s freedom of mind and will.”6
When German citizens are merely fragments of the “nation’s mind and will,” and when non-Aryans are dehumanized as vermin, it is left to the incarnation of the nation’s Will to restore the nation’s glory, ensure its purity and provide for its needs. Pan-Germanism, which predated the Nazis and influenced Hitler, had “demanded above all a Greater German Lebensraum (living space), overseas colonies, and a big navy.”7 The Nazi regime infamously pursued “Lebensraum,” it exterminated human beings by the millions, and it fought to realize the dream of German domination.
The twentieth century was blighted with still other forms of nationalism. Japan’s form of nationalism featured worship of a god-like emperor. Arab Nationalism, infused with socialism and Islam, gained authoritarian power in Egypt and Syria, where it led to stagnation, the exploitation of the subject population and regional wars.
By the early 1970s there were assorted nationalist movements making separatist demands, often using violent means; for instance in Canada (Quebec), Spain’s Basque region, and the perpetually restive Balkans. The term Balkanization entered the lexicon as a byword for the disintegration of Western societies into warring tribal and nationalist factions.
Today, nationalism can be seen in Russian belligerence. It is a major part of Vladimir Putin’s justification for invading Ukraine. In a long essay, Putin claims that Russia and Ukraine are essentially one nation. Ukraine, he contends, is an artificial creation, which must be reunited with Russia, regardless of the cost in individual lives.8
Nationalism is a repudiation of the sovereign individual, the ideal central to a free society. Whatever semblance of credibility nationalism may have had in the last century, it lost that on Europe’s corpse-strewn battlefields and in the gas chambers. Today, at the forefront of the campaign to revive nationalism are the self-described “national conservatives.” What reason if any is there to believe that their ideas will lead to a different outcome?
Continue to Part 2 here
Do you have a comment or question?
- Hans Kohn, Nationalism: Its Meaning and History, rev. ed. (Princeton, NJ: Van Nostrand, 1965), 35.
- Leonard Peikoff, The Ominous Parallels: The End of Freedom in America (New York: Stein and Day, 1982), 27.
- Quoted in Kohn, Nationalism, 111.
- Adolf Hitler, speech at Bückeberg, October 7, 1933, in N. H. Baynes, The Speeches of Adolf Hitler, 1922–1939, 2 vols. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1942) 1:871–72.
- Kohn, Nationalism, 70.