Is a Little Bit of Nationalism a Good Thing?

I am always interested in grappling with the kinds of arguments made by people like John Judis about how liberals should react in the Donald Trump era. His latest piece in the New York Times calls out liberals for their rejection of nationalism and proposes that national identity is essential to democracies.

Judis begins by denouncing some of the ways that Donald Trump’s nationalism is harmful. He then proposes this:

But these failings should not lead you to dismiss the value of nationalism, which, by itself, is neither good nor evil, liberal nor conservative. The perception of a common national identity is essential to democracies and to the modern welfare state, which depends on the willingness of citizens to pay taxes to aid fellow citizens whom they may never have set eyes upon.

I have to admit that I have a natural gut reaction against the use of the word “nationalism” because of how it has been used by those who promote the superiority of the white race. I don’t react as negatively to the idea of “a common national identity.” But all too often the default of that identity has been the assumption that it revolves around the interests of white (primarily wealthy) men. The reason this country is struggling with its national identity today is because women and people of color are in a position to expect a seat at the table when we’re defining who is included.

If we’re going to talk about promoting a national identity it will need to be the one Barack Obama described during his speech to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the marches from Selma to Montgomery. He spoke about the “imperative of citizenship” that led the marchers to risk everything to realize this country’s promise.

That’s what it means to love America.  That’s what it means to believe in America.  That’s what it means when we say America is exceptional.

For we were born of change.  We broke the old aristocracies, declaring ourselves entitled not by bloodline, but endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights.  We secure our rights and responsibilities through a system of self-government, of and by and for the people.  That’s why we argue and fight with so much passion and conviction — because we know our efforts matter.  We know America is what we make of it…

That’s what America is.  Not stock photos or airbrushed history, or feeble attempts to define some of us as more American than others.  We respect the past, but we don’t pine for the past.  We don’t fear the future; we grab for it.  America is not some fragile thing.  We are large, in the words of Whitman, containing multitudes.  We are boisterous and diverse and full of energy, perpetually young in spirit.

Back in 1981, Bernice Johnson Reagon gave a speech on coalition politics that should be required reading for every liberal. She talked about how people are drawn to create what we sometimes call “safe spaces” full of people just like us.

That place can then become a nurturing place or a very destructive place. Most of the time when people do that, they do it because of the heat of trying to live in this society where being an X or Y or Z is very difficult, to say the least…And that’s when you find a place, and you try to bar the door and check all the people who come in. You come together to see what you can do about shouldering up all of your energies so that you and your kind can survive…

Now that’s nationalism. I mean it’s nurturing, but it is also nationalism. At a certain stage nationalism is crucial to a people if you are going to ever impact as a group in your own interest. Nationalism at another point becomes reactionary because it is totally inadequate for surviving in the world with many peoples.

Here’s the challenge to that kind of nationalism:

We’ve pretty much come to the end of a time when you can have a space that is “yours only”—just for the people you want to be there…To a large extent it’s because we have just finished with that kind of isolating. There is no hiding place. There is nowhere you can go and only be with people who are like you. It’s over. Give it up.

Judis spends a lot of time talking about how globalization led to an embrace of nationalism. To the extent that it became a vehicle for corporations to exploit people, I agree with him 100 percent. But even when we’re talking about the entire globe, there is no such thing as a “safe space.” Here is how Barack Obama talked about that during his 2009 speech in Cairo, Egypt:

For we have learned from recent experience that when a financial system weakens in one country, prosperity is hurt everywhere.  When a new flu infects one human being, all are at risk.  When one nation pursues a nuclear weapon, the risk of nuclear attack rises for all nations.  When violent extremists operate in one stretch of mountains, people are endangered across an ocean.  When innocents in Bosnia and Darfur are slaughtered, that is a stain on our collective conscience. That is what it means to share this world in the 21st century.  That is the responsibility we have to one another as human beings.

And this is a difficult responsibility to embrace.  For human history has often been a record of nations and tribes — and, yes, religions — subjugating one another in pursuit of their own interests.  Yet in this new age, such attitudes are self-defeating.  Given our interdependence, any world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail.  So whatever we think of the past, we must not be prisoners to it.  Our problems must be dealt with through partnership; our progress must be shared.

Judis ends his piece by saying that liberals need to respond constructively to, rather than dismiss, the nationalist reaction to globalization. I don’t know of anyone on the left who would speak out against the importance of a national identity or who rejects the idea that the priority of our government should be to protect its citizens and promote their well-being. But where nationalism must be rejected is in any attempt to limit who has a seat at the table when those decisions are being made as well as any efforts to return to the Great Powers era that is at the heart of Vladimir Putin’s vision to destroy the international order established following World War II.

It is often people on the right who criticize groups for attempting to set up “safe spaces.” But when nationalism means carving them out for white men in this country or pretending like we can isolate this country from the rest of the globe, it is a recipe for both cruelty and eventually failure.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60 .