Discover more from Alex Nowrasteh's Deep Dives
Nationalism Debate: Rich Lowry vs. Alex Nowrasteh
"Nationalism is an important value that Americans should support: Yea or Nay?"
Rich Lowry, editor in chief of National Review, and I debated the proposition “Nationalism is an important value that Americans should support” last week at the Soho Forum. Lowry took the affirmative, and I took the negative. Lowry wrote The Case for Nationalism: How It Made Us Powerful, United, and Free and has been writing and speaking about nationalism for years.
I reviewed Lowry’s book and have written about nationalism after delving into the topic in response to the rise of nationalist politics here with Donald Trump and overseas. Prior to that, the only openly self-identified nationalists I’d met were Mark Krikorian, John Fonte, and Thierry Baudet who are all firm nativists. I thought their broader political ideas were so primitive and silly that I didn’t think much of nationalism until Trump came on the scene in 2015. Whoops.
Thanks for reading Alex Nowrasteh's (mostly) Deep Dives! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
I also didn’t anticipate the rise of nationalist sentiment among libertarians. Worryingly, many online personalities aligned with the Libertarian Party’s (misnamed) Mises Caucus embrace nationalism while calling themselves libertarians. They seem to embrace the later political writings of Murray Rothbard, who tirelessly sought out the worst possible political and ideological alliances for libertarians in addition to his prodigious scholarly output. Even more baffling is the embrace of ideas by Hans-Hermann Hoppe among some libertarians. His main contributions are calling Milton Friedman and the Mont Pelerin society “socialist,” promulgating argumentation ethics (check the link, it’s entertaining), and arguing that monarchy is an economically efficient form of government. Brad DeLong and Andrei Shleifer solidly rebutted the latter point. Embracing nationalism is a tragic ideological mistake that will erode libertarian commitments to individual liberty, free markets, limited government, and peace without political or policy gains. Part of my motivation for criticizing nationalism from a libertarian and traditional conservation position is to push against this trend.
Nationalism is a very unimpressive proto-ideology. Still, I think Lowry’s book is the best pro-nationalism tract for a wide audience. He didn’t rely on circular reasoning like Yoram Hazony did in his book, so you can read Lowry without cringing. I can’t make the same guarantee if you read Hazony’s book. If you’re interested in a denser but well-written academic book on the topic, Azar Gat’s Nations: The Long History and Deep Roots of Political Ethnicity and Nationalism is the best treatment and convinced me of some uncomfortable truths.
Anyway, back to the debate. Nationalism was a change of pace for me because I usually debate immigration policy. Debating nationalism requires defining terms and talking about philosophy much more than immigration, where there are few definitional disagreements. We got stuck on what nationalism means, and you can hear our different takes on the video. Lowry prefers to define nationalism as the love of one’s national culture, language, history, institutions, holidays, and everything good. I prefer the definition succinctly summed up by Azar Gat as “ethnic politics.” My own longer way of defining it is that nationalism is the ideology that ethnic groups should have their own states (nation-states) that advance their interests. Unlike any other debate I’ve seen or participated in, Lowry and I talked quite a bit about the Latin roots of words and what they mean.
It was an Oxford Style debate that had the audience vote beforehand on the proposition. The audience then votes after the debate. The winner convinces more people to shift toward their position after the debate. I convinced 19 percent of the audience to shift to my side, going from 26 percent pre-debate to 44 percent post-debate. Lowry convinced 3 percent, starting the debate with 39 percent support and ending with 42 percent. The undecided share shrank from 35 percent to 14 percent. This means I won the vote, which always makes me suspicious as a libertarian.
I was surprised that Lowry didn’t bring up reactive nationalism in the debate. When certain ethnic or religious groups are persecuted, a common reaction of those persecuted is the strengthening or creation of nationalism for psychological and defensive reasons. Individuals are very easily persecuted, but individuals in a large group who defensively cooperate, have solidarity, and aid each other are harder to oppress. Zionism, for instance, grew rapidly in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as anti-Semitism, pogroms, and state oppression of Jews were widespread in Europe. Persecuted groups can even form a new ethnic identity in response to persistent persecution.
In the distant past, national solidarity grew when groups had to defend themselves against enemy tribes, probably forming nation-states to supply national defense (walls) to keep out raiders and conquerors (revenue-maximizing stationary bandits). In those situations, reactive nationalism is certainly a useful mechanism to defend against the worse consequences of being conquered. Even worse for me, it probably means that we could be trapped in a never-ending cycle of reactive nationalism arising in response to aggressive nationalism. Expect Ukrainian nationalism to be much stronger for a very long time and for the Ukrainian nation-state to be more powerful, even after the war ends. That doesn’t seem negative, especially in the short run when countering aggressive nationalists. In the long run, many nationalisms aren’t merely reactive and become aggressive. Do well-intentioned nationalists have a way of stopping that frequent transformation? If so, I’d like to hear them.
Lowry is a wonderful debate opponent. He’s funny, smart, and eloquent. We got along well before and after the debate – which is not always the case. We talked about our families (we have the same number of kids and they’re about the same ages too) and jobs we’d held in the past. Turns out he was a reporter several years ago in the Virginia town where I currently live. Below is the text of my opening statement and a video of the debate. Who do you think won?
Alex Nowrasteh’s Opening Statement
There are many books on nationalism. I put those books into three broad categories. The first is informative but dry and descriptive academic tomes. The second is breezy, easy to read, and bad works of ahistorical propaganda. The third group of books is well-written, informative, and supports nationalism. I put Rich Lowry’s book in the third category. Indeed, if you want to read the best case for nationalism in book form, I suggest you read Rich’s book.
However, that does not mean that I agree with it. Rich advocates for a benign nationalism that doesn’t exist in the real world. Rich’s nationalism is theoretical and bears almost no relationship to nationalism as it actually exists. Real nationalism as it exists in the world is mostly a primitive, statist, protectionist, anti-capitalist, xenophobic, and often ethnocentric proto-ideology of “my tribe best, your tribe bad” with the tribe being the core of the ideology. The only individual who counts is the chief of the tribe. It’s an ideology of group rights that denigrates individualism in favor of an abstraction known as the tribe or, in this case, the nation. And by nation, I mean a literal group of genetically similar individuals with a common language, culture, religion, and ethnicity. This is why the Latin root of the word “nationalism” is natio, which means birth, ethnicity, a race of people, tribe, or other groups of related people or things.
I like that Rich separates his benign version of nationalism from the jingoistic and more nasty variety. But nationalism almost always, not 100 percent of the time, but almost always veers in the jingoistic nasty statist direction, which is exactly the variety we see popular among most American and foreign nationalists today and historically. Rich is not this type of nationalist. If all nationalists were like Rich, we wouldn’t be having this debate today. But the difference between Rich’s nationalism and nationalism as it actually exists is why we’re here. The great failure of Rich’s project is that he builds a nicer theoretical version of nationalism and does not deal with nationalism as it actually exists in the world and in the minds of nationalists. Nationalism is the ideology that paves the right-wing Road to Serfdom.
Unlike other opponents of nationalism, I’m going to concede a point up front to Rich. Nationalism is an ancient proto-ideology that is likely hardwired into our DNA to some extent – it’s primordial. Nationalism was not invented in Europe shortly after the printing press and it is not a modern ideology. Nationalism can’t be erased any more than other aspects of human nature could be erased and we shouldn’t try. Nationalism has a weaker hold on humans than other parts of our biology, such as love for one’s children, which is why nations must coerce their citizens to contribute to other nationals and the state through taxation, conscription, forced labor, or forced attendance in government schools while few people have to be coerced to care for their children. What we should do is build and reinforce institutional and cultural walls around nationalism to limit its destructive impact.
And this is one reason why the United States is an exceptional country. Our ancestors built walls around nationalism and constrained its ability to ruin this great country. Constitutional limitations that reduce the power of majorities and dedication to individual rights, not group or national rights, were inspired by an ideology of Classical Liberalism, not an appeal to an eternal myth of a nation. That’s because the United States is not a nation represented by a state (also known as a nation-state), has never been a nation-state, can never be a nation-state, the founding documents of this country did not create a nation-state, and the founders couldn’t have done so even if they wanted. The United States was born as a country with an ideological underpinning, a creedal country with a civic identity as academics say, not a national one bound by ties of blood or a near-uniform centrally planned culture like the nations of Europe. The United States has a creed or broad Enlightenment Classical Liberal ideology, adherence to certain principles with a few cultural characteristics in common. We’re not unique in this respect, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and others are similar, but the U.S. takes it the furthest. Other countries, particularly those in Europe and some in Asia, are founded as nation-states where the state represents a traditionally settled tribal or ethnic group. The U.S. was founded on ideology, nation-states are founded on ideas of blood, borders, and centrally managed culture.
Regardless of the theoretical definitions of nationalism that we’ve heard promoted by Rich, we must deal with empirical real-world nationalism and judge its effect. We can’t judge an ideology by the intentions of its advocates. We rightly judge communism by its awful real-world effects and mock communists who say the disasters of communism aren’t the results of “real communism.” We should do the same to nationalists who claim that the awful real-world effects of nationalism aren’t “real nationalism.” I’m going to highlight six common real-world effects of nationalism that are major downsides from the perspectives of American traditional conservatives and libertarians. Then you can compare those downsides to the benefits that Rich described to see if nationalism is worth it. Just to repeat, I am not arguing that Rich supports all of these effects, but these are the common and sometimes unintentional effects of nationalism. We have to judge nationalism by its effects, not by the intentions of its well-intentioned and moderate advocates like Rich.
The first downside of nationalism is that it increases centralized state power. In nationalism, the state representing a nation (known as a nation-state) is the only organization that counts because it represents the entire nation. Individualism is not important, individual rights don’t matter, and a nation’s government does and should determine everything regardless of the desires of dissenters. National decisions are made by the state. This is especially true in times of distress when nationalists claim to “rediscover the nation” and seek to control its embodiment, the state, as the only real source of value and a refuge in times of desperation.
The second effect of nationalism is that it tends to concentrate state power in a single person, the leader. Nationalists often conflate the nation with that of an individual political leader who is a nationalist, frequently a strong man, sometimes a dictator, and other times a king, probably because the nation is just an abstraction that requires a totem of some kind to be real in the minds of men. This is why Schopenhauer described monarchy as a natural force, it’s also why other large non-state organizations today are so often strongly identified with the person leading them. A charismatic strong leader who stands above “petty” individual distinctions and who represents strength, who requires more power, who disregards “small” concerns like individual liberties, who builds a cult of personality, and who is the representative of the nation fits the bill and we see this again and again in nationalist governments throughout history and across the world today.
The third common effect of nationalism is more state control over the economy. After all, the nation knows best and its government will do whatever it thinks is in the national interest (or, more accurately, whatever is in the best interests of nationalist politicians). It’s no mistake that National Conservatives, as they call themselves today in the United States, favor industrial policy, protectionism, high taxes, closed borders, pro-union policies, a large welfare state, praise the New Deal, and desire more state control over the economy. Increasing state control over the economy is partly ideological and partly just a byproduct of the increasingly centralized state that nationalists demand. We see it with economic protectionism, like tariffs on foreign products such as steel for vague national defense reasons or making sure all baby formula is made in the United States. This is the same today as it was in the heyday of nationalism from the late 19th century to World War II.
The fourth effect of nationalism is more government control over the private lives of citizens and central planning of culture. From the French Revolution originating the term “nation building” in France and their central planning of language to Vladimir Putin in Russia and dozens of nationalist leaders in between, they all use the state to force their preferred version of a centrally planned culture on society. The most common vehicle for this is through the state education system that instills nationalist values, imposes uniform language or linguistic guidelines, and subsidizes certain cultural norms. The powerful nation-state can and does impose different values and dissenters be damned.
The fifth effect of nationalism is the glorification of militarism, war, and lesser hostility between nations through trade wars and tearing up arms control treaties for no good reason. Judged by the number of deaths caused by different types of governments in the 20th century, just focusing on governments murdering their own citizens, nationalism is second only to communism. And that excludes the nationalist crimes against humanity during the age of imperialism whereby nationalists murdered over 50 million people, according to historian RJ Rummel. As historian Douglas Porch noted, “Colonialism was not, as Lenin claimed, ‘the highest stage of capitalism.’ Rather it was the highest stage of nationalism.”
We see nationalist wars most vividly today in Russia’s attempt to conquer Ukraine as part of a nationalist irredentism to reconstitute the Russian Empire by bringing the QUOTE “fake ethnicity of Ukrainians” back into the Russian fold. It’s no mistake that so many nationalists around the world admired Putin prior to his invasion, such as Dutch nationalist Thierry Baudet, French nationalist Marine Le Pen, Italian nationalist and Prime Minister Georgia Meloni and former Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi (who still defends Putin after the invasion), and many American National Conservatives, as they call themselves. Some American National Conservatives, or NatCons, slobbered over Putin (in part) because his military recruitment advertisements showed Russians as manly.
In his book, Rich praises Teddy Roosevelt as an American nationalist, a man whose greatest accomplishments were support for the income tax, burdening successful American firms with mountains of red tape, trust busting, building a large obsolete navy, creating new bureaucracies, national parks, advocating for U.S. entry into just about every war going on around the globe, and accomplishing many manly feats of physical strength. As a libertarian, none of those nationalist so-called achievements thrill me and they shouldn’t thrill the traditional conservatives listening today.
The sixth common effect of nationalism is ethnic chauvinism and, to a disturbingly frequent extent, genocide. Slaughters in Nationalist Turkey, mass death in Nationalist China, and two world wars were caused by nationalists with revanchist dreams. Historian Aristide Zolberg went as far as to call the formation of new nation-states “as a refugee-generating process” to expel groups of people who are not members of the new nation. Not every nationalist government commits genocide or engages in ethnic chauvinism, but not every communist regime causes a great famine either. We shouldn’t give nationalists a pass any more than we should give communists a pass. Still, we should be extremely skeptical and oppose communist governments everywhere for this and other reasons just as we should be extremely skeptical and oppose nationalist governments.
With such large potential downsides to nationalism, the benefits must be much greater to justify adopting such an ideology. What are the upsides? We’ve heard about feelings of belonging that will lead to national greatness. That payoff, mainly in the form of magic words, does not justify the potential downsides. They’re the equivalent of asking a person to risk their life, freedom, and material possessions today for abstract feelings in the future that probably won’t arrive. Did you feel better and more connected to other American strangers when Donald Trump, who embraced nationalism, was president? Did Trump cause American solidarity to increase? Just the opposite. Nationalism is a schismatic ideology that pulls citizens apart from one another instead of binding them together. Meaning and belonging come from family, friendships, real communities of people who know each other, worship in groups of people who know each other, hobbies, career, and other personal human relationships, not from devotion to a national abstraction.
Some of you may be thinking that the six common effects of nationalism sound a lot like those of communism, and you’d be correct. Those downsides are also not unique to nationalism or communism, but nationalism seems to make a virtue of these downsides and gives a legitimate patina to them. At the very least, nationalism doesn’t even acknowledge the downside risks. Nationalism is to the right wing what communism is to the left wing, poorly reasoned utopianism that often leads to some of the worst crimes against humanity. Communism promised material prosperity and equality for all and failed dramatically, what does nationalism promise but some good feelings or meaning tied to an abstraction?
In an ideologically founded country like the U.S., nationalism is a disuniting force and not a uniting one. Nationalism here builds walls around different groups and defines political opponents or other groups as less American than others. Nationalism is an exclusionary ideology, not an inclusive one. Nationalism often defines a country in terms of what it’s not – usually foreigners. But that frame is easily applied to defining fellow American citizens as not real Americans either. Claremont senior fellow Glenn Ellmers, an American nationalist and writer at a nationalist publication, wrote in 2021 that the 80 million Americans who voted for President Joe Biden in 2020 were “not Americans in any meaningful sense of the term.” And Claremont’s Charles R. Kesler has argued that the U.S. is experiencing a cold civil war. These nationalists believe that half of American voters have betrayed the nation. They obviously don’t care about building national solidarity. If they wanted to build national solidarity and harness good feelings for national greatness, they would be trying to bring the country together instead of trying to label half of their fellow countrymen as non-Americans or un-American. Where is this benign and uniting nationalism that Rich speaks of? Certainly not in the minds or on the lips of nationalists.
Thanks for reading Alex Nowrasteh's (mostly) Deep Dives! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.