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American Patriotism and Nationalism: One and Indivisible

John Fonte

Let us begin by playing “argument from authority,” conservative style. The anti-nationalist conservatives contributing to the patriotism–nationalism debate in National Review have cited William F. Buckley as having said something to the effect that “I’m as patriotic as anyone from sea to shining sea, but there’s not a molecule of nationalism in me.” This is a paraphrase. We don’t know his exact words, we don’t know the context, and, therefore, we don’t really know what he meant.

Now, let us go back several decades and examine the exact words and relevant context of several other prominent American conservatives who did not draw a sharp distinction between patriotism and nationalism. Then we will compare their arguments with the recent National Review essays by the proponents of an “enlightened nationalism,” Rich Lowry, Ramesh Ponnuru, and John O’Sullivan, and find them complementary, but with different emphases. Finally, I will argue the patriotism and nationalism are, for good or ill, inseparable.

Frank Meyer, whose name was on the masthead of the first issue of National Review, is famous as a libertarian-leaning thinker who developed the conservative synthesis of “fusionism,” uniting traditionalists and classical liberals. Meyer posited that an emphasis on both individual freedom and an organic moral order were philosophically and politically consistent. He wrote that this “fusionism” could (and should) form the core of conservative theory and practice. Significantly, Frank Meyer, in his article “The Booby-Trap of Internationalism” (1954), noted several times that it was regrettable that the term “nationalist,” along with “patriot,” had for many “become terms of reproach.”

Decades later and far across the conservative political spectrum from the libertarian Meyer, two of the major godfathers of neo-conservatism, Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz, explicitly embraced the term “nationalism” as a positive good. In the introduction to his book Reflections of a Neoconservative (1983), Kristol declared, “Neoconservatism is not merely patriotic — that goes without saying — but also nationalist. Patriotism springs from love of the nation’s past; nationalism arises out of hope for the nation’s future, distinctive greatness. Nationalism in our time is probably the most powerful of political emotions.” A decade later, in another book on neoconservatism, Kristol (as cited by Lowry and Ponnuru in their recent essay “For Love of Country”) wrote, “The three pillars of modern conservatism are religion, nationalism, and economic growth.”

Writing in Commentary a few weeks before the inauguration of Ronald Reagan in January 1981, editor Norman Podhoretz heralded a “new nationalist spirit” that had been building in America during the final Carter years. It ultimately led to Reagan’s victory. Podhoretz opined, “We know from the survey data that the political mood had been shifting for some years in a consistent direction away from the self-doubts and self-hatreds . . . of the immediate post-Vietnam period and toward what some of us have called a new nationalism.”

Assessing Reagan’s presidency two and a half years later (July 1983), Podhoretz trumpeted a “new consensus” against totalitarian Communism. This slowly building consensus made Reagan’s election possible. “We can,” Podhoretz notes, “point to a palpable intensification of nationalist sentiment in the country beginning with the surprising outburst of patriotism that accompanied the bicentennial celebrations of 1976 and culminating in the pro-American demonstrations provoked by the humiliating seizure of the hostages in Iran three years later.” Notice how Podhoretz seamlessly blends patriotism and nationalism in both his overarching rhetoric (nationalist sentiment with an outburst of patriotism) and in substantive examples (bicentennial pride followed by righteous anger at the Iranian mullahs).

The context of the Kristol-Podhoretz embrace of nationalism was the emergence of a “new majority” who were upset with American weakness during the last years of the Carter administration. In short, Americans were getting tired of losing. As Podhoretz explained on January 1, 1981, “the 1980 election signified the emergence of a ‘new majority’ that had coalesced around Reagan’s promise to work toward the restoration of American power.” In 1983 Kristol wrote: “The election of 1980, for the first time, provided signs that a new Republican party might be emerging. Reagan was anything but a typical Republican candidate, and never earned the favor of the Republican establishment. . . . He came ‘out of the West,’ riding a horse, not a golf cart, speaking in the kind of nationalist-populist tonalities not heard since Teddy Roosevelt, appealing to large sections of the working class.”

Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru argue that “nationalist sentiments are natural and can’t be beaten out of people if you try” and that it “would be a strange . . . conservatism that lacked any foundation in them.” In 2000, Norman Podhoretz declared that both patriotism (which he defines as “love of” one’s country) and nationalism (which he defines as “pride in” one’s country) is a “common feeling among peoples everywhere,” and so “celebrating or condemning patriotism, and even nationalism, is rather like praising or deploring human nature itself.”

Most of the participants in NR’s patriotism-nationalism debate have acknowledged the significance of both the ideological and the cultural foundations of the American regime. On the creed-culture nexus, Charles Kesler has astutely observed that the American creed, although the “keystone of American national identity, . . . requires a culture to sustain it.” Put otherwise, patriotic ideals require nationalist sentiments.

In a follow-up essay, Ponnuru argues that the anti-nationalist stance of “patriotism good, nationalism bad,” in which positive ideals (patriotism) are pitted against various forms of (mostly ethnic) nationalism, “allows no room for a love of country that is based on both a nation’s ideals and its culture.” Further, it disparages any political program that emphasizes national sovereignty (over, for example, globalism) and national cohesion (over, for example, identity politics).

In contradistinction to anti-nationalism, John O’Sullivan and I have argued that American democratic nationalism can be seen “as the glue that binds economic, social, and other conservatives together, just as in the old days anti-Communism provided such as bond.” We agree with Israeli philosopher Yoram Hazony, who declared that “conservatives have been nationalists since the days Disraeli wrote novels.”

What about Mussolini, Putin, and Erdogan? What about politicians and theorists who exalt their country by denigrating foreigners, and what about those who glory in aggression and war? Well, we have perfectly good words for these nasty impulses, chauvinism for the former and jingoism for the latter. Let’s use these more-precise terms rather than, painting with a broad brush, simply calling what one does not like “nationalism.”

What about Adolf Hitler? John Lukacs noted that Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf that he was a “nationalist not a patriot.” In truth, Hitler was neither a nationalist nor a patriot. In the final days of the Third Reich, he told a horrified Albert Speer, his closest confidant at the end, that the German people had proven unworthy and deserved to perish:

It is not necessary to worry about what the German people will need for elemental survival. On the contrary, it is best for us to destroy even those things. For the nation has proven to be the weaker, and the future belongs solely to the stronger, eastern nation.

Hardly the words of a nationalist (who would have spoken of national renewal and revenge). Yoram Hazony argues that Hitler was a racialist-imperialist rather than a nationalist, because he privileged an Aryan racial empire over the German nation.

During the Cold War, conservative intellectuals, including Straussians and the brilliant Jesuit priest John Courtney Murray, advanced the concept of America as a “proposition nation” that was in conflict with a rival ideological nation, the Soviet Union. This conception of American identity based primarily on shared ideas took hold on the right. However, the translation of creedal doctrine from professors to politicians was often clumsily done and opened the door to utopian interpretations. Thus we have Paul Ryan, while arguing for “comprehensive immigration reform,” declaring: “America is more than just a country. It’s more than Chicago, or Wisconsin. It’s more than our borders. America is an idea. It’s a very precious idea.”

While conservatives embraced the “nation based on ideas” paradigm, the progressives who control America’s universities and schools happily “appropriated” the concept (they never liked all that flag-waving stuff anyway) and filled in the educational content. First, the progressives noted that American “ideals,” like the nation itself, were constantly ”evolving.” Lawrence Levine in The Opening of the American Mind declared that America is “continually in process of happening”; it is a “dynamic becoming.” Michael Walzer wrote that “America is still a radically unfinished society.”

Second, the progressives redefined these ideals as utopian aspirations for leftist social justice to substitute more “advanced” viewpoints for outmoded 18th-century concepts and, in the case of the legal status of marriage, even the thinking of the first-term Obama administration. The Straussians emphasized the ideals of the Declaration, the Constitution, and the Federalist Papers. In contrast, Todd Gitlin declared that, while America is the fulfillment of the Enlightenment, “the point is not to celebrate some accomplished Enlightenment,” with its “Declaration of Independence” and “its Federalist Papers and Constitutional debates,” but to see the American project “as an aspiration, an invitation, a commitment to a process that seriously aims to bring about understandings that do not yet exist.” Whereas John Courtney Murray in We Hold These Truths declared that the “first truth” of the “American Proposition” is that we are a “nation under God,” the progressive thinker Richard Rorty called on Americans to embrace the utopian dreams of Walt Whitman and John Dewey. Whitman and Dewey “wanted that utopian America to replace God as the unconditional object of desire,” Rorty told us. “They wanted the struggle for social justice to be the county’s animating principle.” During his two terms in office, Barack Obama skillfully modulated and popularized the core progressive narrative of American history as the unfolding of a left-oriented social justice.

Conservatives made a strategic mistake overemphasizing abstract ideological reasoning while downplaying the concrete cultural and emotional aspect of patriotism. James Madison himself in Federalist No. 49 warned us that even the most “rational” regime is better off with the “prejudices of the community on its side.” (“Prejudices” in the 18th-century understanding did not have the negative connotation that it does today and was closer to the concept of “sentiments.”)

If patriotism is defined only as the fulfillment of “shared” American ideals (even as the nation becomes more polarized), then it will be neutered and devoid of any emotional attachment to national symbols and national stories. I mean symbols and stories such as Washington crossing the Delaware; the building of the transcontinental railroad; the pioneers on the frontier; the entrepreneurs who created the greatest economy the world has ever known; Gettysburg; the moral force of the civil-rights movement; and the Marines raising the flag on Iwo Jima. If this comes to pass, if patriotism is completely divorced from nationalism, then patriotism itself will be hollowed out, an empty shell.

This is the inevitable result of the “patriotism good, nationalism bad” argument. Anti-nationalism leads to anti-patriotism except for the most cold, abstract variety of what remains of “patriotism,” which itself easily becomes a form of utopianism with a progressive bent. And this trajectory, from a historically concrete patriotism and nationalism to a “patriotism” consisting primarily of “striving to fulfill our ideals” of a utopian progressivism, is already happening in our universities and schools. At the end of the day, to paraphrase Ben Franklin, patriotism and nationalism will either hang together, or they will hang separately, both diluted and diminished.

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