Nationalism for Progressives

The title points to a connection I am not comfortable with. I am going to try to get over that today. This essay rests on two pieces from the New York Times. On March 4 by Yasha Mounk; the other by David Brooks just a few days earlier.

Everyone who has not been living in a cave for the last 20 years knows David Brooks. [1] Yasha Mounk is new to me and if he is new to you, too, it might help you see his argument in a more meaningful context if I share a little of what I have learned about him. He is German, born in Munich in 1982. A big part of his political identity is his Jewish background.  He is currently a lecturer at Harvard and he appears to have an instinct for looking at the other side of the picture. I like that.

In The Age of Responsibility: Luck, Choice, and the Welfare State (2017) he shows, according to a reviewer, “why the Age of Responsibility is pernicious—and how it might be overcome.” He argues, according to other reviewers, that it is also pervasive and powerful. “Pernicious, Pervasive, and Powerful.  That doesn’t sound like a promising start to me.

nationalism 1How a movement like that could be “overcome,” I have no idea and, in fact, it makes me think that someone in the marketing department at Harvard University Press added that last little bit to sell more books.

The current hot book of Mounk’s is The People v. Democracy: Why our Freedom is in Danger and How to Save It (2018). If my guess about his 2017 book title was correct, then I am guessing that the same guy in marketing added the last five words of this title. And, in fact, my introduction to Mounk’s work—which was yesterday—supports my guess about the marketing department. Let me tell you why.

Nationalism is like a half-wild beast. As long as it remains under our control, it can be of tremendous use. But if we abandon it, others are sure to step in, prodding and baiting the beast to bring out its most ferocious side. For all the well-founded misgivings about it, we have little choice but to domesticate it as best we can.

That is the last paragraph, the conclusion, of his piece, “How Liberals Can Reclaim Nationalism.” When you look at the conclusion (above) and then at the title, you know something odd is going on. The hypothetical guy in the marketing department at Harvard University Press may have a brother who writes headlines for the New York Times. You can’t get from the headline to the conclusion. So which is the real Yasha Mounk?

Here is what he says in the New York Times piece.

“…nationalism began to enjoy an astonishing resurgence. President Trump casts himself as a nationalist doing battle with globalists. He’s not alone. From Poland to Venezuela, authoritarian populists have exploited nationalism to disable democracy. In China, Turkey and Russia, dictators have played on nationalist sentiments to concentrate power in their own hands. Institutions like the European Union are on the back foot.”

And he concludes:

For the foreseeable future, nationalism is likely to remain a defining political force.

You would think that if things are as dismal as that, he might just stop writing at that point. But he doesn’t. He proposes that, while “nationalism” has always been one kind of thing, we—the good guys—can take it and make it another kind of thing.

On the other hand:

Its [nationalism’s] modern form took shape as a result of deliberate political choices and the construction of elaborate myths.

Now Mounk intends that observation to be encouraging. Nationalism was “constructed,” he says, meaning that it is not “natural” in the sense that gravity is natural. And as part of this construction, it was supported and protected by “elaborate myths.” I think that by “myths,” he means something like “spin,” as if shining the light of truth on it is going to destroy it. But Mounk is Jewish and he ought to have more respect for ‘myths.” Myths aren’t spin; they go down into your soul; they become the cement that holds societies together. Shining the light of truth on it mobilizes people with rifles who want to shoot the light out while there is still time.

In short, he is trying to build toward the project he has in mind, which is, please recall, “domesticating nationalism.” But the more he does that, the more he puts me in mind of his forebears, who scouted out the promised land (Numbers 13) and reported that it was full of giants and could not be conquered.

So if “nationalism” is the promised land, what will we (progressives) have to do to conquer (domesticate) it. Well…different things than we have been doing, for sure. Consider this.

One common reaction to the dangerous excesses of nationalism has been to forgo the need for any form of collective identity, exhorting people to transcend tribal allegiances completely. But for better or probably worse, it’s easier to be moved by the suffering of people with whom we have some form of kinship. That is why nationalism remains one of the most powerful vehicles for expanding our circle of sympathy.

So first we urged people to forego—we probably said “transcend”—nationalism entirely and in the process, we said some nasty things about the people who wouldn’t do that. Some of those things are going to have to be retracted. That isn’t going to be easy. We can only hope that Mounk is wrong in thinking that we will have to do it.

Then we have to move away from the victim orientation to the extent that it is something we do rather than forging a new, more inclusive national identity. It is relatively easy, psychologically speaking, to anguish over the sufferings of people like ourselves or the groups who need the protections of groups like ourselves. Those are good things to do, but they won’t rebuild a better nationalism.

Another thing progressives have done is to “celebrate more narrow forms of collective identity, such as race or religion.” (We will get a good example of that from David Brooks in a few paragraphs.)  If we expand on the two examples he gave, it takes us right to the powerful tribalization the U. S. is experiencing now. Being “educated” or “enlightened” or “tolerant” or “wealthy” can name tribes just as well as “race or religion can.” And sinking back into those identities, rather than pushing on to a more expansive and engaging nationalism, is not going to get the job done.

And finally:

Convinced that they would be unable to redirect nationalism toward their own ends, many of the most open-minded segments of society long ago gave up on the fight to determine its meaning….Instead of exhorting their fellow citizens to live up to their nations’ highest ideals, many activists seem content with denouncing past and present injustices.

Progressives, according to this charge, have given up on nationalism as such. If “nationalism” is something to be abandoned in the progressive march toward “true humanity,” then there is no point in rescuing it by redefining it. And that is particularly true if you want to say that true nationalism—we are going to have to say “true patriotism” eventually—means living up to our nation’s highest ideals.

nationalism 6Does that mean giving up “denouncing past and present injustices?” It might. A steady diet of such denunciations is like a steady diet of salt. Salt has its uses as a condiment, but treating it as an aliment—as the entrée—is not going to work. We still get to do all the denunciation that doesn’t get in the road of the job. So we won’t have to give it up completely. The job, as Mounk gives it to us, is redefining “patriotism” as a new more inclusive, more inspiring form of our common quest.

I hope Mounk understands—I don’t think he does, but it’s too early to make a final judgment—that this new quest is going to have to be supported and protected by a robust infrastructure of myth. The tasks we undertake that are held together by the stories and symbols of mythology will succeed. Those who are not similarly protected and inspired will fail.

So just as he has undervalued, as I see it, the power of the old nationalist mythology, so he under-appreciates the need for a new nationalist mythology; for a mythology of “patriotism.” And when we move to take that seriously, we lose not only the people who like narrow exclusive nationalism better, but also people who think we can do without mythology at all.  I’m not sure we can do without both groups at the same time.

At this point I would like to turn briefly to David Brooks’s piece. Brooks’ goals are fully compatible, I think, with Mounk’s, but Brooks has been out on the street [2]talking to people and he has some idea where they are at the moment.

Brooks asked them a probing question about “the American Story” and gave a little prompt of his own to guide the answers.

We were the lucky inheritors of Jefferson and Madison, Whitman and Lincoln, the Roosevelts, Kennedy and King. Our ancestors left oppression, crossed a wilderness and are trying to build a promised land.

It didn’t work very well

They looked at me like I was from Mars. “That’s the way powerful white males talk about America,” one student said.

I have a lot of trouble with an answer like that. It identifies the social location of the speaker and accepts or dismisses the message on that basis. If there is to be “a story,” –a common story, not all our stories together–who is going to tell it?

As to what they, themselves have been taught about the history of our country.

Others made it clear that the American story is mostly a story of oppression and guilt. “You come to realize the U.S. is this incredibly imperfect place.” “I don’t have a sense of being proud to be an American.” Others didn’t recognize an American identity at all: “The U.S. doesn’t have a unified culture the way other places do,” one said.

I think the information Brooks brings us about “the word on the street”—especially that street—is profoundly disturbing. It dismisses makers of the story on the basis of race, gender, and social position. The instruction they have had about the history of their country is “mostly a story of oppression and guilt.” That doesn’t sound like the kind of story anyone is going to rally around.

So I would be discouraged just by the information Brooks brings us; just the information. But when you look at the information in the light of the project Mounk is talking about, it is worse. It is much worse.

Mounk said, remember: “.…Instead of exhorting their fellow citizens to live up to theirnationalism 2 nations’ highest ideals, many activists seem content with denouncing past and present injustices.” That is what he said is going to have to be overcome if we are to see clearly how to re-orient nationalism toward the most crucial of the progressive’s goals.

So I admit the project—the goal defined by Mounk, the starting point by Brooks—is discouraging, but I don’t see that we have an alternative. If “nationalism” is the wave of the future, then we need to make it a wave worth riding.

[1] I have had my troubles with David Brooks, but his early, consistent, and principled opposition to the Trump phenomenon and everything associated with it has made me feel as he and I are fellow soldiers, at least for the moment.
[2] It’s a very well appointed street— Harvard, Yale, the University of Chicago and Davidson .

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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