National Affairs has to be one of the more pleasant surprises to come out of political journals over the last five years. Reform-minded conservatives finally found a home, and Yuval Levin — who not only edits the publication but provides the sort of moral leadership that Fr. Richard John Neuhaus provided for First Things some years ago — does his job splendidly. If you have not read this fine publication, pick one up at your local bookstore or take a small tour here.
The election of Donald J. Trump to the presidency has rattled most conservatives, perhaps in the same way progressives had rattled liberals when Obama not only beat Hillary Clinton for the 2008 Democratic nomination but trounced John McCain in the general.
The rise of nationalism in American political circles contra globalism has been shocking, not because of any lack of patriotism on the part of conservatives, but because implicit in the type of nationalism that is being peddled — a protectionist, isolationist, inward form of nationalism — is one that rejects free markets and American leadership on the global stage. To wit, John Ward with Yahoo News interviews Levin about the uses of the term:
During a conversation with one leading conservative intellectual, Yuval Levin, I was taken aback when he used the term “nationalism” in a positive way.
“The challenge of articulating a constructive nationalism is absolutely essential now to how the right comes back,” Levin, editor of National Affairs magazine, told me in late October.
I recoiled. The word’s negative connotations are obvious. But my surprise that Levin would endorse any form of nationalism was the result of my not paying attention.
The problem here is that nationalism cannot be separated from revanchism. This is not mere patriotism — a pride in one’s country. This is a campaign for a national identity wrapped up not in ideas (which, if this were the case, globalism is an idea the nationalists abhor) but in a commonality that expresses a people, Volk or ethnicity.
The article is worth printing out and reading over a cup of coffee. Ward dives directly into the tug the alt-right holds over the conservative movement, and the efforts of those such as Levin, Salam, and Douthat to baptize the cat, so to speak:
“If we accept that we have a collective responsibility for the well-being of every member of our society, as I think we should, it makes sense to select immigrants who have at least a fighting chance of making it,” Salam wrote in 2014.
“The biggest challenge we face in the United States, in my view, is a lack of togetherness,” he wrote. And slowing immigration is one way to help re-create what he calls “melting-pot nationalism.”
Therein lies the problem. As the federal government has continued to grow, the response of nationalism in the face of global elites and “world citizens” is inevitable, but it also strikes deeply at the heart of American ideas of who we are.
Two responses come to mind in an earlier incarnation of American sentiments. First, it is important to emphasize that Americans are neither globalists nor nationalists. America is not an ethnicity or a nation state, but rather an ideal — 50 commonwealths (literally, res publicas) that bind themselves into a federal compact. There is no American ethnicity. We are not “born fighting” and neither are we the multicultural society that political leftists imagine. We are indeed a melting pot, and whether we like it or not, all of us in some form assent to the WASP notion of what it means to be an American: an Anglicized understanding of natural and common law within a Judeo-Christian framework, influenced entirely by the Scottish Enlightenment.
Secondly, the consequences of this are rather straightforward. One can be a Virginia nationalist, and indeed the early Virginians were from Smith to Jefferson to Lee:
“Virginia is my country; her will I obey, however lamentable the fate to which it may subject me.”
But even these republics qua states are bound together in a federal compact. It is therefore no surprise whatsoever that the Founding Fathers embroiled themselves in the debate over federalism and a stronger central government, or republicanism and stronger state governments.
Republicanism carried the day so long as the Founders survived; federalism won the day at Appomattox in April 1865. It was only with the advent of Theodore Roosevelt, Wilson, and the progressive reformers that nationalism crept into the American lexicon, and it would be with FDR and the Breton Woods system that globalism would become synonymous with the Pax Americana.
Yet in this trade, it is important to remember that the Founding Fathers themselves held to the idea of “free trade, free goods” from the very inception of the American Republic. What nationalism offers is nothing that our Founders would have recognized (Hamilton excepting). What globalism offers is entirely alien, but what the conservatives are reaching for — and perhaps, what the old two-sided coin between liberals and conservatives still represents — is republicanism in the face of over-reaching federalism that is being abused for globalist purposes.
After all, Jefferson was not too far from the mark when, during his First Inaugural Address, he observed that “we are all federalists, we are all republicans.” Implicit in this is that we are not all globalists, nor are we nationalists.
The idea of republicanism is perhaps old and worn, but it is the ideal that conservatives have fought for from Burke to Jefferson to Coolidge to Kirk to Weaver to Buckley and finally to its modern manifestation in Goldwater, Reagan, and Paul. This wave of European-style far-right nationalism needs to be vigorously opposed, not only because it is alien to the American framework, but because it is a cure far worse than the globalist disease.