Cultural Nationalism: A Defense
“And I should like to be able to love my country and still love justice. I don’t want just any greatness for it, particularly a greatness born of blood and falsehood. I want to keep it alive by keeping justice alive.”
Many liberals, progressives, and other cosmopolitans view nationalism as a moral failure, a manifestation of human barbarism and a confession of human flaws and fallibility that should, as soon as possible, be discarded for a broader, less divisive international order. I strongly disagree. Nationalism, of course, is not without costs. However, on balance, it is clearly the best, most liberty-promoting sociopolitical arrangement humans have thus discovered.
It’s easy to imagine a future without borders, or governments, or strife, or conflict. But, what one can imagine is quite different from what one can realistically practice. In the real world, human nature inevitably intrudes. And human nature is implacably tribal. Humans divide the world into groups — coalitions that live and complete alongside other coalitions. And they define themselves not just by the coalition to which they belong, but also by the coalitions to which they do not belong. Thus, tribalism is based on (1) a sense of sharing beliefs, values, and kinship with a group of people and (2) a sense of being different from other groups of people. Many have lamented this, but such lamentations are as futile as lamenting the weather. It is unavoidable. There is absolutely no reason to expect that humans will ever transcend their tribalism.
Nationalism, then, is one way to guide, channel, corral the human propensity for creating tribes. It is the product of a long period of cultural evolution. It creates a large, coherent group to which humans can belong; and, like all tribal phenomena, it unites, and it divides. However, the divisions it creates do not need to be bellicose. Countries are not fated to war against each other, even if they are fated to compete AND to cooperate with each other.
The nation creates sympathies across social classes and ethnic groups and religious groups. It can cause somebody in Boston to sympathize with the plight and pain of somebody 1,000 miles away! It can cause a Christian to sympathize with a Muslim and an Atheist with a Buddhist.
The nation also gives a sense of meaning and purpose. Most people will never achieve greatness. They will never write a novel, make a film, or invent an important technology. But they can belong to a great nation. And they can contribute to that great nation.
The nation also gives humans a sense of perpetuity. Life, of course, is tragically short. Each person is but an ephemera. But a nation can persist for hundreds, even thousands of years. And a culture can last much longer.
Those who assail nationalism, who ridicule it for being limited, bigoted, parochial, are stripping meaning from many people. And, they are likely reducing support for public programs, works, and welfare benefits, for humans support such things precisely because they support the greater good: the nation.
Worse, though, those who assail nationalism are likely making ethnic conflict much likelier. Tribalism doesn’t die with the nation. Therefore, as national unity declines, people will find meaning with other tribes. And one very natural tribe is an ethnic group. So people will replace the dying coalition of the nation with the exciting and lively coalition of the ethnic group. And that type of tribalism will encourage factionalism as ethnic groups compete for limited resources and social status. And that will further increase polarization and further destroy the nation.
But what kind of nationalism should one promote, then? I divide the different conceptions of nationalism into four: (1) ethnonationalism; (2) cultural nationalism; (3) civic nationalism; and (4) cosmopolitan nationalism.
(1) Ethnonationalism is the view that ethnic groups deserve their own countries and that nationalism is thus best practiced and promoted by relatively homogenous countries.
(2) Cultural nationalism is the view that countries should be coherent cultural units and that they will likely be predominated by one ethnic group, but that other ethnic groups can and should participate equally in the country and deserve full citizenship and equal rights.
(3) Civic nationalism is the view that countries are held together by commitments to liberal law and a broad creed and little else. This, thus, is an extremely liberal and minimalist mode of nationalism.
(4) Cosmopolitan nationalism is the view that nationalism is just a stage on the path toward a larger global unit. It thus sees the nation as a cocoon that will eventually be burst apart by the butterfly of the global tribe.
I think that some variant of cultural nationalism is the most reasonable approach for most Western countries, including the United States (on which I will focus). The United States is a very diverse country, so ethnonationalism is absolutely a non-starter, and, in fact, would be terribly immoral to promote because it might encourage hostility toward the many different minority ethnic groups in the country.
On the other hand, I don’t think civic nationalism has sufficient force to hold people together in a coherent political unit. We need something stronger, more binding, more unifying, more respectful of past traditions. Cultural nationalism does this. And it accepts diverse ethnic groups, praises diversity, but also strongly promotes cultural assimilation. Without assimilation, ethnic animosities are almost inevitable. And the fabric of the country will be torn apart by competing groups.
At the international level, I think cultural pluralism should prevail. In my ideal world, people would have relatively free movement in such a way that a person from Europe who identifies strongly with Japanese culture could become a member of their coalition (and respect their norms and values). But I don’t know how feasible that is. And it is clear that countries need to protect their borders and limit immigration so that their cultures are not irretrievably altered. But the international arena should be a garden with many different cultural flowers and we should resist the call to crush that diversity on the wheel of globalism. Instead, cultural groups should be allowed to pursue their self-interests within a framework of basic rights.
Thus, I see cultural nationalism as a tolerant middle-ground for both conservatives and liberals. It doesn’t insistent on the futile and immoral attempt to eliminate ethnic diversity. Instead, it celebrates it. But it does so within a coherent cultural framework that encourages assimilation. The goal is to provide meaning, order, and significance, while also avoiding a descent into the danger of crude ethnic or religious tribalism. And my hope is that we can take pride in the flag, in the country, in its place in the broader Anglosphere, and in our unique cultural heritage without being chauvinists or xenophobes.
A culture, a nation, is a gift from innumerable ancestors stretching back into the mists of time and our duty, as I see it, is to maintain it, modify it, adjust it, and then pass it on to the next generation. And that means that everybody in the coalition, in the country, the nation, the culture, matters. The Walmart worker, the corner shop employee, the lawyer, the police officer, the comedian, the professor, the athlete. We all matter. And we participate in a culture that is different from other cultures. And we should preserve and celebrate that difference. And we should love our culture and our nation, not necessarily because they are better than all others; but because they are ours.