Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Conservatism and the Nation

Rich Lowry’s and Ramesh Ponnuru’s defense of nationalism has many thoughtful points and offers a helpful corrective to certain myths about nationalism. While Lowry and Ponnuru do sketch some of the connections between nationalism and conservatism, I think it’s worth developing a few more points about the alliance between conservatism and the idea of a nation-state.

Support for the nation-state would seem a natural extension of the conservative belief in nurturing the bonds of society. At least in the West, postnationalism has fostered two seemingly contradictory impulses: radical atomism, in which the individual is free to pursue his interests (commercial and otherwise) with little to no concern for others, and radical tribalism, in which the individual’s independent self is dissolved in the mass of an identity group (such as race, gender, or sexual identity).

Neither of these impulses seems congenial for conservatism. From a conservative perspective, they offer bastardized versions of individualism and social belonging. Radical atomization misses the fact that social commitments, rather than limiting the self, often enrich it. Identity-group tribalism, meanwhile, lacks the richness of a more multifaceted social belonging. National fellowship may not be the only way of avoiding these two traps, but it is a compelling one. It affords a way of organizing our immediate social commitments into a broader narrative. Because the nation-state makes no pretensions to universality (it is explicitly not global), it recognizes the diversity of human circumstances. The existence of diverse nation-states can serve as a way of reconciling the belief in certain universal moral principles with a recognition of the limits of human knowledge and action.

In addition to this conservative tradition, the Republican party has since its founding been the party of the nation. As Lowry and Ponnuru note, post-World War II Republicans often championed the defense of American sovereignty, and, more broadly, appeals to national sovereignty serve as a thread connecting Abraham Lincoln to Teddy Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan. In fact, one of the strongest connections of Donald Trump to the broader Republican tradition is his unapologetic celebration of American sovereignty. (As the examples of Roosevelt and Reagan demonstrate, though, the defense of sovereignty need not mean radical isolationism. Especially as international commitments may serve U.S. interests, an involvement in international affairs can be an ally to the defense of American interests.)

Moreover, intense anti-nationalism (by which I mean an overwhelming hostility to the idea of the nation-state) seems, in many respects, a dead-end for conservatism as a political force. Conservatives who prioritize a hawkish or assertive foreign policy should recognize the fact that such a foreign policy demands a sense of national cohesion; efforts to dilute the meaning of citizenship will also deplete the ranks of citizen-soldiers and the public appetite for projecting power abroad. Politicians running under the banner of “economic efficiency” will have far less success at the ballot box than will those who specifically advance the claim that their economic policies are good for the nation’s electorate. On many issues (especially free speech), the United States has an expansive view of civil liberties, and efforts to weaken national sovereignty will likely put our enjoyment of those liberties at risk. A conservatism that attempts to eschew national affections will likely fail in the enterprise of winning votes and advancing its policy aims.

Like any passion, national affection can at times be unbalanced or used for unworthy ends. Ethical reasoning and administrative prudence are crucial for conducting politics. Nevertheless, affection for one’s country plays a role, too, and conservatism has long recognized the importance of affections, national and otherwise.

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