An Evolving Nationalism Built America


President Trump is a newsmaker with his comments for better or worse dominating the cycle. You’ll remember when he proclaimed being a nationalist. Soon, the media was abuzz. In particular, Chris Cuomo advanced on his CNN show that nationalism is dangerous. Citing “white nationalism” and Nazi/fascist regimes, he essentially claims it is un-American. The better approach is patriotism.

Distinguishing nationalism from patriotism was re-emphasized internationally by French President Macron. On Veterans' Day 2018, he said that "nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism." He observes that nationalism does not have the necessary moral quality.

I respectfully disagree with President Macron. It isn’t necessarily so.

Orwell’s “Notes on Nationalism”

Chris Cuomo relies on George Orwell in framing his argument. In his "Notes on Nationalism," Orwell was not so fixated on the word “nationalism” as he was on a way of nation’s behaving. He could have used fanaticism or fundamentalism. Whatever the word, the three principal characteristics of Orwell’s nationalism according to Kristian Williams in AK Press are obsession, instability, and indifference to reality.

Nationalism: Great Joy and Motivator

Some have pushed back on nationalism’s recent bad press. The New York Times’ David Brooks clarifies why President Trump cannot be a nationalist because he appears to despise half the nation. Brooks concludes:

“American nationalism has been one of the great joys, comforts, and motivators of my life. I don't know how anybody can live without it."

Presumably, Chris Cuomo would claim David Brooks is praising patriotism, not nationalism. The difference he likely would draw is that nationalism is an obsessive organizational form in pursuit of power while patriotism is reflective, passive and grounded in love for a place.

I see them as inter-related but different. While patriotism expresses love for a country, the nationalism I know defines in action and voice, a coherent path forward for that country.

Echelons of Fidelity

The levels of fidelity are tribal, national and global. All are grounded in an individual’s primary loyalty. Currently, many find their first affections with a tribe or a world order. This may be because nationalism has been disqualified to so many as illegitimate. With President Macron and Mr. Cuomo, nationalism represents only the bad history of fascism, Nazism, and white nationalism. They have powerful megaphones. Because many Americans understandably view these options as unacceptable, nationalism does not remain a contender for loyalty. Maybe this explains the current popularity of tribalism and globalism in America because they are the other options still standing.

American nationalism has been categorized as ethnonationalism and also civic-nationalism. The highly regarded Civil War historian James M. McPherson wrote about this subject in a 1998 book entitled Is Blood Thicker Than Water? Crises of Nationalism in The Modern World. He considers nationalism in the context of the American Civil War and also the relationship of Quebec to the Canadian nation.

Dr. McPherson concludes, “The triumph of civic nationalism in 1865 meant nothing less than the survival of the United States.” The righteous veracity of founding American national principles, shaped by the crucible of the American Civil War and its aftermath, galvanized a compelling American civic-national creed which has further evolved and is always susceptible to reform. It is America’s secret sauce.

E Pluribus Unum

Civic-nationalism’s evolution relies upon creating and perfecting one dynamic nation out of many, often competing cultures. Colin Woodard explains the interrelationships in his book American Nations. It outlines eleven rival regional cultures of North America, or more appropriately in his judgment, “the eleven stateless nations of North America.” He concludes America has been defined over the past 400 years by the interaction between these cultural nations.

American Nationalism: Laconic, Heady Spirit

American nationalism is a direct and energetic spirit. It has brought the American union together and has kept it unified. As America's enduring political form, it saved the union in the 1860s and reconciled it during and after Reconstruction. It was an inspiration for finding solutions during the Depression and in winning the victory of World War II. This was accomplished in the spirit of American civic-nationalism.

Woodard comments:

"The United States needs its central government to function cleanly, openly, and efficiently because it's one of the few things binding us together.”

Personal National Identity

My personal identity as an American was formed from college in San Jose and service during the Vietnam War. Before that, I came from the San Joaquin Valley with its specific cultural atmosphere. It was comfortable in many ways, and my identity was based on Valley culture and my relationships with other San Joaquin Valley folk.

Undergraduate education away from home introduced me to new perspectives and different people. Much more than college, my military service during Vietnam established my sense of nationalism. My service was to a national institution, performing a national mission. The people I worked with comprised nearly every American nation and identity. By both military discipline and national creed, we were bound into elements for a useful common purpose which in my case was teaching English.

National Service Focuses Identity

Starting especially with the Spanish American War, national service established a clearer American identity for many. This identity blurred somewhat during the Korean War and unraveled profoundly during Vietnam. In the wars that followed, a smaller proportion of American volunteers participated, often for increasing deployments. Their overall effect on the national culture may be diminishing just because their number has been diluted in a larger American population.

From Secession to National Union

Daniel J Boorstin in his book The Americans: The National Experience wrote about “Unionist ways from a secessionist tradition.” Boorstin documents that from “the early 17th century till the middle of the 19th century, secession was characteristically American.”

He builds his thesis through references to Roger Williams and separatist heretics, the Revolution separating from Great Britain, the movement separating Western pioneers from the East for new opportunities. Profound in our nationalist identity was the Civil War where secession failed ultimately on bloody battlefields. It moved profoundly from civic-national principles to action.

Establishing and Developing American Nationalism

Binding our nation after the Revolution was through Jefferson's “Empire of Liberty” consisting of an increasing American public domain. The domain was acquired variously by land purchases, annexing territory, resolving claims with Great Britain, and wars of conquest against other governments including Mexico and native peoples. This was a considered American national action that was intended to overcome America's propensity for secession and also a chronic fear among Americans from the classical history of larger republics dissolving.

American nationalism was advanced by the organizing principles for an increasingly large and powerful nation. An initial key to America's nation-building was a system establishing imperial territorial control similar to Great Britain's governance of the colonies. Unlike Great Britain and dependably through development, these territories could achieve full participation self-government as American states. This was only possible because the founding states permitted it. As a statement of American civic-nationalism, they allowed the newly organized territories to develop to equal governmental status within a federal republic.

Evolutionary American Progressive Nationalism

American civic-nationalism is evolutionary addressing developmental challenges before it. It was embodied in President Lincoln’s war to save the union and was powerfully expressed in Theodore Roosevelt’s “New Nationalism” at his 1910 Kansas speech. His vision was specifically progressive to deal with new problems.

This progressive nationalism was advanced into the 1912 election, where he ran as a third-party Progressive. He saw problems, not unlike today, where the privileged and elites dominated everyday people. The nation's wealth was unreasonably vested in a smaller group dominating the politics. He found a solution in national initiatives and de-emphasized action among the states. He lost the election, but over the years his disciples have given-as-good-as-they-have-got in the enduring fight to advance its progressive civic-nationalism.

America’s National Compass

Viewed through history, America has used a compass based in civic-nationalism to guide us in each age. Our civic spirit has prevailed. We dreamed of consolidating the nation across the continent and then acted upon the vision. Having a recessive spirit of secession, we resisted it at high cost joining in a nationalistic effort to preserve our union while freeing Americans. As the new century developed, we expanded our vision both externally and internally and acted upon a new nationalistic vision to increase our power worldwide through trade, conflict, and alliances and to eventually also improve justice and economic well-being within. For all of this, our nationalism has been unique. It was powerful and certainly cruel in many instances, but it also arguably ultimately possessed profound wisdom and had a quality dedicated to improvement for all Americans.

Theodore Roosevelt's speech “Citizens in A Republic" explains the dedicated, active spirit of civic-nationalism as compared to a more passive patriotism.

"The credit belongs to the person who is actually in the arena – whose vision is marred by the dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up again and again, who knows the great devotions, the great enthusiasms, who at best knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement."

Reforming American Nationalism: The Most Effective Path

Our greatest strength is to act as a single people, not as regional nations, ideological sects, tribes, or identities. Personally, I find no inspiration in a new world order as a primary loyalty.

To act upon strength, we must define the constituents for reforming American civic-nationalism. In my judgment, the reformed civic-nationalism is the most effective option for national success. It must be democratic, rational, free, inclusive, and federal. It must expect service from all Americans. It must establish broadly compelling national objectives showing a unifying direction forward.

As American nationalists, we must have opportunities to be "players," participating and risking. We cannot only be patriotic spectators held at arm’s length by elite directors with messages delivered over Twitter or cable news. We must rise to national service as dedicated Americans, and America must make service an objective for governance. All cannot be accomplished by the paid professionals.

If as George Orwell concluded nationalism is characterized by obsession, instability, and indifference to reality. Historically, American civic-nationalism has commitment, organization, a belief in a federal democratic republic, and achieving an improved, inclusive future for all Americans.

We must build on our strength and revitalize this.