How does a Conservative differ from a Nationalist? – Part 4 (How We’re Different)
Updated: Apr 13
Let’s review where we’ve come thus far: In Part 1 we defined nationalism as patriotism in its agitated state and determined that nationalistic tendencies must be judged in the circumstance (an idea borrowed from Michael Brendan Dougherty). We then turned to the benefits of nationalism done right; namely, protection from threats from without (Part 2) and threats from within (Part 3). Now let’s turn to the dangers of nationalism done wrong.
Poisons and Wildfires
Jonah Goldberg, host of The Remnant podcast, is fond of stressing that the desirability of nationalism is determined by just how much nationalism we’re talking about. “If a little nationalism is healthy, too much of it is poisonous,” Jonah wrote in his book Suicide of the West, “Indeed, all poisons are determined by the dose. In other words, nationalism…is a passion, like lust. Sexual attraction is important for every marriage, but no healthy marriage is based on lust.”
Not to stretch the use of metaphors too far, but we might also compare nationalism to fire. To the extent nationalism is patriotism in its agitated state it’s easy to see how an uncontrolled and unpredictable “outbreak” could be devastating while a “controlled burn” could be beneficial. From time to time the overgrowth of apathy or the entrenchment of the established order can sap a free society of its vigor. A controlled burn can set things right again, but a society of ordered liberty cannot exist amidst mob mentality. And few things have the potential to whip a people into an uncontrolled outrage than a severe outbreak of nationalism. Anger can be a powerful force for change, but it must be coupled with more than just anger.
We have to get past shouting I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore before we could expect things to change for the better. Nor should we presume that anger or mob outrage is the most powerful or desirable catalyst for change. Gratitude, strengthening the bonds of marriage, family, and societal institutions, and a good deal of personal character development and spiritual renewal are far more likely to yield positive results than just whipping a crowd of people into an angry mob.
Nationalism’s Greatest Danger
I believe it’s important to keep in mind that we’re not just talking here about the benefits of keeping a level head. The dangers of nationalism are not simply the synergistic effect of far too many people losing their cool. The real danger is that those who are given to a nationalistic mindset might soon find their particular brand of nationalism overwhelming not just their better judgment, but their sense of purpose. Sir Roger Scruton pointed out that the danger in nationalism is that it “occupies the space vacated by religion, and in doing so excites the true believer both to worship the national idea and to seek in it for what it cannot provide—the ultimate purpose of life, the way to redemption, and the consolation for all our woes.”
For those readers who live in the United States, you have been blessed with an incalculable gift of liberty, prosperity, and opportunity that only an infinitesimal percentage of humans throughout history have ever realized. You live in a country whose founding principles are the crowning achievement of Western political thought. America, for all her sins and sorrows, has fought valiantly and courageously for freedom everywhere against the evils of tyranny and subjugators. For all of this and more, an enormous sense of pride and admiration beats in the hearts of many Americans for the place they call home.
But much like the poison measured by the dose, or the fire burning uncontrollably, this nationalistic pride can provide us a sense of ultimate purpose that should only be reserved for belief systems. “Racial essentialism, tribal superiority, the elevation of passion and myth—nationalism is not only powerless against these things, it is the medium by which these passions grow like bacteria in a petri dish,” Jonah warns. “Nationalism works on the assumption that the search for meaning and spiritual redemption is a collective enterprise.”
Reagan’s Shining City Upon a Hill
President Ronald Reagan was known as the Great Communicator, in part, because of his uncanny ability to tug on the patriotic spirit of your average American. Just read (or watch) his farewell address to the American people:
"The past few days when I've been at that window upstairs, I've thought a bit of the ‘shining city upon a hill.’ The phrase comes from John Winthrop, who wrote it to describe the America he imagined. What he imagined was important because he was an early Pilgrim, an early freedom man. He journeyed here on what today we'd call a little wooden boat; and like the other Pilgrims, he was looking for a home that would be free. I've spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don't know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind, it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That's how I saw it, and see it still."
"After 200 years, two centuries, she still stands strong and true on the granite ridge, and her glow has held steady no matter what storm. And she's still a beacon, still a magnet for all who must have freedom, for all the pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home. We've done our part. And as I walk off into the city streets, a final word to the men and women of the Reagan revolution, the men and women across America who for 8 years did the work that brought America back. My friends: We did it. We weren't just marking time. We made a difference. We made the city stronger, we made the city freer, and we left her in good hands. All in all, not bad, not bad at all."
Are Reagan’s words nationalistic? Of course. Are they of the benign sort or do they incite the flames of nationalism run amok? Since nationalism must be judged in the circumstance, it’s important we don’t establish a one-size-fits-all rule here. Reagan’s words may be nationalistic, but they’re also grateful, inclusive, and firmly rooted in a solid foundation of a broader, conservative worldview. These words are not floating aimlessly in a sea of rhetoric that can be interpreted a thousand ways—as is far too often the case today. These words were spoke at the end of a distinguished career of carefully putting the love of country behind the ultimate purpose of life.
Just as there is nothing wrong with taking a sense of pride in a job well done, or in one’s family, words that stir the soul to nationalistic pride can be quite healthy. But they must be rooted in more than pure nationalism. For pure nationalism is at enmity with the idea of limited government.
Look how manifestations of nationalism are expressed today. Are they more likely to express pride in American founding principles of order, unity, and liberty or anger at some perceived injustice? Are they more likely to contain sentiments of gratitude or ingratitude, hope or fear, a call to personal responsibility or a cry that others are not taking responsibility? Is it calling us to our better angels or bringing out the worst in us? I am by no means suggesting all nationalistic manifestations today are unhealthy but, on the whole, how might we assess the overall health of these manifestations? Are we witnessing the soul-stirring pride of a job well done or misguided obsessions over the “other side”?
Pure Nationalism Leads to Statism
“Nationalism shorn of negating qualifiers has no internal checks, no limiting principles that mitigate against giving in to collective passion,” continued Jonah Goldberg, “And that is why nationalism taken to its logical extreme must become statism or some form of socialism…Nationalism uncaged has to become statism, because the state is the only institution that is supposed to represent all of us…Nationalism by definition is concerned with the collective will or spirit. Like arguments about the moral equivalent of war, the fundamental assumptions, and emotional heart of nationalism are the cult of unity. We’re all in it together! Let’s unite around a cause larger than ourselves!” Any unity can be a wonderful thing—depending on what we’re unifying over. And just as the pure pursuit of progress is no progress at all, unity for the sake of unity is inevitable disillusion.
There are so many examples of nationalism gone awry all around us that I could easily expand this series into several more tangents. From questionable border security measures to refusals to denounce racist groups to irrational fear or hatred of foreigners or immigrants to mindlessly defending one’s tribe no matter what they do, our nation is engulfed in an inferno of nationalism untethered from any firm foundation or discernable purpose. The conservative finds much good in the patriotic fervor nationalism brings, just as the conservative recognizes that nationalism run amok is no friend to the nation at all.