Like so many words, the term nationalism requires qualification. To the naive, it may signify neither more nor less than a sense of national identity, or resistance to globalization. Yet in truth one hardly need be a nationalist to appreciate America’s cultural heritage, or to reject the open borders schemes of the World Economic Forum. As Patrick Deneen observes in Regime Change: Toward A Postliberal Future, nationalism originally referred to a specific 19th-century revolutionary movement, which marginalized commitments to all associations except for the liberal nation-state.
If today surprisingly few “conservative” Americans cherish their respective roots in a particular county, state, or region, and if even fewer American liberals question the federal government’s authority to shut down churches—well, nationalism is the reason.
A certain proto-nationalism was present almost from the beginning, Deneen notes, as Alexander Hamilton “was explicit in The Federalist Papers about his hopes that people would ultimately transfer their allegiance from their localities and states to the nation.” Yet surveying the history of political and civic loyalties in America, Deneen emphasizes that
the rise of nationalism in the United States was especially pronounced during the Progressive period […] The embrace and rise of nationalism in America was not the project of ‘conservatives,’ but promoted especially by the self-described Progressive liberals. This project was particularly aimed at the weakening of more local and regional forms of identity that had been a hallmark of the American political experience, not uncoincidentally gaining prominence in the decades after the Civil War.
Until the post-Civil War ascendance of nationalism, the expression “the United States” was usually “followed by the grammatically correct plural ‘are,’ not the singular ‘is,’” Deneen notes, and the shift from the United States to an implied Unitary State marked a shift of consciousness. Where patriotism has traditionally referred to an affection for a particular people, land, and culture, nationalism is oriented toward “an increasingly abstract entity of the nation, now thought of as embodying an ‘idea’ or a providential destiny. Allegiance moved from the more concrete to the more theoretical—local to national,” concludes Deneen, even as the abstract nation also “began to occupy the devotional space once held by religion.”
Here Deneen will shock many readers by even calling into question one of the most hallowed of American nationalist rituals. In 1892, Deneen recounts, “the Christian socialist Francis Bellamy published ‘The Pledge of Allegiance,’ with the hope and aim of aligning people’s loyalties and commitments to the nation and away from the parochial identities that had previously defined the identity of the citizens of the United States, and instead inaugurated the new ‘creed’ of a new national church.”
Around the same time, another progressive named Herbert Croly had published The Promise of American Life, extolling therein the prospect of an enlightened American national consciousness to be guided by “the Religion of Humanity.” As it comes complete with its own dogmas and creed, American nationalism rivals the Church in a way that old-fashioned patriotism never could.
Thus, many “conservatives” today are merely recycling the agenda of late 19th-century and early 20th-century liberal progressives, who strove “to move the loyalties and identities of Americans from their local places and people to a more abstract devotion to the nation and its ideals.” Whatever nationalism may mean in a country such as Hungary, in the U.S.—a territory greater than the Roman Empire at its height—nationalism is predestined to produce absurd results.
The bitter punchline is that the very globalism denounced so vitriolically by American nationalists is really the fulfillment and perfection of nationalism:
Because of its abstraction, particularly its detachment from concrete identities in specific locations, the nationalist impulse ultimately required transcending the bonds of the nation. Today’s progressives regard nationalism with horror, not because they have abandoned its logic, but because they have now gravitated to its next logical form: an identification with a globalized liberal humanity. The nation itself is now seen as too particularistic, requiring the same disintegrating logic of yesterday’s nationalism.
All the preceding is based upon just a few pages from a 200+ page book, so this reviewer’s focus upon nationalism might seem odd. Surely Deneen’s call for replacing the current set of disingenuous elites with “a self-conscious aristoi” rooted in and loyal to Flyover Country warrants discussion. As does his point about the sociopolitical importance of shop class and vocational training:
Even a passing acquaintance with the work of electricians, plumbers, farmers, and carpenters could help correct the dominant ethos that all of reality is manipulable and human nature itself is malleable.
Yet this reviewer deems Regime Change important primarily as a corrective to conservative talking-heads and institutions which promote “patriotism”—that is, nationalist devotion to democratic ideology—over and against actual patriotism toward the particular places, peoples, and cultures which compose America.
How many young conservatives can robotically recite talking points from The 1776 Report, while never looking back at their family history or hometown? How many celebrate America’s economic and military triumphs to the point of flatly ignoring Catholic social teachings and just war doctrine?
If the deepest threat to man today is what Deneen calls “a social and technological project that would liberate humans from mere nature”—and it is—then we must concede that the displacement of real, organic roots by an abstract nationalism is very much a part of that project.
Regime Change: Toward A Postliberal Future
Penguin Random House: Sentinel, June 2023
Hardcover, 237 pages
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