Earlier this month in this newspaper, Rich Lowry, conservative political commentator and editor of National Review, penned an article defending American nationalism. In his view, American nationalism is not something to be feared but instead embraced. American nationalism, he claims, is more benign, more embracing of individual liberty and more fundamentally respectful of the rule of law than nationalism found elsewhere. It is, in not so many words, exceptional.
In calling for a new embrace of nationalism, Lowry argues that nationalism has gotten an unfair shake. Nationalism, for instance, was important in the slow transition from autocratic to republican forms of government. It also carried forward the intellectual idea of popular sovereignty, which would be critical for the creation of democratic government. It has been heartily embraced by “such diverse, rightly beloved figures as Alexander Hamilton, Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt,” and we can see its impacts on every trace of American politics.
If we are going to reevaluate nationalism, its important to acknowledge the full extent of it. Because nationalism is not just about embracing the idea that a nation has the right to make claims against the state. It is also about policing who is and is not a member of the group, and thus who has access to rights and the ability to make claims. And it is this element of nationalism, which Lowry fails to respond to at all, that is the truly dangerous part.
Look back at American history, and you can trace the impact of nationalism in some of our ugliest moments. The genocide of Native Americans was endorsed by a belief in the Manifest Destiny of America’s Anglo-American colonizers, about their right to lands and wealth at the expense of all others.
Joseph Smith and the early members of his faith were persecuted and driven from their homes by Americans seeking to preserve the Christian faith and character of their new nation, which had no room for the honestly held beliefs of others.
Slavery, and the Civil War fought to end the practice, are tied to a belief in the superiority of one white, Anglo-Protestant nation, and the rights and privileges assigned to members of that nation, including the right to own members of other, perceived lesser ones.
The Chinese Exclusion Acts of the late 19th century were an openly acknowledged attempt to preserve the Anglo-American national character, into which immigrants from Asia could not possibly assimilate.
The Insular Cases laws of the early 20th century continue to deny basic democratic rights to Americans born in Guam, American Samoa, the Northern Marianas Islands, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, based largely upon the fact that the peoples of these lands are not part of the American national tradition.
The internment of Japanese Americans during the Second World War was deemed acceptable because it was impossible to think that Japanese Americans could be loyal members of the American nation due to their ethnic heritage.
Jim Crow laws in the South were used for generations to deny basic individual rights to African Americans, not because they were not entitled to them legally, but because they were deemed not to qualify for them because they were not part of the nation.
The list goes on and on. The point is this. There is nothing exceptional about American nationalism. It is just as brutal as any of its European counterparts. It is just as likely to be used to defend the denial of rights to a group that is foreign to our understanding of the nation.
If anything, the United States has an exceptional history of manipulating the law to deny basic rights and privileges to those who do not fit into our traditional understanding of who is a part of the American nation: white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants. This legacy of discrimination in America’s institutions is part-and-parcel of American history. And it can be clearly attributed to the embrace of American nationalism by politicians, lawmakers and jurists.
Nationalism may not be the disease that it is sometimes described as, but neither is it a benign force in American politics. And its power to lead to horribly discriminatory policies seems reason enough not to toy with the idea of rehabilitating it.
Geoff Allen is a visiting assistant professor of political science at the University of Utah.