Why Nationalism Will Win the Twenty-First Century

Why Nationalism Will Win the Twenty-First Century

Most Americans take it for granted that there is an American people or nation with its own particular culture and traditions, and that the human race in the world as a whole is divided among culturally distinct peoples or nations.

Let us turn to the next part of the anti-nationalist catechism:

Even if definable national communities existed in the past, the cultural pluralism caused by immigration and globalization has made national cultural unity impossible.

The scale of cross-border migration in the contemporary world tends to be greatly exaggerated, by open-borders leftists, neoliberals, libertarians, and sometimes by populists who seek to restrict immigration. According to the United Nations, in 2017, as a share of the global population international migrants were only 3.4 percent. In other words, nearly 97 percent of the people on Earth live in the countries in which they were born.

To be sure, migrants make up a larger share of the relatively prosperous Western democracies that attract economic migrants and admit large numbers of refugees. But the immigrant share of the U.S. population is only around 14 percent—roughly the level that it was in the 1900s, before World War I and the restrictive laws of the 1920s that slashed immigration to the United States for half a century. The number is higher in Canada (22 percent) and Australia (28 percent).

The wave of populist support for immigration restriction that powers much of Trumpian conservatism and various right-populist movements in Europe is sometimes based on outright racism or nativist hysteria, like the claim of the fringe Right that America is in danger of being subjected to “sharia law.” But the economic and cultural concerns of opponents of mass immigration are often legitimate. In the case of national economies, unskilled immigrants tend to compete with unskilled natives, competing for jobs and preventing wages from rising in immigrant-heavy sectors. In addition, unlike in the past, today’s low-wage immigrants migrate to advanced welfare states, where their over-representation among tax-consuming government welfare benefits often triggers political backlashes. Mainstream economists try to change the subject by saying that consumers and businesses in general may benefit from low-wage immigration. But this is telling the low-income native workers who are displaced by immigrants, or whose wages are prevented in immigrant-flooded labor markets from rising, that it is necessary for their well-being to be sacrificed so the better-off national majority can save a little money that might otherwise be spent on higher wages for those who make their goods or provide their services.

While populist demagogues exaggerate the threat of the “Great Replacement” of natives by immigrants in Western countries—particularly European Christian natives by Muslim immigrants—whether contemporary waves of immigrants assimilate to national cultures as others did in the past is also a legitimate question. Nineteenth-century fears that Irish-Americans and other Catholic immigrants would seek to overthrow American democracy because of the Vatican’s opposition to liberalism and democracy at the time were unfounded. But the presence of radicalized jihadists among second- and third-generation Muslim communities in the United States and Europe, along with the evident difficulties associated with assimilating Middle Eastern and North African diasporas in Europe in particular, are genuine social challenges that cannot be dismissed as xenophobic hallucinations.

In the United States for the last half-century, mass immigration, mostly from Latin America but increasingly from Asia, has produced toxic effects from its interaction with the bizarre American system of five official races—Blacks, non-Hispanic Whites, Hispanics, Asians, and Native Americans—and the elaborate system of quotas in college admissions, business subsidies, and other areas built on this unscientific and politically-manipulated taxonomy. Instead of a color-blind society, the United States is an increasingly color-obsessed society in which national government, business, educational, and media elites insist that all institutions must reflect the demography of the country as a whole in their racial makeup. Not only does this lead to widespread, though illegal, discrimination against so-called “non-Hispanic White” Americans in favor of Black Americans and members of the vaguely-defined “Hispanic” or “Latino” category, but it is also leading to escalating discrimination in public education and college admissions against Asian-Americans because they tend to score better on tests than Blacks, Hispanics, and the “non-Hispanic White” statistical majority.

Fears that America’s racial patronage system will act as a disincentive to assimilation by nonwhite immigrants to mainstream American culture, however, appear to be unfounded. The descendants of today’s non-European immigrants tend to replace the language of their immigrant parents with American English as their first or only language at the same rate as the European immigrants of a century ago. Three-quarters of Americans speak American English and no other language. Compare that to Iran, a nation-state where only around half of the population speaks Farsi. Far from being Balkanized along linguistic lines, the United States is an unusually monoglot nation.

In spite of frequent claims that the melting-pot metaphor is irrelevant to today’s more diverse America, the melting pot is bubbling away, erasing differences among races as it once erased differences among British-Americans and other White ethnic groups. Around a third of Hispanics, and a higher number of Asian-Americans, marry out of their group, mostly into the “non-Hispanic White” population, with intermarriage increasing with each generation. Among Black Americans, the historic victims of the most intense prejudice in the United States, 18 percent marry outside of their category and the share grows with each generation. Once-strong opposition to interracial marriage has collapsed. Indeed, President Barack Obama and Nikole Hannah-Jones, the journalist famous for the claim that the “real” founding of American society was in 1619 with the first arrival of African slaves in the British colonies that became the United States, are both half White in ancestry.

RETURNING TO anti-nationalist clichés, let us consider the next one:

Even if nation-states can exist in the modern world, they necessarily discriminate against national minorities.

Opponents of nationalism typically identify all nationalism with illiberal “blood-and-soil” nationalism that excludes people who do not share the same race and religion from the definition of the national majority or from equal rights within a nation-state. But this debating trick ignores the existence of liberal nationalism, which grants a privileged role for the language and some of the culture of the ethnocultural majority nationality, while granting equal rights to all citizens regardless of race or religion and, in some cases, special protections to national minorities.

Most of the new nation-states that have been founded since the end of the Cold War have constitutions that explicitly incorporate liberal nationalist principles. Consider the constitution adopted by Serbia in 2006, following the break-up of Yugoslavia along national lines. The constitution begins by distinguishing ethnic Serbs from other citizens but granting identical rights to all: 

Republic of Serbia is a state of Serbian people and all citizens who live in it, based on the rule of law and social justice, principles of civil democracy, human and minority rights and freedoms, and commitment to European principles and values.

Article 10 makes the Serbian language and Cyrillic script official, and Article 7 provides for a national anthem and flag and coat of arms reflecting the Serbian heritage. Like many national democracies, Serbia has a special relationship to non-citizen Serbs abroad, expressed in Article 13: “The Republic of Serbia shall develop and promote relations of Serbs living abroad with the kin state.” But this is preceded in the same article by the line: “The Republic of Serbia shall protect the rights and interests of its citizens [regardless of ethnicity] abroad” (bracketed words mine).

Article 11 declares that Serbia is a secular state. Article 14 incorporates protections for “autochthonous” non-Serb minorities into the constitution: “The Republic of Serbia shall protect the rights of national minorities. The State shall guarantee special protection to national minorities for the purpose of exercising full equality and preserving their identity.” Similar provisions can be found in the other nation-states that emerged from the partition of Yugoslavia—Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Slovenia (Bosnia and Herzegovina was set up as a multi-national state, like Switzerland or Belgium).

Whether these paper guarantees are enforced in the long-term remains to be seen. The point is that they reflect a highly-sophisticated, twenty-first-century version of liberal nationalism that separates cultural nationalism from racial or religious nationalism and seeks to balance the privileged role of one national community in the state with equality for all citizens of any ethnicity and a degree of cultural autonomy for permanent national minorities. Rather than engage with such sophisticated liberal nationalism, contemporary critics of the nation-state prefer to pretend that the typical nation-state is in perpetual danger of degenerating into something akin to Hitler’s Germany.

The next indictment in the prosecution of nationalism is this:

Even liberal, democratic nation-states that respect and protect national minorities are inherently exclusionary and militaristic. 

This is really an argument against territorial states in general, not against nation-states in particular. Any territorial state smaller than a world government is going to have territorial borders. Whatever its principle of legitimacy, the territorial state must defend and police its borders. If it allows immigration, it will need to decide which immigrants to favor and in what amounts. In other words, any territorial state will be exclusionary, in the sense that it excludes some people who like to migrate to it.

As for militarism, any territorial state—even one that repudiates the idea of nationalism for some other principle—must have the means to defend itself militarily, if it is not to depend wholly for its defense on some other territorial state. That means preparing to fight and kill soldiers and citizens of other territorial states, if necessary, in defense of itself or its allies.