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.


Territorial states may rely on professional soldiers or mass conscription, depending on the levels of danger they face from other territorial states. Even states that rely on professionals or mercenaries are likely to promote some sense of patriotism in the population—non-national patriotism, if necessary—to justify the extraction of taxes to pay for the military, if not to justify a draft.

In short, it makes no sense to criticize nation-states for characteristics that they share with all states, particularly if the implied alternatives are world government or anarchy.


Even liberal, democratic nation-states that respect and protect national minorities are too small to deal with the challenges of our time, like climate change and global inequality.

This criticism of the nation-state is the easiest to dismiss. There exists a method by which sovereign states, national or otherwise, can deal with problems common to all of them: diplomacy. Dealing with climate change or some other issue by replacing nearly 200 independent states with a handful of neo-imperial blocs or a world government would be a cure worse than the disease.

NOW WE come to the conclusion that invariably follows when today’s anti-nationalist professors or pundits or politicians make one or more of the arguments that I have listed above:

QED. The nation-state should therefore be rejected as a legitimate form of political organization, in favor of [insert utopian political alternative here].

In the first half of the twentieth century, many idealistic intellectuals hoped that nation-states would soon be superseded by world federalism. Disillusionment in the League of Nations and the United Nations led some to transfer their hopes to the European Union as a model for a future post-national polity. But the EU failed to inspire any similar regional entities elsewhere, and Brexit and internal dissensions have destroyed the appeal of Eurofederalism. 

Another alternative to the modern nation-state is what the German philosopher Juergen Habermas calls “constitutional patriotism.” Instead of sharing a common majority language, culture, and traditions, the inhabitants of a territory would have nothing in common except a political creed defined by support for a liberal and democratic constitution. Thinkers of this school like to distinguish not only racial but also inclusive cultural nationalism (bad) from cultural-content-free patriotism (good), unaware, perhaps, that patriotism literally means “Fatherlandism.”

What would the adoption of constitutional or creedal patriotism mean in practice? Would nation-states that are transformed into post-national constitution-states need to abandon the language of the national majority? Should Poland—quite plainly, the land of the Poles—reject Polish and adopt Esperanto as the state language?

What if multiple post-national territorial states share not only the same burning zeal for liberal democracy, but also identical institutions? Does that make them branches or franchises of a single worldwide liberal democratic constitution-state? Should they rename themselves Creedal Democracy 1 (North America), Creedal Democracy 2 (Africa), and Creedal Democracy 3 (Asia)?

If to be an American is to believe in the ideals of the Declaration of Independence, does that mean that any human being on earth who believes in those ideals can demand to become a naturalized citizen of the United States? What about Americans who reject the Lockean liberal ideals of the Declaration of Independence—American Marxists, say, or American communitarian conservatives? Should they be tried as apostates from the civic-patriotic creed, stripped of citizenship in Creedal America, and deported?

Some claim that, while the nation-state may be legitimate elsewhere, the United States was unique in being founded as a universal constitution-state with no national majority. This betrays a deep ignorance of American history. Modern American Fourth of July rhetoric to the contrary, from the first naturalization act of 1789, which limited naturalized citizenship to “free white persons,” to the immigration reform of 1965, U.S. immigration policy was designed to create and preserve a White racial majority in the United States. White immigrants, moreover, were pressured to assimilate to Anglo-American Protestant culture, in ways both subtle (Fitzgerald’s German-American character Jay Gatz changing his name to Gatsby in order to advance in East Coast society) and crude (state laws banning government aid to Catholic schools and other state laws banning instruction in the German language).

In Federalist No. 2, writing under the pseudonym of “Publius,” John Jay, who later was appointed the first chief justice of the United States by President George Washington, identified the American people with the Anglo-American Protestant settler majority:

Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people—a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs, and who, by their joint counsels, arms, and efforts, fighting side by side throughout a long and bloody war, have nobly established general liberty and independence.

The equation of the American people with British or European settlers in the thirteen colonies was the view of most, if not all, the Founders. For the Great Seal of the United States, Thomas Jefferson submitted a design showing Moses leading the Hebrews out of Egypt on one side—and, on the other, Hengist and Horsa, Germanic barbarian chieftains in the Dark Ages, leading the supposed Anglo-Saxon ancestors of the American people out into the British Isles. Benjamin Franklin’s design for the Great Seal was more diverse, including the national symbols of England, Scotland, Ireland, France, Germany, and Holland—“the Countries from which these states have been peopled”—while excluding Jews, Blacks, and Native Americans. As late as 1921, Vice President Calvin Coolidge wrote in Good Housekeeping: “Biological laws tell us that certain divergent people will not mix or blend. The Nordics propagate themselves successfully. With other races, the outcome shows deterioration on both sides.” Even some opponents of slavery like Harriet Beecher Stowe, Abraham Lincoln, and the Black nationalist Martin Delany at times supported the colonization of freed Blacks abroad, on the theory that they could never be equal citizens in the United States, if only because of White majority prejudice. The civil rights revolution of the 1950s and 1960s, which abolished racial discrimination in domestic law and immigration policy, was not a realization of the ideals of America’s Founders, but a revolutionary—and long overdue—repudiation of their White racial nationalism.

As we have seen, in modern liberal nationalism common ancestry—“race”—can be rejected as a criterion of membership, but common language and culture remain to define members of a national cultural majority in a nation-state. Unfortunately, there is no word in general usage for the large majority of Americans of all races and religions who share the same broad culture and speak a dialect of American English as their native language. The term “Anglomorph” has been adopted for this concept in the Australian context. If American English as a person’s first language is the criterion, then three-quarters or more of U.S. citizens—including most so-called “non-Hispanic whites,” nearly all Black Americans, and a growing number of Hispanic and Asian-Americans—belong today to the Anglomorph majority, even if the federal government insists on separating citizens from their fellow Anglomorph-Americans and lumping them together as individuals with unassimilated immigrants and foreign nationals of other arbitrarily-defined “races.”

IN HIS recent book After Nationalism: Being American in an Age of Division, Samuel Goldman, a professor of political science at George Washington University, argues that Americans have a choice of three identities: “covenant, crucible, and creed.” “Covenant” is his term for what, following the distinguished constitutional theorist Sanford Levinson, he also calls the “Publius 2” theory of American identity, referring to John Jay’s reference to “one united people” in The Federalist.

To his credit, Goldman does not dismiss this as inherently racist, pointing out that the version of “Anglo-Protestant” identity defended by Samuel P. Huntington in his book Who Are We? is defined by culture and not by race or even religion. From what might be called an anthropological perspective, the Anglomorph nationalities of the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and other, smaller countries are cultural offshoots of Britain, in the same way that the nations of Latin America are offshoots of Spain or Portugal. In all of these former European settler states, the language and culture of the multiracial/mixed-race majority are that of the local settler majorities of the former empire, modified by indigenous and immigrant influences and generations of separate post-colonial development.

What Goldman calls the “crucible” is the theory that the amalgamation of different groups in a “melting pot” has produced a new, unique national identity. To date, however, the one-way assimilation of non-British immigrants to what I am calling Anglomorph culture has tended to prevail over the “crucible” or melting pot. Americans of German and Irish descent outnumber Americans of English descent, but only residual trace elements of German and Irish culture remain in our predominantly-British common culture—Christmas trees, Oktoberfest in a few places, and St. Patrick’s Day.

Goldman suggests that only coercive measures and conformist pressure during the world wars and the Cold War, of a kind unlikely to be repeated in the United States, explain the dissolution of the older European immigrant diaspora cultures in the United States. But the descendants of Mexican immigrants today assimilate and marry outside of their group at the same rate as European immigrants in the past, in spite of the official celebration of diversity and the material benefits of being identified as nonwhite in the U.S. racial spoils system. The rate of intermarriage among Black American descendants of slaves, who have shared the Anglomorph culture for centuries, is rising as well. Only self-segregated minorities in which religious taboos discourage exogamy, like the German-speaking Amish, may be able to resist absorption into the multiracial Anglomorph majority.