There are two false dichotomies that routinely appear whenever the subject of nationalism comes up: the supposed distinction between patriotism and nationalism, and the one between “creedal” and cultural or ethnic nationalism.
But then there was a flurry of excitement after President Biden spoke of the “idea” of America in his 100 Day address to Congress, with Rich Lowry responding:
… and everyone else either getting mad at him or, more cleverly, quoting Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address at him.
Some even went so far as to remark that if America isn’t an idea, then it’s just blood-and-soil nationalism all the way down, which if you think about it is kind of a weird claim to make. Does this go for other countries as well? Are Brazil or Italy or Malaysia blood-and-soil nations by default unless they can come up with abstract claims of their own?
More on this anon, but the more sensible rejoinder to the above would be that yes, of course America is an idea (or a proposition, to use Lincoln’s language, which I personally prefer, because it’s Lincoln). But more to the point, the nation itself is an idea—not just in the sense that someone had to come up with the idea of nations in the modern sense of the word (though that’s more or less true), but that every nation is a kind of idea. Benedict Anderson famously called them “imagined communities,” coining a term that would stick in the minds of many who never even read his book by that title.
As Anderson himself cautioned, however, “imagined” doesn’t mean “imaginary.” His point, which most modern scholars of nationalism broadly accept even when they disagree on the particulars, was that nations exist first and foremost in the minds of their citizens. Tertullian had that famous line, “what has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” But for that matter, what has Des Moines to do with Boston, San Francisco, or Miami? What has Milan to do with Sardinia, or Paris with Marseilles? (etc., etc.) Nations often encompass vast territories and populations; their continued existence relies heavily upon shared perceptions by their members.
Now, in a strict sense, the majority of political communities that have ever existed are imagined. Aristotle remarks in book seven of the Politics that citizens of the ideal city would all know one another’s characters and be able to make informed political judgments accordingly. If Dunbar’s number is correct, this amounts to maybe 150 people—a city smaller than any that has ever existed and in fact smaller than most tribal societies as well.
In other words, even the Greek polis must have been a kind of imagined community—not every citizen really knew Pericles or Alcibiades and so on. And this goes mutatis mutandis for most communities that have ever existed. And yet the nation is still an imagined community of a different order altogether. It is not just that nations-states are much larger entities than almost anything that came before (a significant factor in the destruction they’ve managed to unleash in wartime); it is that members of a nation are impelled as a matter of practice to routinely see themselves as a unified people engaged in a common enterprise, despite the absence of any tangible evidence for this proposition.
In so doing, they can justify the state’s awesome power over them, and potentially make great sacrifices on its behalf. Precisely because of this artificial character, as well as its instrumental value for the modern state (in generating tax revenues, mobilizing for war, etc.), much scholarly literature going back over a century has treated it as an elite-driven phenomenon. Nietzsche (as he often does) puts it best:
this artificial nationalism…is in essence a forcible state of emergency and martial law, imposed by the few on the many, and requiring cunning, lies, and force to remain respectable. It is not the self-interest of the many (the people), as one would have it, that urges this nationalism, but primarily the self-interest of certain royal dynasties, as well as that of certain commercial and social classes… [Human, All Too Human, aphorism 475]
Yet, artificial or imagined thing or no, people still have to live somewhere. The thing of it is, nobody quite lives in a nation. People live in states, cities, townships, villages, etc. Their attachments, loves, rivalries, and the rest of it are ineluctably local because that is the level on which our physical bodies and brains exist.
Which brings us back to America.
The sheer size and abstraction of America (or any other modern state) as a country makes it impossible to treat national loyalties as something like Jets vs Sharks blown up to cosmic scale. We don’t know and will never know over 99% of our fellow citizens. We will never visit every locale in the United States. Some of us will live and die without ever leaving our home states (this by the way is close to the historical norm for most of humanity). We are thrown back on the “idea” of the nation one way or another.
The trouble with this “creedal” understanding is that we are not walking expressions of some historical zeitgeist; when people say they’re American, they don’t usually mean that they have assumed a contractual membership by countersigning the American proposition of liberty and equality. This may be how Rawlsians and other liberal political theorists think of it, but normal people just don’t. The creedal position, taken to its extreme, becomes almost self-refuting. It would imply that loyalty to a political party or the Sierra Club should take precedent over one’s family.
This is part of the reason why the related dichotomy of patriotism and nationalism—according to which one refers to a principle and the other to an expression of atavism—won’t wash. First because it creates an artificial distinction between the idea of the nation (which is, as we said, inescapable) and the actual people that reside there. After all, today we have a continent full of places with their own histories and traditions that exist alongside the claims put forward in our founding documents. We do not perceive the rich legacies we inherit, both as Americans and as regional inhabitants—whether mid-Atlantic, Southern, Pacific Northwestern, or what have you—as political propositions but as something like natural inheritances. And indeed, this is true for most sedentary people in most places and times.
But I think more fundamentally that the common distinction between patriotism and nationalism is ultimately untenable because it presupposes a categorical difference between the desire to protect one’s people or homeland and the desire to master others. In fact, each desire springs from the same spirit -- the love of one's own -- which is not neatly divisible into distinct motivations. This is not to say that observable differences do not exist between those inclined to one tendency over the other; only that these differences are not determined aprioristically but must be maintained in practice. More fundamentally, this suggests that this spirit -- the love of one’s own as such --is best viewed with some skepticism, rather than broken into light and dark halves.
Admitted, George Orwell’s attempt to classify patriotism as fundamentally defensive and nationalism as something aggressive is as an appealing one. A decent, patriotic Englishman for example loves his (objectively terrible) warm, bitter stout and would rise up at an outside attempt to take it from his hands; but unless he veers into nationalism, he won’t trouble himself to insist that his (again, terrible) beer is superior to a crisp German lager or hoppy Belgian ale or what have you.
And yet we can readily picture this same Englishman (and not to pick on the English here—this example could be anywhere) after a few of those stouts loudly proclaiming to anyone who will listen how Continental lagers or pilsners are swill and anyone who drinks them can’t be trusted, etc., etc.
Because, as Aristotle reminds us, both aggressive and defensive impulses are deeply bound up with anger, which is ultimately inimical to reason. Carnes Lord puts it very well:
The same impulse which interests men in the defense of their own or of the city also encourages more aggressive tendencies. The desire to subdue others and to rule over them is no less natural than the desire to remain free from alien rule and the two desires are inextricably connected. Both are inseparable from a certain harshness, from a certain kind of anger or self-assertiveness which is by its very nature unreasonable or immoderate.
One wants of course to separate the good and bad parts out. But just consider, e.g., the remarkable bravery of the Red Army soldiers defending their homeland against Operation Barbarossa, alongside the terrible brutality with which the same army took eastern Germany.
Even aside from the problems raised by the extreme expressions of the atavistic tendency—war, empire, and the like—is the fact that modern patriotism/nationalism/whatever-you-want-to-call-it cannot serve as a trustworthy guarantor of localism and particularism.
After all, nationalization was and is itself a homogenizing process. This can be observed on two levels: domestically, a nation represents the integration of a number of formerly disparate entities – cantons, townships, city-states, provinces, etc.; and internationally, nations come to functionally resemble one another. Their trappings—language, dress, cuisine, etc.—may differ, but they come to exhibit similar structures and functions as the modern state system locks into place.
Just compare the modern UN, with its world of nation-states, against the dizzying variety of actors featured at the Concert of Europe: small principalities, vast non-contiguous empires, ecclesiastical states, and so on, and see the vast geopolitical process that has sanded us all into a common shape.
This point merits repeating, because nationalism can easily be equated with diversity and pluralism. In other words, respect for the existence and rights of nations (however defined) cashes out as respect for and acknowledgment of the diversity of peoples, which have existed as far back as Herodotus (and before, as paleoanthropology and more lately population genetics confirm).
Solzhenitsyn, in his famed Nobel lecture, said:
In recent times it has been fashionable to talk of the levelling of nations, of the disappearance of different races in the melting-pot of contemporary civilization. I do not agree with this opinion, but its discussion remains another question. Here it is merely fitting to say that the disappearance of nations would have impoverished us no less than if all men had become alike, with one personality and one face. Nations are the wealth of mankind, its collective personalities; the very least of them wears its own special colours and bears within itself a special facet of divine intention.
Yet while nationalisms can plausibly represent themselves as defending the customs and mores of particular peoples against a bland universal cosmopolitanism, historical accuracy bids us recall the ways in which those same nationalisms formed as the enemies of diversity.
The elite tendency toward cosmopolitanism may superficially appear to be a solution. But a world of pure cosmopolitanism (i.e., in which every political community is both essentially and practically cosmopolitan) would be a chimera; its notional heterogeneity would have been reduced to universalized homogeneity, and there would be no a priori way of defining the contours of that homogeneity, except with reference to a particularly “thin” doctrine of human rights liberalism.
This is more or less our trouble, I think: we (most of us, anyway) crave the real, the particular, the local, the colorful. It is the only way most of us know how to live at all. This isn’t to deny the unifying symbols of historical American patriotism; but most Americans didn’t live their lives with an ear to Lincoln’s mystic chords of memory, they lived according to the rhythms and seasons of actual places like Frostproof, Florida or American Fork, Utah or Last Chance, Iowa.
Which is to say, they lived like most people in most times and places. Our dilemma is that nationalism and internationalism equally efface the distinctive way of life of local communities, replacing them with grey, formless state worship or gray, formless cosmopolitanism (so far removed from the true and vivid cosmopolitanism that flourished in places like Smyrna or Alexandria or old Shanghai). In a world of nation-states, those local communities depend upon the state to preserve them, even as its centralizing energies wipe them flat. Yet they disregard it as their peril (this was always the problem with modern communitarianism: the subpolitical quality of the communities it sought to produce left them short of true sovereignty; control over the most important decisions lay elsewhere).
As I said, this is a dilemma, and it permits of no easy response. And I think it is not even properly grasped by most contemporary thinkers or writers, who for professional and other reasons are drawn to the national and international centers of capital and political power. Ideas and creeds are congenial enough to them, but they have more trouble grasping the concrete reality of human lives and communities and the local places that give them berth.
I’ll leave the last word to Simone Weil:
To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul. It is one of the hardest to define. A human being has roots by virtue of his real, active and natural participation in the life of a community which preserves in living shape certain particular treasures of the past and certain particular expectations for the future. This participation is a natural one, in the sense that it is automatically brought about by place, conditions of birth, profession and social surroundings. Every human being needs to have multiple roots. It is necessary for him to draw wellnigh the whole of his moral, intellectual and spiritual life by way of the environment of which he forms a natural part.
Full disclosure: Smith was the external examiner for my dissertation defense; he was great.
 This is clearly becoming an idee fixe for Biden’s speechwriters, as he reiterated this point in his recent National Memorial Day Observance: "America is unique. It's an idea. Unlike any other country in the world, it is formed based on an idea. Almost every other country is based on a creed, a religion, a geography, an ethnicity, but not us."