The nation-state is a fact of life today. It is a necessary protection for people, in their communities, as they face dangers from foreign powers and state-less international elites. But we must remember that it is necessary to guard the guardian of our freedom, and to maintain our own virtue if we are to guard our own liberty…
Conservatives have never been the nation-state’s biggest fans. In fact, conservatives always have had reservations when it comes to the idea—and especially the practice—of true, full national sovereignty. Robert Nisbet put conservative concerns most pointedly when he wrote that “the essence of the state… is its unique possession of sovereignty—absolute and unconditional power over all individuals and their associations and possessions within a given area.” Devoted to the promotion of human flourishing in its many, localized forms; cognizant of man’s social nature; and aware that character is formed in communities of family, church, and local association, conservatives must fear the unchecked power of a centralized apparatus to reconfigure human relationships to suit rulers’ needs and desires.
With their usual casual attitude toward truth, leftists often identify conservatives with the kinds of malevolent nationalism represented by the Nazi (that is, “National Socialist”) Party and its various fascist “JV teams.” The charge is specious, of course, though no less powerful for that. We should not allow it to blind us to the very real issue of national power as President Trump seeks to change a variety of assumptions and practices (and leave some others in place) in foreign, domestic, and trade policy.
Reasonably understood, conservatives are less “nationalistic” and more liable to the charge of being anti-nationalists than are Progressives. Indeed, before the rise of President Trump, conservatives were linked to a variety of movements and political positions that were seen as undermining the nation, out of concern for loyalties both more local and more universal. The intimate connection between any genuine conservatism and local self-government has been a source of philosophical cohesion and political calumny for conservatives for many decades. Small-town values, local autonomy, and dual sovereignty all have earned sneering charges of backwardness and even racism on the grounds that local communities by nature embody such vices. But the normative attachments that make such charges spurious also can be said to embody “disloyalty” toward the nation—at least in its Progressive incarnation.
Those normative attachments concern religion and culture.
The phrase “family, church, and local association” sums up the natural attachments traditional conservatives find central to the inculcation of virtue and the possibility of a good life. But, while the phrase has a definite localist cast, one should not forget that “church” does not mean merely one’s local place of worship. Traditional conservatism, which in many ways can be summed up as Christian Humanism, rests on the acknowledgment, not only of the truth of the Christian faith, but also of the Church as shaper of culture and civilization.[*]
Traditional conservatives reject Progressive dreams of a rationalist utopia in which each individual will be saved from the trials of scarcity and conflict by an omnicompetent state. They look instead to religion as the source of cultural cohesion (“culture comes from the cult,” as Christopher Dawson tells us) and to tradition and history for guidance in protecting fundamental human relationships. In political terms, this has encouraged a special focus on the multiplicity of authorities and associations that made up Christendom. Of course, decades of rationalist propaganda have rendered “Christendom” a term of opprobrium among academics and even in mainstream culture. But Western Christendom had at its center a common faith, instantiated in a variety of crosscutting loyalties rooted in tradition, geography, familial relations, and connections of class and profession. It included nascent states, but also cities, tribes, and professional groups. Unity was maintained in broad cultural terms, in part by the necessity of holding off invaders from the East and South. Political entities engaged in persistent low-level conflict that took too many lives, but that tempered the ferocity of ancient warfare and slowly, over time, placed the yoke of manners, piety, and especially fear of resistance on the designs of those holding power.
The breakdown of Christendom in the early modern era was a crucial element in the rise of the state. Nisbet, Tocqueville, and other important conservatives have emphasized the origins of the modern state in the waging of war. The state was forged by war, specifically in the need to field vast armies and collect crushing taxes for their support. It is not in the least ironic that it was England, among the nations least involved in the constant warfare of this era, that led the way in taming the powers of monarchs and developing republican government and the rule of law. Germany, a region of political decentralization and vast cultural wealth, suffered most from the predations of early modern warfare, eventually falling prey to Napoleon and then Prussian militarism.
Settled by proponents and carriers of “federal” liberty, America was far from the turmoil of European wars, save as a haven for those fleeing them. From its beginnings, it was an area in which loose political bonds allowed for maximum responsiveness to local circumstances. Even after the Civil War, the United States was a nation of overlapping authorities, with the federal government limited to the exercise of specific, enumerated powers—with exceptions that grew exponentially only in the twentieth century. Loyalty to the nation sometimes flagged, but held, in part because it was rooted in local circumstances and a consistent practice of subsidiarity, with more distant powers claiming authority only over issues of a more general nature.
Progressive ideology and two World Wars consolidated federal power even as they pointed toward globalization, institutionalized in bureaucratic structures. Informal, trade-based relations increasingly were “rationalized” through formal agreements ceding to extra-national elites semi-sovereign powers in managing economic, military, and diplomatic relations. And self-interested information technologists harnessed the rhetoric of “creative destruction” and “world citizenship” to justify manipulating international structures for their own profit and in furtherance of their own schemes of radical social change. Nation-states increasingly came to be seen as creatures of residuary power, relegated to the role of administering international agreements even as their very makeup—their peoples—were changed in the interests of international utility. German Chancellor Angela Merkel brought the system to its logical conclusion in her policy of cultural suicide—importing millions of unassimilable persons from radically different, often hostile cultures as a means of shoring up the tax and population base necessary to maintain entitlement systems.
Americans, less culturally exclusivist but more insistent and dependent on assimilation than Europeans, rejected the Merkel model. This was the fundamental appeal of Donald Trump. That appeal is, then, “nationalist” in important ways. But it also is limited in its nationalism, for it has no basis in race and is, in fact, a rejection of expansionist, imperial dreams. President Trump’s nationalism is rooted in protection of American borders and insistence on prioritizing the interests of regular American citizens over the plans of international elites as embodied in multilateral agreements and schemes for spreading neoliberal structures across the globe. Conservatives, often maligned as “isolationists” have a long tradition of espousing policies akin to President Trump’s, whether termed “conservative,” “populist,” or even “nationalist.” Labels often change according to the prejudices of political observers and adversaries. Prudent policy changes only according to circumstances.
Nisbet worried about the nation-state, meaning bureaucratic power, on account of its ability to rearrange society to suit rulers’ ideological desires and financial/military needs. (My friend, Bradley Birzer, has written on this topic in these very pages). Nothing in President Trump’s program regarding immigration, trade, or foreign policy justifies today’s often hysterical opposition in this area—indeed, quite the opposite is the case. Imperialism ever has been the enemy of liberty, while the determination to serve the interests of one’s people is the spring of republican self-government.
There remain, however, significant dangers rising from the domestic state President Trump and we have inherited after decades of Progressive leadership and eight years of unconstitutional rule by the most radical President in American history. Government in the United States is far too centralized. Our current national Executive state is inconsistent with our Constitution and inconsistent with the administrative decentralization Tocqueville pointed to as the essence of ordered liberty in the United States. The culture of dependency wrought by national bureaucratic programs providing impersonal support mechanisms for the poor has expanded into a set of middle- and even upper-class entitlement programs—including health, education, and various forms of welfare—that sap the vitality and reason to exist of the local communities that alone can make for decent lives.
Thankfully, President Trump is moving toward reining in the regulatory state that seeks to reorder our lives in the name of safety and economic efficiency. One hopes that calls to “federalize” the powers of the Environmental Protection Agency may be put into action for it, and for other regulatory agencies and thence the welfare state. The nation-state is a fact of life today. It is a necessary protection for people, in their communities, as they face dangers from foreign powers and state-less international elites. But we must remember that it is necessary to guard the guardian of our freedom, and to maintain our own virtue if we are to guard our own liberty.
Nationalism of the dangerous variety is by nature an aspect of the socialist project, for it divinizes the nation-state as the parent responsible for the well-being of all citizens. The Road to Serfdom is, in fact, a Road to Perpetual Childhood, with the national government a potentially murderous parent. The first victims, however, may not be specific persons or groups, but rather the spirit of independence and associational self-government upon which ordered liberty depends.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.
[*] I leave aside, for present purposes, the complex but properly friendly relationship between Christians and Jews within the Western tradition. The struggles and vicissitudes of that relationship bear discussion, as does the nature of the underlying cultural and religious commonality. But that is a discussion for another time.