Is There Such a Thing as Progressive Nationalism?

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Six year-old Kamarii Wickenson holds an American flag as he joins hundreds of people demonstrating against racism in Times Square on Martin Luther King Day in New York. 

The Nationalist Revival: Trade, Immigration, and the Revolt Against Globalization
By John B. Judis
Columbia Global Reports

This article appears in the Spring 2019 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here

Most liberals have a problem with nationalism. John Judis has a problem with the problem liberals have with nationalism. This dynamic—or dialectic, if you prefer—makes Judis’s latest book, The Nationalist Revival, essential reading. There are important lessons here for progressives. But there is also more to liberal unease with the new nationalism than Judis may acknowledge.

Through his long career in progressive journalism, Judis has made a habit of seeing things that others were missing. In the early 1990s, he took Ross Perot’s movement seriously from the start. Through excellent reporting and listening, he came to understand the coherence of this middle-class, middle-of-the-road, and largely secular movement. He also saw early on how powerful a political issue opposition to free trade could become.

Judis offered a revelatory book in 2001 calling attention to the increasingly selfish and inward-looking nature of the American economic elite. The Paradox of American Democracy traced the transformation of the politics of business between the New Deal era and the end of the 20th century. From World War II through the late 1960s, Judis argued, significant parts of the business sector, while decidedly conservative, leaned more toward a middle-of-the-road, consensual approach to public life, reflected in the work of the Committee for Economic Development. Business leaders of this stripe supported moderate and even liberal Republicans and broadly accepted both Keynesian economics and the welfare state.

But during the 1970s, in reaction to growing foreign competition, the new consumer movement led by Ralph Nader, and the rise of new regulatory agencies (many of them, ironically, established during the Nixon administration), business shifted right. “[C]orporate leaders and bankers,” Judis wrote, “abandoned their commitment to disinterested public service and to a politics that transcended class. They turned against union organizers, environmentalists and consumer activists with the same resolve that an older generation of business leaders had turned against the AFL, the IWW, and the Socialist Party.”

It might be said that the perception of Washington as a “swamp” of special-interest groups took off in this period. Judis noted that the number of businesses with registered lobbyists in Washington rose from 175 in 1971 to 2,445 in 1982. The number of trade associations nearly doubled between 1978 and 1986, from 1,800 to 3,500.

Then came Judis’s reporting over the last decade from Arizona and other states, which called attention to a burgeoning anti-immigration movement. Again, far earlier than most journalists, he saw how a backlash against migrants not only animated significant parts of the electorate but also spurred new forms of organizing on the right.

With his work on trade, elite behavior, and immigration, Judis might be said to have spent decades preparing himself for our current moment and developing the depth of understanding that allowed him to pack so much into his two compact and revelatory volumes for the impressive Columbia Global Reports series. His first, The Populist Explosion, provided one of the best early explanations for Donald Trump’s victory—before Trump had actually won the election. It made an indispensable contribution to the debate over what populism is and isn’t by pushing back against the idea that populism must necessarily be, as some scholars have argued, authoritarian and exclusionary. Rather, Judis saw populism more expansively, with both democratic and autocratic possibilities.

“It is not an ideology, but a political logic—a way of thinking about politics,” he wrote. Populists wave warning flags that establishments are foolish to ignore: “They signal that the prevailing political ideology isn’t working and needs repair, and the standard worldview is breaking down.” That both the Bernie Sanders and Trump campaigns could be fairly called populist drove home Judis’s central argument that populism existed on the left and the right (and, in the case of Perot, in the center, too). In Europe, France’s far right National Front was populist, but so were Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain.

It was thus inevitable that Judis would turn his attention next to The Nationalist Revival. And nationalism is the harder challenge, intellectually, politically, and morally. If both populism and nationalism are contested concepts, nationalism arouses even more alarm—and loathing. Once again, Judis makes the case for conceptual nuance. Nationalism, he insists, “can be the basis of social generosity or of bigoted exclusion.” It can be both “an essential ingredient of political democracies” and “the basis for fascist and authoritarian regimes.”

Unlike many on the left, Judis has a long history of sympathy for nationalism. He wrote a manifesto for The New Republic in 1995 titled “For a New Nationalism” with Michael Lind, the brilliant and ideologically eclectic student of American nationalism and the contributions made by its advocates. Lind includes in their ranks Alexander Hamilton, John Quincy Adams, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt (whose progressive 1912 program was also proudly touted as “The New Nationalism”).

For Judis, a defense of nationalism is synonymous with a defense of a more egalitarian economy. The institutions necessary for greater economic justice, he argues, are under attack by globalization. He writes:

The emergence of globalization in the 1970s has undermined the labor union and the locally owned factory and business and the community they sustained. Finding themselves at the mercy of currency flows, footloose multinational corporations, and migrant flows, and afflicted by anomie and a sense of powerlessness—the individual has little recourse except the nation.

He goes on to use the everyday language of our politics to put nationalism in a sympathetic light. “Nationalism,” he writes, “provides a framework within which citizens and their governments deliberate about what to do—and justify what they have done. Citizens debate whether a policy is in the ‘national interest.’” Judis rightly points toward the prophetic and critical work of the economist Dani Rodrik on the paradoxes and costs of globalization. Had more attention been paid to Rodrik’s warnings back in the 1990s about the political and social impositions of globalization, the nationalist backlash of our era might have been avoided—or, at the least, its most dangerous effects might have been mitigated.

One of Judis’s conceptual contributions is to draw a sharp line between globalism, which he opposes, and internationalism, which he supports. Globalism, he says, “subordinates nations and national governments to market forces or to the priorities of multinational corporations.” Internationalism, on the other hand, refers to the decision of nations to “cede part of their sovereignty to international and regional bodies to address problems they could not adequately address on their own.”

It’s a useful distinction that helps explain arguments within the British left over the decades about the European Union. Most left-wing opponents of the EU in Britain have always seen it as serving international capitalism. In Judis’s terms, they saw it as globalism’s agent. The majority of the British left (measured by opinion polling among the Labour Party’s supporters) have come to see it instead as a classic case of internationalism, an effort to pool sovereignty for the purpose of empowering its members within the global system.

Many on the left will be receptive to Judis’s focus on globalism, his discussion of the impact of trade on manufacturing jobs, and his argument that national sovereignty has been essential in the advancement of broadly social democratic policies. His insistence that national feeling has been central to the social solidarity that generous welfare states require is not a standard argument made by progressives, but it is important to ponder.

His is definitely not a book for those who argue that the proper location of solidarity is global and that it should reach all of humankind regardless of nationality. I don’t say this to denigrate this generous side of cosmopolitanism. On the contrary, a strong case can be made from both religious and secular perspectives that more attention should be paid in our day-to-day politics to the poorest people in the poorest countries on earth. Yet I think Judis is right to call our attention to the need to pay far more attention than we do to those who typically pay the highest costs for globalization and technological change—the least advantaged classes in the wealthiest economies. Egalitarianism does begin at home, and economic justice within nations is a precondition to a sustainable politics of economic justice that stretches across borders.

Judis knows that in trying to vindicate the democratic forms of nationalism, he is pushing uphill with many liberals. After World War II, he writes, “the leaders of the victorious powers tried to prevent the revival of the toxic, aggressive nationalism that had arisen in Germany, Italy and Japan.” The result? “In Europe and to some extent in the United States, the very term ‘nationalism’ and its cognates acquired a pejorative connotation. To call someone a ‘nationalist’ insinuated some underlying sympathy for Nazis or fascists.”

Well, yes. For many on the left and center-left—I am among them—it is very hard to divorce nationalism from its murderous 1930s-1940s downside. In our book One Nation After Trump, my colleagues Norm Ornstein, Tom Mann, and I offered arguments that parallel Judis’s in important ways. We agreed that progressives needed to acknowledge that democracy has largely prospered within nation-states and that the rise of nationalism in recent years was an expression of a desire by citizens to subject globalization to democratic discipline. We, too, cited Lind’s work on the positive contributions of democratic nationalism in our history. And the very title of our book and its echo of the Pledge of Allegiance’s commitment to “liberty and justice for all” reflected our view that progressive politics have always been linked to nation building rooted in social fairness and inclusion.

For this reason, we argued that progressives needed to embrace patriotism without shame or embarrassment. But we also sought to distinguish between patriotism and nationalism. We followed George Orwell, who saw patriotism as stemming from “devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life” while insisting that “nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power.” The 1930s experience really does make a difference. As Isaiah Berlin noted in the early 1970s, those who foresaw more benign forms of nationalism in the 19th century never contemplated “the pathological developments of nationalism in our own times.”

“No one, as far as I know,” Berlin continued, “had ever prophesied the rise of modern national narcissism: the self-adoration of peoples, of their conviction of their own immeasurable superiority to others and consequent right to domination over them.”

Perhaps, as Judis and Lind might argue, the patriotism my colleagues and I recommended was not all that different from the democratic nationalism they endorse. We might be seen as making a distinction that is more sentimental than rigorous.

Yet I do not think it mere sentiment to challenge the idea that we can now safely ignore the toxicity that attached itself to nationalism in the decades after World War I. The right-wing ethno-nationalism of the Trump movement—visible in nationalist movements in Europe as well—draws on these older forms of fascism, sometimes explicitly, often implicitly. If this makes many on the liberal left nervous, well, it should.

This view has led some of Judis’s critics to argue—Guardiancolumnist Jonathan Freedland’s December review in The New York Times Book Reviewis thoughtfully representative—that he is too ready to adopt some of the anti-immigrant movement’s language (about “a flood of refugees” and “a raging stream of migrants”). Freedland also noted that Judis’s accounts of how the regimes of Orban’s Hungary, Kaczynski’s Poland, and Putin’s Russia behave the way they do sometimes morphed from intelligent historical analysis into justification.

Freedland has a point on Hungary, Poland, and Russia. Judis clearly wanted to keep his book short, but he owed us more about the problematic nature of these regimes. He expresses proper discomfort with Orban’s anti-Semitic campaign against George Soros, for example, but is too eager to criticize the European Union’s pushback (an extremely mild pushback, it should be said) against the rise of authoritarianism in its ranks.

On immigration, the picture is more complicated. Judis is right to point out that we have had many earlier outbreaks of nativist feeling, and that the current backlash can be explained in part by the facts on the ground. There has been a sharp change in the ethnic composition of the pool of immigrants since the 1965 Immigration Act. And the proportion of our population that is foreign-born hasrisen dramatically, from 4.7 percent in 1970 to 13.7 percent today. Suggesting that it is not surprising that these factors have produced a reaction is not the same as justifying either racism or nativism. Nor is Judis wrong to argue that those of us who support relatively generous immigration policies need to think hard about the difficult compromises that might be required to rebuild a national consensus on behalf of the humane treatment of newcomers. Judis is sometimes too quick to rationalize the fears of the anti-immigration movement and to accept its faulty definitions of reality. There are times when he seems more morally offended by the obtuseness of cosmopolitans, the British author David Goodhart’s “Anywheres,” than by the rage of Goodhart’s “Somewheres,” those deeply attached to localities who are quite capable of their own old-fashioned prejudices.

Nonetheless, it is vital that progressives come to terms with what both of Judis’s books have to teach. It is certainly a form of willful blindness to underplay the role of racism and prejudice in Trump’s campaign and to deny that racism and nativism motivated a substantial share of his supporters. But in political terms, the more costly mistake would be to assume that all of Trump’s working-class voters were motivated by race alone and that they can therefore never be persuaded to an alternative politics.

The Democrats’ 2018 successes in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin suggest that this pessimism is not justified by the electoral facts. And moving the country toward greater harmony (and, yes, justice) across the lines of race, ethnicity, and immigration status requires a new capacity for empathy toward those suffering from the costs of economic dislocation—in African American and Latino inner-city and rural neighborhoods and the old, predominantly white factory and mining towns alike. Judis may be a bit too grumpy about liberals. But his grouchiness should force liberals who live in prosperous precincts to ask themselves what role their indifference to the costs of the last two decades of economic change played in creating the mess we’re in. 

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