American Nationalism is Civic Not Ethnic

- February 9th, 2017
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Many critics of Trump and his supporters argue that the president’s immigration policies are pushing America toward an ethnic identity nationalism that is wholly at odds with what it means to be an American. These critics are confused, in part, by a failure to distinguish between ethnic nationalism and civic nationalism. But it is also the case that many of Trump’s defenders have helped to encourage this confusion by neglecting to make this distinction clear in their own speech. However unintentional these omissions may be, they lead many liberals and conservatives to react with horror and disbelief—unwilling, it seems, to give Trump or his supporters any benefit of the doubt.

Too many see nationalism with European lenses and, therefore, as something wholly at odds with the American political experience as well as with the concept of American Exceptionalism. Yet the most serious of Trump’s intellectual defenders speak of nationalism as something more interchangeable with the concept of love of the country and its people. And because there are different ways by which “a people” are constituted into a political form—the very term “nation” needs to be clarified. A people can come into being by tribe and by birth, or it may come into being by events and a professed political understanding.

Understanding this will allow us to distinguish between “civic nationalism” and “ethnic nationalism”— and this is necessary because America was made a nation through our common civic identity as Americans. Ethnically speaking, we have always been something of a mixture.

For most of the 19th century, the term “nationalism” was taken to refer to the ethnic nation rather than to the civic nation. But if we look at the Founders and much of American political culture up until the rise of the Progressives, the form of our identity was our common constitutional culture and citizenship under the Union. This difference between two political trajectories—the American one and the European one—needs to be taken into account if we are not to confuse or conflate what is going on in America with what is happening across Europe. Although there are some similarities (a revolt against an out of touch bureaucracy and a popular disdain for ineffective immigration policies) Europeans and Americans mean vastly different things when they talk about their nations or “nationalism.”

The European experience of nationalism arose out of a reaction against the French Revolution and its overturning of the aristocratic and monarchical states of Europe. What the Revolution promised what the rule of the people, but what resulted in reality was the rule of the French over the Germans, the Dutch, the Spanish, and so on. This was resented by the various peoples who felt that the Revolution did not deliver what was promised because most of them understood “the people” to be their own ethnic and national group. As a result, these various peoples demanded that they should be governed by their own kind rather than by foreigners.

Nationalism in this context meant ethnic self-determination. The people of Europe began to identify along racial and ethnic terms. A European understood his people to be only those people with a shared set of involuntary accidents of birth such as common ethnic and racial bonds. He was not, in other words, “European,” but “French,” “German,” “Italian,” “Spanish,” and so on. These identities produce a common language, habits, and religious experience and the bonds of ethnicity—which are pre-existing and involuntary—offer an immediate and ready-made shared community that provides a basis by which a state could appear to be already present.

Aristotle noted that a political community could also be constituted and formed between people of different stock—that is to say between different ethnicities and even races—but that if such a community was going to avoid constant civil strife arising from those differences and potential fissures, the community would need a cooperative spirit to arise. As Aristotle put it, they would need to “draw breath together” so that they can operate as a team—in other words, like a team of horses with a common yoke binding them to work together.

Because a political community is not merely a once off coming together for a limited time or purpose, it must be centered around something more than a utilitarian contract between strangers. It requires that those who form it see themselves as sharing a common life together as they live together. It requires them to see their fellow citizens as one would view a sibling or, at least, as a potential friend—where one has some presumption of affection. And while friendship could emerge out of the relationship of shared utility, what makes the friendship of citizens is confidence in the feeling of philia, the love and care for your brother or friend. It is only natural then—and even good—for citizens to concern themselves with the content of the character of those with whom they are going to share their lives.

Thus a civic nation is formed politically and not ethnically. Its origins are found in an act of volition by the people who formed it to live together as a common people, to share a way of life together and not as a loose set of isolated individuals who only bother to associate for exchange of goods and services. And in forming the political community they give it laws and customs that will continue to shape the political culture of its citizens. In other words, they create a “civics” for that nation.

Contrary to the various pundits who recoil at the very mention of nationalism, the American political experience does include the need for a bond of common identity. This identity must be one that can be some form of lasting unity that can be passed down to the generations. The existence of mere economic bonds is not enough. Economic bonds of shared utility or advantage can only hold together people as long as the utility or advantage remains; once the utility and advantage is no longer present the need and benefit of the relationship ends. Such bonds come and go. These are the marks of a treaty, not of nationhood. With such fragile bonds one need not have care nor love for the other parties involved.

Therefore a political community although it may be composed of different kinds of people needs must see itself as a people—that is to say one people—if it is to survive and not tear itself apart. The bonds of citizenship are a two-way street. That street encompasses the desire individuals have to belong to and share a life with those who will be their fellow citizens as well as the desire and willingness those citizens have to accept any given individual as one of their own. Membership in this community is formed not on basis of ethnic or racial identity, but upon the desire a person has to become a member of that community and the willingness of the community to accept that person. This is a political arrangement that requires the consent of both parties, so it remains a political question and not a question of absolute right.

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