Aug. 1, 2016

Dean Stam and Professor Warburg: America's exceptional nationalism

The tumult in global markets caused by the Brexit vote and the overheated rhetoric coming from the U.S. presidential campaign obliges a reassessment of the role nationalism should play in the 21st century.

As Americans debate the merits of alliances and trade barriers, critics from the Bernie Sanders left and the Donald Trump right score points by assailing globalization. Their voices are mimicked darkly in Europe, unnerving the American political establishment.

At the end of the Cold War, elites believed nationalism was dead. While party leaders openly share a disdain for America First rhetoric, they have failed to convince voters. Nor have Democrats and Republican moderates effectively addressed the legitimate grievances of workers left behind by unfair trade. We are now suffering the results; the centers of both parties are fracturing under the hammer of personal identity politics.

The election of 2016 is the first in our lifetime where control of all three branches of the federal government is clearly at stake. The outsider campaigns of Trump and Sanders have been driven by anger against party officials, whom many voters believe are more committed to advancing the dogma of globalization’s financiers than to securing national interests. These insurgent campaigns lead many to ask what it means today to be “a good American.”

Calls for a new nationalism in times of economic doldrums are not uncommon. Demagogues and nativists commonly resort to the tactic, from Huey Long to George Wallace to Ross Perot. Yet if we reject the ardent nationalism that reduces foreign relations to tribal warfare, the rededication of U.S. voters to a common set of principles could prove welcome.

Trump and Sanders appeal openly to the politics of victimhood. Sanders rails against Wall Street, while Trump peddles fear of foreigners. Both call for “America First” rather than ever-greater globalization as responses to international challenges. Their ideas are built upon exclusion, whether it is Mexicans and Muslims or wealthy fellow citizens and international traders whom proponents seek to punish.

Americans would do better to unite around our shared commitments to equality of opportunity and assimilation, to demonstrate how healthy nationalism can be good for the United States.

The founders foresaw that politics divided by religion or region or ethnicity would prove fatal to the young republic. Recent commentators have concluded that nationalism is always bad. Mainstream politicians have been hard-pressed to embrace the notion of American exceptionalism, lest they sound like arrogant imperialists.

There are good reasons to be wary of the more common forms of nationalism. National identities based on tribal loyalty often descend into war, as now in the Middle East. Yet idea nationalism — loyalty to a specific idea-based conception of our nationhood — can still unite us.

We support different political parties. Yet we find common ground in respect for a single national identity. We embrace with equal fervor that radical American idea: All people are created equal, with basic inalienable rights and opportunities. The United States was designed to assimilate all into one national identity, joined by ideas and not divided by factions based upon religion or ethnicity. Those who abhor nationalism reject the idea that Americans have an exceptional mission. In rejecting this civic responsibility, we believe they are mistaken.

Exceptionalism brings obligation, yet it does not require a belief in American superiority or entitlement. In fact, it encourages us to reject the wars associated with literally every other kind of putrid nationalism, from monarchs to Mussolini, from Hitler to Islamic State. American exceptionalism obliges us to chart a responsible middle course of leadership, adopting policies that reject the perilous extremes of isolation or empire.

The founders designed a unique political identity system: Citizenship would be based on a life-risking commitment to equal opportunity. Our system requires citizens to sublimate factional identities, to embrace a single idea-based principle, equality before the law. Our presidents and federal representatives pledge to defend the Constitution. Our soldiers pledge their lives. Together, they serve an idea, nothing more, nothing less.

Politics based on identity are corrosive in an inclusive, idea-based democracy. They bind people to factions, often through exclusionary ideologies and festering grievances. Viewing competition as a zero sum game, they often resort to unrelenting obstructionism.

In contrast, nationalism that embraces a unifying belief — a belief in our exceptional mission as an assimilated citizenry — serves to unify U.S. citizens in a social contract. This is a commitment to illimitable inclusiveness. It is this type of inclusiveness we believe we should strive for in our national politics. It is this type of vision we should require of any and all who would lead the nation forward.

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Dean, Professor of Public Policy
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Professor of Practice of Public Policy
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