The Left’s Nationalism Dilemma

by Benjamin Studebaker

I want to talk about the American left’s relationship with nationalism. I’ll start by making a distinction between two different ways of understanding what America is:

  1. Some people think of America as a federal republic. In a republic, citizens are thinly united by a commitment to a shared political system. They may be very different from each other in many other respects, but despite cultural differences they share the same political status as citizens, and the republic recognises their shared status.
  2. Other people think of America as a nation-state. In a nation state, citizens are thickly unified by a shared culture, built around things like language, religion, ethnicity, and other values. If citizens don’t partake in the shared culture, they may be citizens of the state but they are not part of the nation. In this way, they can be thought of as second class citizens, or even internal enemies.
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This is certainly not the only way these terms can be understood, but I hope you’ll agree the distinction is useful. Increasingly, our political discourse has been obsessed with a marginal faction within the right which understands our country in a nationalist way. The left has responded to this right-wing nationalism in two ways:

  1. Some have embraced left nationalism, which argues that nationalism should be appropriated by the left in a bid to turn right nationalists into left nationalists.
  2. Others have embraced left anti-nationalism, which argues that because America is nationalist, it is necessarily racist, fascist, and very bad, and therefore its political system should be abolished or completely reconfigured.

There is, of course, a third option–rejecting nationalism and instead taking the view that America is a republic or ought to be thought of as a republic. But this position hasn’t been very popular, even though most ordinary Americans still think of our country in this way. I shall argue that both left nationalism and left anti-nationalism are mistakes, and that we should instead prefer left republicanism.

Problems With Left Nationalism

Left nationalists argue that by dismantling globalization, the American people can regain sovereignty over the economy. By throwing up trade barriers, they hope to protect American workers from competition from cheap foreign labor, enabling them to demand higher taxes, higher wages, tougher regulations, and unionization.

To build support for this, left nationalists are willing to tolerate or embrace the idea of an American people with a thick national identity. In practice, this means that left nationalists are willing to compromise with social conservatives, or actively join with them, on issues like abortion, law enforcement, or the traditional family.

Many on the left are unwilling to take these cultural positions and reject left nationalism on that basis. But the cultural positions are not in themselves the main problem with the approach. The core problem is that any attempt to undo globalization and return to something like the post-war era will disrupt global supply chains, producing inflation. This inflation would raise the cost of living for ordinary Americans, ultimately destroying left nationalism’s political base.

Many right-wing politicians who cater to nationalism understand this perfectly well. They pretend to be nationalists about the economy, but do little to challenge globalization. Instead, they attempt to placate their base by fighting cultural fights. Left nationalist politicians would take a similar approach, pushing social conservatism without achieving economic victories for people. The economic left nationalism would be reduced to an aesthetic feature, with no political force. Functionally, left nationalists would become identical to right nationalists. They would differ only in branding.

This is not to say that the ordinary people who hold this position are not sincere. They are–and they genuinely want to help working people. They are individually different from right nationalists in their priorities and goals. But it is not possible for a political party to genuinely embrace left nationalism while remaining electorally competitive. It can only be embraced in a performative way.

So regardless of how we might feel about social conservatism, it is clear that this strategy cannot accomplish the substantive economic goals of the left, because no political party can consistently win elections if that political party dismantles global supply chains and generates inflation. Globalization cannot be rolled back–it must be reconfigured.

Problems With Left Anti-Nationalism

Left anti-nationalists believe that nationalism is intimately bound up with racism, fascism, sexism, and other fundamentally bigoted ideologies. They increasingly hold that America is fundamentally racist and sexist, because America was built on a thick, exclusive national identity. This is most neatly expressed in the New York Times‘ 1619 Project, which holds that America is an essentially racist country and that racism is a core part of its national identity.

Since left anti-nationalists think nationalism is intrinsically bigoted and they think America has a nationalist foundation, they think that America is itself an intrinsically bigoted structure. For this reason they call for abolishing or heavily reconfiguring its essential institutions. The constitution itself is deemed inherently morally flawed, and they call for abolishing the senate, the supreme court, the electoral college, the police, the border, and lots of other things.

By tearing down the nation-state, left anti-nationalists hope to open the way for alternative social formations. But in practice, weakening the state strengthens markets. The less control states have over the flows of money and people, the more disruptive these flows become. States have to fund public services, and they can’t fund their public services when they are competing for investment and competing to attract jobs. The competition produces a race to the bottom, gradually running down taxes, wages, regulations, unions, and social programs.

The problem with the left nationalists is that they try to dismantle globalization. The problem with left anti-nationalists is that they try to accelerate it recklessly in a bid to weaken the state. They are more interested in destroying the state than they are in protecting the worker. Because they think the state is fundamentally bigoted and fundamentally evil, any attempt to strengthen the state or use the state to protect the worker is dismissed as racist, fascist, or otherwise unacceptable.

This means that left anti-nationalists also cannot accomplish anything for workers. Because they prioritise globalization over protecting workers, they always choose progressive social causes over economic achievements for workers. This leaves them functionally identical to neoliberal centrists.

Of course, individual left anti-nationalists have very different beliefs from neoliberal centrists. But in practice, anti-nationalist politicians are too anti-statist to support the kinds of economic policies which would be necessary to help workers. The economic leftism is reduced to an aesthetic distinction, with no real political difference between these politicians and the progressive liberal movement.

An Argument for Left Republicanism

Most Americans don’t view our country the way nationalists view it. Most Americans think that any person who is willing and capable of making a contribution to our country and following the law deserves a chance to be a citizen. The nationalists and the anti-nationalists are loud, but there is a silent majority in our country who like immigration and trade, but want these things to be well-regulated and fair.

We can build a state that can manage flows of capital and labor, using the power and leverage of the American market to reconfigure the international system. The United States is very powerful, and if we demand changes to international institutions to center the needs of workers and ordinary folks, we can build a fairer system without tearing up supply chains and generating inflation.

But to do it, we have to stop thinking of our country in this very exclusive, limited way. The great thing about America is that anyone can potentially be part of it, regardless of their cultural background, if they are willing to play by our rules. So why not expand what it means to be American to include people around the world who are willing to follow fair rules?

We could, in conversation with our trading partners, create a global bill of economic rights. We could enforce those rights by refusing to trade with countries that won’t comply. By working with other countries to build this system, we could forge a powerful bloc, making it impossible for capitalists to find markets for their goods without meeting our demands.

In this way, we could create a global America, bound together by a shared understanding of the economic rights people are owed.

The left nationalists will never support the level of cooperation necessary to accomplish this. The left anti-nationalists will never support the level of state power that would be necessary to achieve it. The way out of the dilemma is to reject the exclusiveness of nationalism without rejecting the potential of the American state.

The United States is a really cool idea, not because Americans are special people, but because we’re not. What’s special about America is the fact that it’s unified around a system of law, a set of rights, rather than an ethnicity, religion, or race. We can expand those rights for our citizens while maintaining a very high standard of living if we can bring ourselves to include people in other parts of the world who share the same vision.

Unfortunately, as nationalism continues to proliferate through our system, it is becoming harder and harder to imagine the kind of cooperation I’m describing. Americans are beginning to lose the republican understanding of what America is. The 1619 Project poses a threat to this understanding of American life, and so does Donald Trump’s 1776 Project. These educational movements want our children to believe that America is based around one particular culture, to the exclusion of all others. They may have different attitudes to nationalism, but they share the conviction that nationalism is at the heart of what it means to be American.

If this continues, America will drift further and further down a dark path. Without global cooperation, climate change will eventually forcibly disrupt globalization. When that happens, the nationalists will pursue an America-first approach, allowing millions of people around the world to suffer the consequences of environmental catastrophe. The left anti-nationalists are too hostile to the state to support the kind of cooperation that is needed. They won’t be able to stop climate change, and when climate change annihilates globalization, the nationalists will triumph. They will then manage the decline of our world, as living standards fall further and further away from what they could have been.

It may already be too late. But we must continue to try to find another way. The dominant approaches will facilitate both right nationalism and neoliberalism, allowing these two movements to obliterate what hope remains for our world. They must be resisted, we must continue to struggle for another way.