What Nationalism Means Today

A piece I wrote last month on globalism and nationalism led to some extremely spirited discussion. A few more comments may be useful.

Journalists and commentators today use the word “nationalism” very broadly to refer to any resistance to globalization based on attachment to national identity. This usage lines up with current disputes regarding the legitimacy and future role of the nation state, so it makes sense to go along with it when discussing current affairs.

One point that confuses discussion is that Americans for the most part haven’t called themselves nationalists. They’ve been more likely to call themselves patriots or just plain Americans. The few who view nationalism as their basic political identity have often held views that most find deeply misguided. They might be “national greatness” conservatives, who think America has a manifest destiny to put the world in order, or white nationalists, who don’t much like America and want to establish a new nation on the basis of racial separation.

Among ordinary Americans, though, the usual form of what’s now called nationalism is the belief that the first obligation of American government is to look after the common good of the American people. This is generally taken to mean less immigration, fewer foreign wars, fewer social innovations like multiculturalism and transgenderism which threaten the structure of everyday human relations, and measures, like more advantageous terms of trade, to support well-paying jobs for Americans.


This kind of nationalism lines up with standard popular conservatism. Commentators sympathetic to it—some of whom have begun to use the term—generally think it’s important for societies with some historical and cultural coherence to maintain it, for example, by resisting mass immigration, and to determine their policy in accordance with their own understanding of the common good of their people. The alternative, they believe, is for them to hand over their national fate and the well-being of their people to bureaucrats and billionaires who answer to no one but themselves.

Another source of confusion is the varied meanings nationalism has had over the years. When many people hear the word they think of arms races, the two world wars, suppression of dissent, and so on. There’s some basis for this association, but one could just as easily associate nationalism with democracy and resistance to foreign domination. It depends on which account of history one believes.

In broad terms, a nation state is a state that represents a people that exist prepolitically. This means it represents a people that understand themselves as such because of historical and cultural ties that don’t depend on the state, so that they would continue to be a people even if the state were divided or absorbed by another state. Thus, Poland is a nation state, Austria-Hungary was not a nation state, the Kurds are a nation without a state, and the extent to which the United States has been a nation state is debatable and has varied over the years.

Nationalism has to do with supporting the nation state as a political form. What that involves varies. It matters, for example, whether the point is to support the supremacy of the nation, state, or ethnic people over family, locality, and religion, or to support one’s own nation against other nations, or simply to maintain the existence and distinctiveness of nation states in the face of the global order now emerging.

It also matters how intense the support is. Is the nation the supreme loyalty, so that the national interest takes precedence over all other considerations? Or is the claim merely that the national community is legitimate and important, and the common good should normally guide its government’s policies?

The presence of regional variations and national minorities, and the attitude toward them, also make a difference. The idea of the nation state, like the idea of democracy, implies a state that basically represents the majority. So if the majority is Catholic and French-speaking then Catholicism and French language and culture will pervade state institutions. Something must pervade them, since they’re not going to be neutral on issues like language and the nature of man and reality, so why not go along with what predominates in the society unless there’s something inherently wrong in it?

On the other hand, no people is altogether unified, and justice requires respect for minority rights and interests. How that plays out always involves compromise. It seems wrong for the French to forbid the Breton language, yet acceptable for them to insist Breton schools teach French, and right for them to resist immigration by people who aren’t much like the French and don’t seem likely to become so any time soon. Attempts at perfect solutions to such problems work badly. These include present-day multiculturalism, which tries to equalize the position of all groups in all settings, and overreaching forms of nationalism that try to do away with minority and regional cultures, languages, and religions.

How these things work themselves out changes with the times. At first nationalism had to do with making the territorial state stronger than the webs of the local and international authorities which ordered medieval society. This generally meant increasing the power of the king over other political actors. The justification for this, apart from royal self-interest, was efficient governance. The king didn’t want the Church, nobles, or local authorities disrupting policy.

As time went by, better communications and the growth of cities and the market economy led to the decline of personal, local, and religious ties in favor of general linguistic and cultural connections as a ground for social loyalty. As a result the emphasis shifted from unification of monarchies to unification of peoples.

The people hoped this trend would strengthen their position with regard to government. If the citizens of a state had a common history, culture, and language they would be able to deliberate and act collectively and so affect policy. And governments hoped that the nation state would become stronger with a more unified people.

But as nationalism won out, and Europe became a continent of nation states, it had fewer constructive goals. It was less concerned with making government effective and putting it in touch with the people than asserting the nation over against other nations. It also acted more and more as a substitute religion. These trends led to catastrophe, so after the Second World War nationalism was discredited in the West.

In the Third World, though, nationalism arose because it gave form to the desire for independence from colonial powers. And in our own time it’s making a comeback in the West for similar reasons. What’s called nationalism in the West today isn’t a struggle against local autonomy or the Church, nor is it a matter of competition among nations or suppression of minorities. Instead, it’s a struggle against an emerging world order that destroys all borders and all authority other than that of the global markets and transnational regulatory bureaucracies. It’s a way of protecting what is local and particular through borders backed by sovereignty.

This was the point of Brexit and of Trump’s election. The nationalism those events express has something in common with the regional nationalisms of Europe. It’s basically defensive, and stands for what has evolved among the people and defines them over against constructed larger wholes like a unified Italy, the EU, and global economic authorities.

The extent to which Catholics should favor one side or another in such disputes is a matter of political prudence. Church spokesmen today mostly favor global institutions over nationalism, and free migration over restrictions. I’ve discussed the social teaching of the Church regarding these matters, and argued that the teachings on government, immigration, and nation don’t quite support those views, largely because they don’t sufficiently take into account basic aspects of modern political life.

Too much can be said on both sides to resolve the matter here, though, so further discussion will have to await another occasion.

(Photo credit: Shutterstock)

James Kalb


James Kalb is a lawyer, independent scholar, and Catholic convert who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of The Tyranny of Liberalism: Understanding and Overcoming Administered Freedom, Inquisitorial Tolerance, and Equality by Command (ISI Books, 2008), and, most recently, Against Inclusiveness: How the Diversity Regime is Flattening America and the West and What to Do About It (Angelico Press, 2013).