Bryan Caplan  

Nationalism Is Not News

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In the last two years, there's been an avalanche of news on the "rise of nationalism."  I find this narrative deeply aggravating.  My critics - even a colleague or two - say it's because I'm in denial over the painful facts.  But what really aggravates me is the false insinuation of radical change.  Nationalism hasn't become dominant recently.  It's been dominant without interruption for at least a century and a half.  In 1926, historian Carlton Hayes wrote an essay on "Nationalism as a Religion," observing that:

"My country, right or wrong, my country!" Thus responds the faithful nationalist to the magisterial call of his religion, and thereby he intends nothing dubious or immoral. He is merely making a subtle distinction between governmental officials who may go wrong and a nation which, from the inherent nature of things, must ever be right. It would sound pedantic for him to say, "my nation, indicatively right or subjunctively wrong (contrary to fact), my nation!" Indeed, to the national state are now popularly ascribed infallibility and impeccability. We moderns are prepared to grant that all our fellow countrymen may individually err in conduct and judgement, but we are loath to admit that our nation as a whole can make mistakes. We are willing to assail the policies and even the characters of some of our politicians, but we are stopped by the faith that is in us from doubting the Providential guidance of our national state. This is the final mark of the religious nature of modern nationalism.

The most impressive fact about the present age is the universality of the religious aspects of nationalism. Not only in the United States does the religious sense of the whole people find expression in nationalism, but also, in slightly different form but perhaps to an even greater degree, in France, England, Italy, Germany, Belgium, Holland, Russia, the Scandinavian and Baltic countries, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Spain, Portugal, Ireland, the Balkans, Greece, and the Latin-American republics. Nor does the religion of nationalism thrive only on traditionally Christian soil; it now flourishes in Japan, Turkey, Egypt, India, Korea, and is rearing its altars in China. Nationalism has a large number of particularly quarrelsome sects, but as a whole it is the latest and nearest approach to a world-religion.

In 1960, Hayes followed up with a whole book - Nationalism: A Religion - cataloguing the ideology's global ubiquityThe work's full of gems like:
We need not here rehearse the epic story of World War I.  It lasted over four years and turned out to be a supremely nationalistic war... As soon as war was declared, both masses and classes rallied to the support of their respective governments.  Earlier professions of pacifism or neutrality quickly evaporated, and failure marked the movements and organizations which, it had been imagined, might check, if not exorcise, the war spirit.  Christianity failed: no heed was given to pacific pleas of anguished pope or other priests and ministers.  Marxian socialism failed: its following made no attempt to stay or impede the war by "general strike" or any other means.  "Intellectuals" failed: the large majority of them deserted reason for emotion, fair-mindedness for bellicose partnership.  So, too, failed "big business" and "international finance," and other economic considerations, which publicists such as Norman Angell had prophesied would militate against, and prevent, the enormous cost and ultimately universal bankruptcy that large-scale warfare would entail.
Can't we accept the dominance of nationalism, but also admit that it's currently growing much stronger?  We could, but we shouldn't.  There's definitely a lot more media coverage of nationalism, but making a big deal out of everything is what the media does.  Do I protest too much?  Well, I've been blogging for a dozen years.  Can you recall a single time where I claimed that current events were somehow "on my side"?  I can't.  Multi-decade trends mean something to me.  So do the World Wars and the collapse of Communism.  The rest is noise.

If you disagree - if you think you can see the global nationalist revival in the tea leaves - I am happy to bet you.  Otherwise, turn off the news and read some Carlton Hayes.


COMMENTS (6 to date)
Dylan writes:

I feel you're giving too much weight to the long story, and not enough to the short. Sure, nationalism has been with us for a long time, but from at least the time of the Berlin Wall coming down there has been a sense that nationalism has been in retreat and globalism was ascending. It may not have been in a straight line, and maybe the media made more of it than there really was, but in general leaders the world over at least in rhetoric praised closer ties to the world (and rhetoric is important! For politicians it's often more important than action!). Now there are signs that this global consensus is fraying, even among the leaders of the free world, and the trend appears to have at least stalled, if not reversed. That's potentially concerning to those of us who favor more integration and not less. We won't be able to know if it is really something to be concerned about, or just noise as you say, until it is too late. If you want to have impact on the present than you're stuck reading tea leaves and reacting to potentially spurious data.

David Condon writes:

I would guess this discussion is more focused on Europe. In the US at least, there's been no such trend. I just googled Gallup polls on the topic, and it appears the US as a whole has been steadily moving in a slightly less nationalistic direction from a peak in 2004. That conforms to my priors. There may have been a slight uptick very recently, but things aren't close to as bad as they were at the height of the Iraq war.

Patriotism is down

Concern about illegal immigration has been slowly going back down to something more normal

And support for more immigration is up

Andrew_FL writes:
"My country, right or wrong, my country!" Thus responds the faithful nationalist to the magisterial call of his religion, and thereby he intends nothing dubious or immoral. He is merely making a subtle distinction between governmental officials who may go wrong and a nation which, from the inherent nature of things, must ever be right.

I prefer Carl Shurz's formulation; "if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right."

Hazel Meade writes:

It's possible that nationalism is actually getting *weaker*, and that the current nationalist resurgence is a reactionary response to the weakening of nationalism in most Western industrialized nations.

Does that mean nationalism is actually getting stronger? It's hard to tell if what's going on is just reactionary or a return to some kind of baseline innate nationalist impulse. Are we all doomed to be nationalists forever?
I kind of lean towards the former. In the modern interconnected world, the basic concept of the nation state is deeply threatened and this is terrifying to people whose identity is based on nationalism. But reactionary responses die because they are reactions to real phenomenon that aren't going away. The structure of interactions between people is changing as the result of technology and , absent an apocalyptic scenario in which internet communication is wiped out, that is going to continue.

A Country Farmer writes:

Another timeless quote! "Multi-decade trends mean something to me. So do the World Wars and the collapse of Communism. The rest is noise."

Weir writes:

This is Ernest Gellner: "Community is sung and praised by those who have lost it."

But the reverse is also true. People who never had it to start with will imagine one into being. So that this mindless cliche, "the deaf community," a phrase without substance, inspires a deaf nation into existence, with deaf nationalists self-consciously constructing a community that they never experienced.

There's more than a family resemblance between black nationalists on campus today and German students in the years of the Napoleonic wars. There's a line of descent from all the Sturm and Drang published against French "civilisation" and bourgeois "inauthenticity" to now. When you read Dostoevsky's resentful denunciations of citified French materialists, the Parisian commerical know-it-alls, you see how German romanticism could take root in Russian soil.

But travel back to Germany after a hundred years has passed, and identity politics has became overwhelmingly anti-English and anti-Semitic. Anti-American nationalism is more modern. It's the anti-modern ideology of the end of the American century, of our own fin de siecle.

So identity politics in Germany had always been a youth movement, before it became goverment policy. Campus nationalists today insist on banning and prohibiting "outsiders" from picking up anything that "doesn't belong to them." Which is different from the Nazi obsession with cultural purity, but not entirely different.

Nationalists always think that Kultur is something to cling to, culture per se, not for any reason to do with a sombrero being superior to any other innovation in hat technology, but purely because it is ours. It "belongs to us." It "doesn't belong to you." And "stay in your lane girl."

Lonely teenagers, leaving home for the first time, have an excuse for wanting to "belong" to a "community" that they can be proud of. Their professors don't have that excuse. Those academic nationalists who ought to know better just haven't grown out of it. The universities are full of middle-aged adolescent nationalists.

But of course, since Halloween itself is Irish, if you're not Irish you shouldn't wear any kind of costume at all. This Halloween at Yale: If you're not an O'Shaughnessy or an O'Sullivan, you're not invited.

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