The Process of Reclaiming Nationalism: A Liberal Opportunity in a Conservative World

By Mary Angela Ricotta

President Trump, during his first official State of the Union address, ardently stated, “my highest loyalty, my greatest compassion, and my constant concern is for America’s children, America’s struggling workers, and America’s forgotten communities.”

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By Mary Angela Ricotta

President Trump, during his first official State of the Union address, ardently stated, “my highest loyalty, my greatest compassion, and my constant concern is for America’s children, America’s struggling workers, and America’s forgotten communities.” This statement, and the resounding theme of both his address and presidency, solidifies nationalism as a central point of modern American policy. Whether it is the push against immigration, reemergence of alt-right hate groups, or the 2016 election itself, America’s newfound tendency to turn towards nationalism is splattered across the headlines of each week’s news cycle. President Trump’s rhetoric, and the actions of his more extremist supporters, have helped to create an irresponsible parallel in the United States; it is becoming increasingly popular to view nationalism as synonymous with the far right. Nationalism is not simply a republican, or party, issue, but rather, a sometimes-necessary guidepost that liberals and conservatives alike should look to.

It is important to draw a distinction between the theory of nationalism and the current state of American politics. Our modern political system is marred by an increasing amount of polarization between both people and parties. Solidarity between politically divided citizens is hard, if not impossible, to come by. The language used to discuss those of differing opinions is a symptom of this. Liberals who stand in opposition against President Trump and his administration are un-American snowflakes. Conversely, wealthy has become increasingly synonymous with conservative or elitist and nationalists are considered anti-immigrant and xenophobic. Bipartisan cooperation is few and far between; the recent government shutdowns illustrate that differing views of what is American, particularly what is citizenship, can divide our country to the point where it refuses to function. However, this polarization is fueled by a radical nationalism taking root in the United States. We face a clan-like nationalism, where there are firm definitions of what is considered a so-called “good” American. Right-wing supporters advocate a physical wall to keep out those who would corrupt the American population, and the alt-right is bringing back a nationalism rooted in racism and hatred. This has led to a liberal rejection of nationalism; however, it is not the theory itself they are rejecting, but the skewed interpretation of it present in right-wing policies.

As a movement, nationalism in America is widely deemed a conservative ideology, however, historically it has been utilized both by liberal and conservative parties as a tool to tackle major policy changes. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal is often touted as one of the most expansive examples of liberal policy in the United States. However, in defending the policies implemented, President Roosevelt utilized a message that would not appear out of place in modern conservative speeches; he proclaimed the need for a “safer, happier, more American America.” President Roosevelt’s “New Nationalism” was used to justify placing human rights above the right to property, regulate American industry, and reconcile the conservative and liberal factions of his party. Although present throughout history, this breed of nationalism is dying out because it tends to come from a crisis that affects all citizens, thus creating a sense of solidarity. For example recessions or wars that unite citizens around a common cause or against a common enemy. Additionally, modern liberalism is hyper-focused on individuality. Acknowledging what makes each individual person special and unique is far from problematic, however, the rejection of national solidarity because of its association with the right is. This leads to today, where patriotism and calls for “America First” are associated with hate.

Although it may seem impossible to reconcile liberal views with nationalistic policies because of this, Harvard’s Bart Bonikowski has conducted research discerning the different forms of nationalism. By analyzing the United States and thirty-three other countries, he has found that half of the population has a strong association with the “liberal national” form, which is marked by an inclusive version of national pride with a progressive leaning towards diversity. To be clear, America’s current brand of clannish nationalism is not the answer, however, the left should begin to once again redefine patriotism in the name of domestic prosperity. Former Vice President Joe Biden received heat for his statement that “the wealthy are as patriotic as the poor,” however, this is a step in the right direction. The left ought to take the high ground, and work to unite the classes, rather than divide them with right-wing rhetoric like “drain the swamp.” Nationalism can and should be used as a tool for political progressivism.

This battle begins with finding pride in being American. Patriotism does not always mean being proud of what the United States is, it sometimes means believing in what it can be. Having faith in its future and in your fellow Americans is the solemn obligation of a proactive citizen. For the right, this means rejecting clan-nationalism and the rhetoric that divides, rather than unites. For the left, this means continuing the fight to redefine what an American is. An American is not the hate filled narrative of the alt-right, where there are requirements that can be checked off box by box. An American is the Dreamer who has called the United States their home for as long as they can remember, the Syrian refugee who, like millions before them since the creation of this nation, have fled tyranny and abuse, and the countless individuals tweeting #MeToo, chanting that Black Lives Matter, and taking to the streets to protest all forms of inequality. It may seem impossible to find solidarity in these polarizing times, however, it is imperative that we try. Take what President Obama said in his 2012 State of the Union Address to heart, and “think about the America within our reach.”

In terms of policy, the United States must learn to embrace a responsible form of nationalism. It is not unreasonable for a country where the poor and middle class are facing inequality to push back against globalism. Harvard Professor Lawrence Summers notes that although the economic welfare of our country’s own citizens must be the paramount goal of any administration, this responsibility must not damage the welfare of citizens of other countries. In other words, do not act in a way in which profit is obtained through the unnecessary loss of another’s. This is a necessary pillar of policy because, in a world becoming increasingly populist, disgruntled citizens will continue to elect personalities who they feel are giving their interests due thought. Building a nationalistic domestic platform would need to cross the party divide, and address both urban and rural inequality, the role of race, sexuality and gender in discrimination, and insufficient trade policies.

We as humans have a tendency to reject things that we associate with people, places, or movements that we find dissatisfactory. However, we must not reject nationalism immediately; we must understand that nationalism is a tool that can be used to justify and encourage both peace and conflict. If properly utilized, the United States can utilize liberal nationalism in order to propel the country away from a populist future, and towards economic prosperity, social change, and patriotism rooted in the present, and not just the distant future.


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