Should conservatives embrace nationalism?

A panel of Heritage Foundation scholars discussed why they shouldn’t on Monday, highlighting their views in a debate currently facing American conservatives and many countries throughout the West.

So-called national conservatives sparked considerable discussion at a conference in the nation’s capital in July and a number of scholars have been advocating for conservatives to more fully embrace nationalism as an essential part of their creed.

Kim Holmes, executive vice president of The Heritage Foundation and a historian, explained that Heritage has produced a document, “True North: The Principles of Conservatism,” which outlines 14 principles guiding the organization and providing clarity on policy issues.

In his opening remarks, Holmes noted two recent books on nationalism, written by Rich Lowry, editor of National Review, and Yoram Hazony, the president of the Herzl Institute in Jerusalem.

Lowry recently published the book “The Case for Nationalism: How It Made Us Powerful, United, and Free,” making the case for nationalism as a positive ideal, rightly understood, that is essential to future American greatness. Hazony’s book, “The Virtue of Nationalism,” defends the idea that nationalism is essential to protect liberty.

Holmes said that Lowry defined nationalism, in part, as flowing from a people’s “natural devotion to their home and to their country.”

Holmes quoted Hazony’s praise of nationalism: “The world is governed best when nations agree to cultivate their own traditions free from interference by other nations.”

“Lowry, Hazony, and others insist their definition of nationalism has nothing to do with the most virulent forms involving ethnicity, race, militarism, or fascism,” Holmes said.

Holmes questioned whether it was even worth embracing a term associated with such things.

“Why go down this road at all?” Holmes asked.

“If you have to spend half of your time explaining, ‘Oh, I don’t mean that kind of nationalism,’ why would you want to associate a venerable tradition of American civic patriotism, national pride, and American exceptionalism at all with the various nationalisms that have occurred in the world?” Holmes said.

Holmes said there was a distinction between nationalism and national identity.

“Nationalism is not the same thing as national identity, is not the same thing as respect for national sovereignty, it’s not even the same thing as national pride or even America first,” he said. “It’s something historically and philosophically different.”

“This difference,” Holmes continued, “is not about semantics. Nor is it a mere academic question. Rather, it goes to the heart of what it means to be an American.”

Holmes said that some “national conservatives” want to tap into the energy of populism and nationalism channeled by President Donald Trump.

“They apparently think that traditional, fusionist conservatism and the American exceptional idea are not strong enough, they’re not muscular enough,” Holmes said, especially in regard to pushing back against globalism, progressivism, open borders, and limitless immigration, among other things.

Holmes said that while he understands and embraces some of these concerns, he thinks that there is an inherent problem with turning nationalism, with the emphasis on the “ism,” into an ideology.

I firmly believe that not all nation-states are the same. There have been times in history when nations have been associated with racism, ethnic supremacy, militarism, communism, and fascism.

Rather than embrace this flawed tradition, we should rely on the longstanding conservative tradition of American exceptionalism. This tradition explains that what makes Americans different—what made America a great nation to begin with—was not language, ethnicity, or race, but the exceptional nature of a country that fused the creed of its founding principles with the lived experience of its culture and history. This is not ‘nationalism,’ and should not be equated or associated with the history of an idea and an ideology that is rooted in ideas and traditions that are foreign to the creedal nature of the American experience.

Mike Gonzalez, the Angeles T. Arredondo E Pluribus Unum senior fellow at Heritage, focused on the distinction of America as a country based on ideas rather than the ethnic nationalism typically at the heart of others.

“America was from the start the only nation that drew its authority from natural right … and remains so to this day,” Gonzalez said. “It derives its legitimacy from the idea that people are born with rights—not many, there’s not a whole panoply of rights—but very fundamental rights.”

These rights, Gonzalez said, were universal, belonging to all human beings, not just the people of any particular region or country.

“What is unique is that we are based on that, the Founders discussed this ad infinitum and they were very proud of the fact that they were unique in this,” Gonzalez said.

Jack Spencer, vice president of Heritage’s Institute for Economic Freedom, spoke about individualism as a concept opposed to nationalism.

“Nationalism essentially elevates the primacy of the nation over the individual as the central organizing principle of governance,” Spencer said. “Under such a system, authority migrates from the individual to the government.”

Spencer said that “once this Rubicon is crossed,” the country’s nature will be changed to one that empowers bureaucrats and politicians “to decide what’s in the national interest.”

He said that embracing individualism is not a rejection of community but is instead “a recognition that government shall not determine for the group how we each pursue our own happiness.”

Jim Carafano, vice president of Heritage’s Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy and E.W. Richardson fellow, suggested what to do in this political moment of rising nationalism and the confusion over its meaning.

First, he said that “a bumper sticker can’t solve the fundamental, underlying policy debate which has to be had, which has to be more serious than that.”

For some, Carafano said, when using the term “nationalism,” they are really trying to engage “conservative voters” but other people have a “darker, insidious, and evil meaning for that.”

We also need to be able to distinguish between sovereignty and popular sovereignty, Carafano said.

Holmes agreed, saying, “Our sovereignty as Americans is first and foremost grounded in the legitimacy of constitutional self-government. And we have a right to guard that sovereignty vigilantly. This legitimacy grounded in our form of government makes us different from a Sudan, Iran, or other authoritarian states who hide their abuse of their own people behind the walls of national sovereignty.”

“We believe in a state system because it’s the best alternative to global anarchy,” Carafano said, which had worked as a practical system of governance.

“The difference between a nation, where the people serve the state, and a state that exists to serve the people, those are I think two very different conversations and I think we have to be particular and careful to differentiate those two different discussions,” Carafano said.

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