Since the nomination of Donald Trump, the Right has been embroiled in an ongoing debate over the correct roles of nationalism and idealism in America’s governing ideology. Our own Nicholas Gallagher, over at National Review, joins in with a piece focusing on the historical tensions between Jacksonianism folk-nationalism and America’s idealistic patriotism.
Despite the problems this causes for our politics, the answer ultimately, Gallagher concludes, must not consist of declaring one or the other anathema, but of working to balance the two:
[T]he evidence of both history and our present moment strongly shows that immigrants themselves are looking to join the folk group, not to abolish it.
In every wave of immigration, vastly more people return home than popular legend acknowledges — as many as half of all Italians in the early 20th century, for instance. Those who stay do so because they love America — both her ideals and her people. Often, they fall in love with a quite literal person: Intermarriage rates are currently the highest they’ve ever been, and on closer inspection this appears to be driven by intermarriage between and among our two largest immigrant groups (Hispanics and Asians) and “native-born” Americans. My Italian-Irish grandparents would be proud. As John Judis highlighted after the 2014 election, this assimilation is starting to seep into the political realm, too, as second-generation half-Hispanic immigrants vote more and more like the general population, just as other immigrant groups throughout history have done. Despite elite left-wing rhetoric saying it’s a dirty word and elite right-wing worries that it’s stopped, assimilation is happening beneath our noses.
The vast bulk of immigrants don’t want to join an ideological commune but a living breathing community — and are in fact doing so. That doesn’t mean they don’t feel an attraction to American ideals, just that in real life, it’s a mix. Think of the soldiers of the Greatest Generation or of this one, immigrant and seventh-generation Americans, fighting both for ideals and out of fellowship with the citizens beside them.
We cannot, in other words, square the circle simply by abolishing nationalism. Nor can it be something we put in a glass box marked, “Break only in case of war.” We need it in our daily lives — but we need to make sure that it’s the right kind. Ditto idealism. There’s a kind of American nationalism that wraps each citizen in a love of, say, the First Amendment because it’s our First Amendment, just as the flag is our flag and the land is our land. This is a much surer guarantee of our liberties — of our ideals — than relying only on those who’ve read Milton and Mill and been convinced by them. There’s a kind of idealism, too, that while it seeks to treat all men as brothers, recognizes the primacy of those men who are our brothers here, whether immigrant or native-born, black, white, or Hispanic, and is careful not to put more stress on our system than it can bear in the name of ideals. Then there’s a nationalism that is insular to the point of denying the Constitution — of defending President Trump’s call to “open up the libel laws,” for instance. And there’s an idealism that is suicidal in its insistence upon itself. The former sorts of idealism and nationalism are plainly preferable, and compatible with one another; the latter are inferior and incompatible — and unfortunately, lately we’ve been getting too much of them.
We recommend you read the whole thing.