Yoram Hazony’s book The Virtue of Nationalism has provoked an important debate about the virtues and dangers of nationalism. “Nationalism is the issue of our age,” trumpets the publisher’s description. A conference organized by Hazony in Washington, D.C. last year featured many of the leading figures in contemporary conservatism and provoked many strong reactions from journalists across the political spectrum. One problem with the conversation, however, is that it is not always clear what people are arguing for or against when they use the term “nationalism.”

We often call something a “nation-state,” but are “the nation” and “the state” synonymous? Can we, for example, understand what the Polish people mean when they say that John Paul II defended the nation from the state? Is there a difference between saying that the nation is going to war versus saying the state is going to war? Should we say that “the nation” is embodied in the leaders of the state? Or should we associate “the nation” with the will of the people? If so, how exactly does one know what that will is?

Some argue that nationalism is dangerous. Is this true, or is it particular states that are dangerous?

Some argue that nationalism is dangerous. Is this true, or is it particular states that are dangerous? Is the danger not “nationalism” per se but “statism”? If so, what kind of state is guilty of “statism”? Did the nationalism of the German nation, the French nation, and the Russian nation cause the First World War? Or was it a certain attitude of the governments of those nations?

As the debate goes on, the questions multiply. If we are to make any progress, we must begin by defining our terms.

The Nation

A helpful series of distinctions and definitions is to be found in the seminal 1951 book Man and the State by noted French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain.

The word Nation originates from the Latin nasci, that is, from the notion of birth, but the nation is not something biological, like the Race. It is something ethico-social: a human community based on the fact of birth and lineage, yet with all the moral connotations of those terms: birth to the life of reason and the activities of civilization, lineage in familial traditions, social and juridical formation, cultural heritage, common conceptions and manners, historical recollections, sufferings, claims, hopes, prejudices, and resentments.

Maritain’s description of the nation here bears some resemblance to Yoram Hazony’s cohesive nationalism, in which the mutual loyalty of families, clans, and tribes is cemented by “long years of shared hardship and success.”

Maritain, however, emphasizes the importance of not confusing the nation with the state. When that happens, says Maritain, we often find the state “trying to enforce the tribal and regional characteristics of the Nation by means of the centralized government.” This, says Maritain, will eventually cause the state to lose its “sense of the objective order of justice and law” in favor of “what is peculiar to tribal . . . achievements.”

Consider the case of foreign immigration. Immigration can challenge the social character of the nation, in Maritain’s sense. And yet, depending on the circumstances, immigration need not diminish either the stability or virtue of the political society. It may even be a great benefit. Immigration is frequently resisted at first, precisely because it appears to challenge the traditional character and cultural heritage of the nation. Yet immigrant citizens can be an incalculable benefit to a society, in terms of both economic energy and creativity. They often bring characteristic and admirable virtues with them that improve and enrich the nation.

Still, the distinctive cultural heritage of the nation is important. Modern liberal theorists who dismiss such local and regional communities and cultures in favor of a more “globalized” world are likely to provoke significant resentment from people whose definition of the good life includes service to just such local communal groups. Trying to get such people to forget their local communities is like asking them to forget their mother. The response is likely to be akin to the one Socrates gave to Crito when he was exhorted by him to leave Athens instead of accepting the sentence of execution from the Athenian court:

Did my family and community not bring me into existence? Did its laws and customs not regulate the marriage of my parents and my education as a child? Do I not, then, owe my life, my education, and much of what I am to that community?

A distinctive cultural heritage is important and valuable, and it is deeply human to wish to protect it as one would protect one’s own parents. Perhaps our debates about immigration are so difficult and intractable because there are reasonable arguments in favor of more immigration as a potential benefit to the nation and reasonable arguments for limiting it based on the potential risk to valued local communities and customs from a more “globalized” economy.

Living Traditions     

One need not be a devoted “globalist,” merely a historian of one’s own culture, to recognize that “cultures” are always amalgams. They must be strong enough to face the inevitable challenges brought on by the changed circumstances of history. We might then say of the character of a nation what Alasdair MacIntyre says about “tradition”: “Traditions, when vital, embody continuities of conflict.”

A “living tradition,” on this view, is precisely one that asks itself repeatedly about its fundamental presuppositions. A living tradition is “an historically extended, socially embodied argument, an argument precisely in part about the goods which constitute that tradition.” Traditions must have a certain continuity with the past, for “all reasoning takes place within the context of some traditional mode of thought.” Any attempt to do away with the resources of a living tradition would be like cutting off the branch on which one is sitting. It would be to do away with the shared principles and standpoint that those within the community use to analyze arguments, even arguments critical of their tradition. And yet, if a tradition is a living tradition, interlocutors can and often will transcend “through criticism and invention the limitations of what had hitherto been reasoned in that tradition.”

Purported “globalists” whose intention is to sweep away the customary and characteristic traditions and practices of local communities will not foster the kind of dialogue that can bring needed change, because such a dialogue in that culture generally presupposes the traditions, customs, and practices of that community. And yet, nations that refuse this self-critical dialogue entirely, thinking they are in this way “preserving the cultural heritage of the nation,” are simply shoveling dirt on the coffin of a dead tradition.

Hence, it is important to distinguish those challenges to the character of the nation needed for the nation to retain a living tradition from those attempting rather to set aside that conversation and those traditions entirely in order to replace them with another that would render that conversation one-sided and largely meaningless. A healthy tradition would support a discussion about its own traditional practices, positing questions such as “What is the good of the family?” It may be, for example, that the traditions of a particular nation have always expected that women would not work outside the home. The state may even have instituted policies to encourage this result. A healthy tradition would support a discussion about whether the practices and institutions that encourage mothers to stay at home with their children are still needed to support the good of the family, or whether they now stifle that good. So too, a healthy tradition would provoke a discussion about what the good of business is or should be, how we should understand that good in relation to other human goods, and how we should order the basic goods in order to achieve authentic flourishing.

The State

In Maritain’s account, the state and the body politic differ from each other “as a part differs from the whole.” The state is the part of the body politic especially concerned with the maintenance of law, the promotion of the common welfare and public order, and the administration of public affairs. The state is a part that specializes in the interests of the whole. It has the broad perspective needed to direct the affairs of the different members of the body politic toward the common good.

Although the state enjoys “topmost supervisory authority,” this authority is received “from the Body Politic, that is, from the people; it is not a natural right to supreme power which the State possesses of itself.” Nor is it an authority that can be granted by a foreign government or authority, such as the UN. Legitimate authority can only be granted to the state by the body politic, says Maritain, and only for a determined amount of time.

When the state mistakes itself “for the whole of the political society, and consequently takes upon itself the exercise of the functions and the performance of the tasks which normally pertain to the body politic and its various organs,” then, says Maritain, we have what is sometimes described as “the paternalistic State.” The state begins “directly organizing, controlling, or managing” all forms of the life of the body politic, whether economic, commercial, industrial, or cultural.

Afghanistan’s president Ashraf Ghani describes one sort of “paternalistic state” in his book, Fixing Failed States: third-world despots who extend their influence over more and more sectors of society to maintain their control. But another form, which is more characteristic of the developed world, is the paternalistic welfare state. In both cases, the sovereign authorities of the state convince themselves that “the people” simply can’t be trusted to direct their own affairs. This assumption becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. As the people are denied more and more legitimate avenues for self-rule, they have less and less ability to exercise autonomy apart from the paternalistic “care” of the state.

For this reason, the state may or may not be eager to defend the traditional character of the nation depending on what its leaders believe will keep them in power. So, for example, if replacing traditional family structures with corporate farming or manufacturing would enrich the state—the coffers of the central government—then they are likely to pursue it. This was the case with the forced introduction of collectivized farming in the Soviet Union between 1927 and 1933 and the compulsory villagization of rural Tanzania in the 1960s and 70s. In these instances, the state was not attempting to preserve the traditional character of the nation but to remake it by using its coercive power to make traditional practices illegal.

The Will of “The People”    

Why not then insist that the people are (or should be) sovereign? This is what those who proclaim themselves “populists” or “progressives” claim they want. We could, but it’s important to notice we rarely do. Rather we call governments “sovereign,” not people, which is why the representatives even of the despotic governments of failed states are treated with honor by fellow dignitaries from around the world at the UN and elsewhere.

But there are additional problems. How, for example, is the sovereign “will of the people” to be determined? As Maritain rightly warns, commenting on Rousseau’s notion of the General Will, the “will of the People” is not merely a simple majority—indeed, it may not be a majority at all. It is, rather, “a monadic, superior, and indivisible Will” supposedly emanating “from the people as one single unit, and which is ‘always right.’”

Politicians play this game frequently: posing as the voice of “the people.” “The American people are tired of these high taxes,” says one politician. “The American people want us to take care of the uninsured,” says another. Who speaks for “the people”? Who is authorized to express the general will? Once a person or committee or court has presented itself as speaking on behalf of “the people,” then others who disagree are taken to be “enemies of the people.” Voices contrary to those authorized to express “the general will” cannot be allowed to intrude, lest (a) the “will of the people” be frustrated, or (b) the people’s confidence in that political body to act as the authentic spokesperson of its will be undermined.

Who speaks for “the nation” or “the people”? The majority of justices on the current Supreme Court? Donald Trump? Nancy Pelosi? The broadcasters at NPR or CNN? A 51 percent majority of respondents in a Gallup Poll? Since there is ultimately no satisfying answer to this question, we have to wonder whether the “will of the people” is a useful concept or is simply another tool for manipulating the media and the masses. And if it is the latter, perhaps it would be best to recall that the Framers very purposely set up a republic of separated powers and checks and balances, not a populist democracy ruled by the tyranny of the mob.

Until and unless proponents of 'nationalism' sort through these difficulties and confusions, they will only be spouting slogans, not providing the needed clarity for a political project with any chance at achieving the common good.

Until and unless proponents of “nationalism” sort through these difficulties and confusions, they will only be spouting slogans, not providing the needed clarity for a political project with any chance of achieving the common good.