The Boston Globe
With Congress's recent rejection of the nuclear test ban treaty and an
upcoming World Trade Organization meeting that's already causing a storm,
it's useful to remind ourselves that there are two faces of nationalism. The
negative face turns away from global responsiblities. The positive one
embraces domestic ones.
Both give priority to "us" inside the borders over "them" out there. Both
believe that America should come first. Both depend for their force on a
nation's sense of common purpose. But negative nationalism uses that
commonality to exclude those who don't share it. Positive nationalism uses it
to expand opportunities for those who do.
Negative nationalism assumes that the world is a zero-sum game where our
gains come at another nation's expense, and theirs come at our's. Positive
nationalism assumes that when our people are better off they're more
willing and better able to add to the world's well being.
These are America's two real political parties. You'll find both positive and
negative nationalists among Republicans as well as among Democrats.
George W. Bush's "compassionate" conservatism, still conveniently
undefined, at least urges Americans to be generous toward other
Americans. The Republican right, meanwhile, is determined to turn America's
back on the rest of the world. Democratic primary challengers Bill Bradley
and Al Gore are engaged in a long overdue debate about how best to meet
the needs of America's poor and near-poor, even as some in the Democratic
Party are putting priority on fighting a new round of world trade
agreements. There may even be positive nationalists in the Reform Party
unless Pat Buchanan - an unreconstructed negative nationalist - takes
History teaches that one of the two faces of nationalism almost always
predominates. A society with a lot of positive nationalism is more likely to be
tolerant and open toward the rest of the world because its people have
learned the habits of good citizenship and social justice. Dictators and
demagogues, on the other hand, flourish where social capital is in short
supply. People who feel little responsibility toward one another will turn
against minorities in their midst and outsiders across their borders, in return
for promises of glory or comforting fictions of superiority.
Negative nationalists prey most directly on people who are losing ground
economically and socially. The recent resurgence of negative nationalism in
Austria, France, and Switzerland is especially evident among blue-collar
manufacturing workers and young men who feel the economic ground
shifting from under them. The ugly violence against ethnic Chinese in
Indonesia during the currency crisis there was also rooted in economic fears.
People whoe livelihoods are at risk find it reassuring to be given specific
targets for their frustrations.
Among economic insecurity's first scapegoats are always immigrants,
foreigners, and ethnic minorities.
A healthy dose of positive nationalism can ease these anxieties by softening
the burdens of economic change. When they feel especially connected to
their compatriots, citizens who gain from change are more willing to support
strong safety nets, employment programs, and educational systems that
help ease the burden on those who otherwise would fall far behind. And the
generosity of the winners in turn allows the nation as a whole to better
accept the consequences of free trade, open capital markets, and more
liberal immigration. But failure to choose positive nationalism almost surely
promotes its negative twin, because the losers are left vulnerable.
Nations now busily shredding their safety nets and slashing their social
spending may believe they're moving toward free markets, and in a narrow
economic sense, they are. But in the process they risk breaking the bonds of
positive nationalism and exposing their people to the very fears and
uncertainties upon which negative nationalism feeds. The inadvertent
consequence may be a backlash against not only free markets but also
In short, those who believe that membership in a society obligates the
successful to help those who are falling behind should not recoil from
appeals to nationalism. The moral force of social benevolence rests, after all,
on the preexistence of strong bonds among a people who share common
values and aspirations. Nationalism is not the danger. The real danger
comes in allowing the negative nationalists to claim the mantle of patriotism
for their own ends.