The Nationalism We Need

There are two faces of American nationalism-one negative, one positive. The negative face wants to block trade, deter immigrants, and eschew global responsibilities. The positive one wants to reduce poverty among the nation's children, ensure that everyone within America has decent health care, and otherwise improve the lives of all our people.

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 ours. 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 polit ical parties. You'll find both positive and negative nationalists among Repub licans as well as among Demo crats. George W. Bush's "compassionate conservatism," still conveniently undefined, at least urges Americans to be generous toward other Americans. The Repub lican 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 nega tive nationalist-takes control.

If you look hard, you might be able to find a few globalists who deny that America should come first. They perceive no moral difference between a flood in North Carolina and one in Bangladesh, a sweatshop in Los Angeles and a sweatshop in Ecuador, hungry kids in Alabama and hungry kids in Burundi. To the pure globalist, all are equally worthy of concern. I admire pure globalists, but I also wonder about them. For most of us, it's easier to empathize with compatriots than with humanity as a whole, and easier to think we can do something to help those within our borders than those outside. Pure globalists have noble values, and some act on their convictions, but I worry that globalists may feel less compelled to act than people whose sentiments are more rooted.

History teaches that one of the two faces of nationalism almost always predominates. A society with a lot of positive nationalism is 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 under them. The ugly violence against ethnic Chinese during Indonesia's currency crisis was also rooted in eco nomic fears. People whose livelihoods are at risk find it reassuring to be given specific targets for their frustrations. Among economic insecurity's first scape goats are always immigrants, foreigners, and ethnic minorities.

A healthy dose of positive nationalism can ease these sorts of 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 the kinds of strong safety nets, employment programs, and educational systems that help ease the burden on those who otherwise would fall far behind. And the gen erosity of the winners in turn allows the nation as a whole to better contend with the consequences of free trade, open capital markets, and more liberal immi gration. But failure to choose posi tive 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 political freedom.

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 pre-existence 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.

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