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Daniel McCarthy addresses stu­dents in a lecture on Sept. 5. Madeline Peltzer | Col­legian

Why has nation­alism come to dom­inate the American con­ver­sation in recent years, par­tic­u­larly on the political right?

That’s the question Daniel McCarthy, editor of the con­ser­v­ative aca­demic journal Modern Age, addressed in his lecture “Nation­alism and the Future of Con­ser­vatism” on Sept. 5. Hosted by Hillsdale College’s Dow Jour­nalism Program, McCarthy spoke to a room packed with guests.

McCarthy began his lecture by addressing the neg­a­tivity sur­rounding the idea of nation­alism.

“The word ‘nation­alism’ is very polar­izing and very trou­bling to many people, and for good reason,” McCarthy said. “They think of World War I and coun­tries at one another’s throats. They think of Nazi Germany, eth­nona­tion­alism, and white nation­alism — various crackpot, racist ide­ologies.”

He also acknowl­edged the more nuanced con­cerns con­ser­v­a­tives in par­ticular have with it.

“For many con­ser­v­a­tives, the word has neg­ative over­tones because they might think of nation­alism in terms of eco­nomic pro­tec­tionism and a vio­lation of the cap­i­talist, free-market order,” he said. “And there are many other con­ser­v­a­tives who think nation­alism is anti­thetical to fed­er­alism or European Chris­tendom.”

McCarthy sought to dispel those notions by pointing out the pos­itive role nation­alism has played throughout history.

“Nation­alism was one of the chief forces that brought down Soviet Com­munism in the 20th century,” he said. “You had Germans, Hun­garians, and others in Eastern Europe who chafed at being ruled by regimes that were puppets of inter­na­tional com­munism run from Moscow. Nation­alism was also part of the Western Allies’ ethos in the second World War and then later during the Cold War. Amer­icans saw them­selves as standing up for God and country against the inter­na­tional menace of com­munism and Nazism.”

In the years fol­lowing the Cold War, however, America’s foreign policy remained focused on lib­er­al­izing the world even while democracy failed to take root abroad. According to McCarthy, the American lead­ership classes con­tinued to believe in the idea of lib­er­alism as having ren­dered national identity irrel­evant. Even the idea of cit­i­zenship started to be viewed as out­moded.

“There was instead this kind of liberal conceit that saw humans eco­nom­i­cally, as either con­sumers or entre­pre­neurs,” he said. “Cul­turally, lib­er­alism tended to frame human beings in terms of identity pol­itics, such as being a racial or sexual minority, and not as cit­izens. In pol­itics, there was a ten­dency away from self-gov­ernment and democracy in its most unruly form and instead lib­er­alism became very much iden­tified with admin­is­trative control. The public would simply rub­ber­stamp their policies through elec­tions, not take matters into its own hands.”

By the time the 2016 election came around, the atmos­phere was ripe for a politician to come along and sweep away the old elites. That’s what pro­pelled Donald Trump to the White House, according to McCarthy.

“Trump’s message focused on Amer­icans as cit­izens and the nation state as a political com­munity,” he said. “He talked about borders. He talked about immi­gration and restricting it. He talked about American busi­nesses and the idea that jobs need to be kept in this country and that we should not be indif­ferent about them being shipped off to China. And in terms of foreign policy, Trump has been very critical of the inter­na­tion­alism, or even the glob­alism, that char­ac­terized both Obama and pre­vious Repub­lican admin­is­tra­tions like George W. Bush.”

McCarthy noted the cri­tiques of nation­alism that have been levied in the era of Trump, but he warned that the question is not whether nation­alism will arise but rather what kind will arise.

“Nation­alism is not inher­ently good or bad,” he said. “It can take dif­ferent forms. If a sober, con­ser­v­ative nation­alism is rejected in America, there is a great danger that we will get a radical and very nasty kind of nation­alism.”

The other alter­native, McCarthy explained, is the col­lapse of political com­munity into anarchy.

“It’s not that gov­ernment would dis­appear but rather that Amer­icans would come to feel they have nothing in common with one another,” he said. “Either they are iso­lated, atomized indi­viduals or they are members of ethnic, reli­gious, racial blocs. They don’t have common ground as cit­izens and Amer­icans from which to engage in delib­er­ation and search for the common good.”

McCarthy con­cluded by reminding the audience of the vital role the political com­munity plays in society and the good it can accom­plish when done right. 

“Human beings are con­nected to a higher and lower nature and a higher and lower realm,” he said. “One of the things worth pre­serving about the political com­munity and the nation state is that it too is an inter­me­diary between the uni­versal and par­ticular. A healthy nation­alism is a balance between the tran­scendent and the reality that we are embodied human beings who exist within social, familiar, and eco­nomic con­texts. That’s the great glory of political com­mu­nities.”

Joy Brower, a junior studying eco­nomics and French, said this insight that there is a proper balance to nation­alism par­tic­u­larly res­onated with her.

“He men­tioned that as humans, we aspire to the tran­scendent, but our feet are still on the ground,” Brower said. “I thought that was a really good way of putting it, espe­cially the way he tied it to the concept of nation­alism. Losing sight of humanity, espe­cially in pol­itics, is dan­gerous.”

Junior Isaac Kir­shner, an American Studies major, had a more mixed reaction.

“He was talking about the duality between par­tic­ulars and uni­versals,” Kir­shner said. “The question is which comes first. You must have both; I just think pru­den­tially the emphasis should be on localism over nation­alism right now. We’re getting a resur­gence of nation­alism, but we need to look at localism as a serious alter­native.”

Nonetheless, Kir­shner said he appre­ciated the fresh per­spective.

“McCarthy pre­sented a new antidote to the problem of lib­er­alism in America,” he said. “I’m not quite sure if nation­alism is the right solution or nec­es­sarily the con­ser­v­ative solution, but it’s def­i­nitely worth looking into.”