By Yaron Brook and Elan Journo
Skeptic Magazine commissioned the following essay for a special issue on the theme of nationalism (vol. 27, no. 4 / Dec. 2022). This article was reprinted in New Ideal.
America is being torn apart. Amid growing strife, many people are experiencing angst concerning the future of this country, a country once renowned for its exuberant spirit of discovery, progress, liberty. From across the increasingly tribal political landscape, one can observe attacks on the ideas that fueled America’s spectacular rise: reason, individualism, and political freedom. From the illiberal left the “woke” phenomenon has emerged, rising to dominance in cultural institutions and calling for “canceling” those institutions, symbols, and even thoughts it deems heretical. Standing in opposition to it is another new movement that promises to reunite us and rebuild a society true to the American vision. That latter promise calls for embracing the ideology of nationalism.
The movement to rehabilitate nationalism has a fervent vanguard. Among its leaders is the scholar Yoram Hazony, and his organization, the Edmund Burke Foundation. Under the banner of “national conservatism,” the Foundation has sponsored major international conferences. The most recent event in Miami, FL, featured more than 100 speakers, including keynote talks by Gov. Ron DeSantis, Sen. Josh Hawley, and entrepreneur Peter Thiel. The national conservatives are joined by still other factions, who often describe themselves as the “illiberal right.” And it was a significant moment when then-president Donald Trump thrilled a crowd at one of his rallies by telling them that he’s a nationalist.[i]
The reemergence of nationalism is a worse problem than it may seem. Nationalism in the last century ravaged Europe. Nationalists today would have us believe their agenda will somehow lead to different results. Despite wrapping themselves in the Stars and Stripes, they push essentially the same destructive ideas. The more power and influence nationalism gains, the bleaker our future. What’s needed to counter this movement is a deeper understanding of, and a commitment to fully realize, the Enlightenment ideals at the foundation of the American experiment.
America’s Foundation: Reason and Individual Rights
The original American political system was an innovation in political thought. For most of human history, government was an instrument of domination over the individual. Individuals were duty bound to kneel before some authority, whether embodied in a tribe, throne, or church. The individual was literally a pawn at the disposal of the rulers. With the dawn of the Age of Enlightenment, however, the ground began to shift. Thinkers such as John Locke advocated a fundamentally different view of the relation between individual citizens and the state. That political shift stemmed from a philosophical emphasis on reason. The individual, these thinkers believed, is capable of observing the world, understanding it, and discovering truths; and so, people could use their reason to guide their own lives. What emerged was a recognition of the individual as sovereign—in thought and in action.
Consequently, a new view came into focus regarding the individual’s relation to the state. The state’s purpose was not to dominate and exploit, but rather to protect the individual’s sovereignty. This view informed the Founders, and it reverberates in the words of the Declaration of Independence. The individual—every individual—has the rights to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” and government exists “to secure these rights.” When government “becomes destructive of these ends,” it is the right of the governed to abolish it and institute a better system that “shall seem most likely to affect their Safety and Happiness.” Thus, the state’s raison d’être is to protect individual rights, that is, to protect individuals’ freedom to pursue life and happiness based on their rational judgment.
It is important to recognize, however, that in the implementation of America’s founding principles there were contradictions and moral failings. The most obvious was the institution of slavery, which persisted until the Emancipation Proclamation (which only freed slaves in those territories still under Confederate control) and the ratification of the 13thAmendment (which abolished slavery throughout the entire nation). Even after those landmark actions, Jim Crow laws, which institutionalized legal racial segregation, remained on the books through the mid-20th century. It took the 19thAmendment, which was ratified just one hundred years ago, to enable women to vote. These were genuine, if much belated, steps toward a more consistent application of the principle of individual rights.
One feature of the original American system deserves special emphasis: the safeguarding of intellectual freedom. The principle of church/state separation fenced religion off from political power.
The First Amendment leaves individuals free to form their own conclusions and to express their ideas—emphatically including criticism of religion and the state. This reflects a view of the individual as capable of rational thought, owing no submission to dogma, and, above all, entitled to pursue the truth by their own best judgment. The unshackling of individuals to gain new knowledge about the world, without fear of retribution from religious leaders, would prove to be both a cause and an accelerant of progress.
Despite failing to protect the rights of all individuals, the United States remains a stunning example of the power of (albeit incomplete) liberty to fuel progress. Once a backwater of the British Empire, the United States became the world’s most scientifically, technologically, and economically advanced nation. The Scientific Revolution not only accelerated human knowledge but also instilled a cultural norm of truth seeking, replacing conformity to the specific dogmas of the dominant church. The Industrial Revolution, coupled with a significant degree of economic liberty, supercharged economic progress.
The myriad advances in science, technology, and industry demonstrated the power of the rational mind to understand nature and reshape it to serve the goal of improving life. Look around at the world we live in: Life expectancy in the twentieth century has roughly doubled. Refrigerators, microwave ovens, air-conditioning, televisions, and mobile phones are fixtures even in the homes of Americans who live in poverty. Thanks to the pioneers of Silicon Valley, the number of digital screens—smartphones, tablets, laptops—outnumber the occupants of a typical household, putting at our fingertips access to practically all music, films, books, and the accumulated knowledge of humanity. Medical science has tamed or cured terrible diseases. And during a once-in-a-century pandemic, biotech companies were able to produce not just one, but multiple, vaccines for COVID-19 in a matter of months rather than years.
These material advances, coupled with a culture in which liberty is protected, have made the United States a beacon to the rest of the world, an inspiration to be emulated. That is why the brightest and most ambitious people from all over the world have sought and continue to seek to immigrate to America. What made America such a success story? Its foundational ideals of reason, individualism, and freedom—and the human spirit they unleash.
Nationalism is hostile to all of those.
What is Nationalism?
Nationalism is not synonymous with loyalty to one’s own country; it is a specific political-social doctrine. The essential feature of nationalism is the very un-American notion of elevating the group over the individual.
German romanticists—the original nationalists—held that the “nation-state or folk-state was not a societal organization based upon human law with the purpose of assuring man’s liberty, security and happiness, but an organic personality, God’s creation like the individual himself. . . .”[ii] The German philosopher Georg Friedrich Hegel, a major influence on both nationalism and Marxism, did not see the state as an association of individuals, but rather as a kind “person” transcending and subsuming them. “A single person . . . is something subordinate,” Hegel wrote, “and as such he must dedicate himself to the ethical whole. Hence if the state claims life, the individual must surrender it.”[iii] The state, in Hegel’s view “is the Divine Idea as it exists on Earth.”[iv]
Because nationalism devalues the individual, it is at odds with the principle of protecting individual liberty. Indeed, nationalism is best understood as a species of collectivism. Fundamentally, writes the philosopher Leonard Peikoff, collectivism “holds that in human affairs, the collective—society, the community, the nation, the proletariat, the race, etc.—is the unit of reality and the standard of value. On this view, the individual has reality only as part of the group, and value only insofar as he serves it.” It is predicated, observed Ayn Rand, “on the view of man as a congenital incompetent, a helpless, mindless creature who must be fooled and ruled by a special elite with some unspecified claim to superior wisdom and a lust for power.”[v]
Nationalism is thus a cousin of tribalism. Both define membership based on accidental or unchosen characteristics (place of birth; “race,” ancestry, language). Both demand unthinking loyalty, obedience, and self-sacrifice, one to the “nation,” the other to the “race,” family, clan, tribe. Nationalism, unlike tribalism, typically relies on some theoretical scaffolding, enabling today’s advocates of nationalism to pass off their ideology as civilized. But nationalism, like tribalism, has a bloody legacy.
With its stress on “race,” language, and ascriptive group identity, nationalism is primed for in-group supremacism and out-group conflict. In Germany, the National Socialist party built a totalitarian state, in keeping with the idea that the individual citizen is but a cell in the organic nation. It was essential, in Hitler’s words, that the individual should “realize that his own ego is unimportant when compared with the existence of the whole people, and that therefore the position of this single ego is exclusively determined by the interests of the people as a whole, . . . above all he must realize that the freedom of the mind and will of a nation are to be valued more highly than the individual’s freedom of mind and will.”[vi]
When German citizens are merely fragments of the “nation’s mind and will,” and when non-Aryans are dehumanized as vermin, it is left to the incarnation of the nation’s Will to restore the nation’s glory, ensure its purity, and provide for its needs. Pan-Germanism, which predated the Nazis and influenced Hitler, had “demanded above all a Greater German Lebensraum (living space), overseas colonies, and a big navy.”[vii] The Nazi regime infamously pursued “Lebensraum,” it exterminated human beings by the millions, and it fought to realize the dream of German domination.
The twentieth century was blighted with still other forms of nationalism. Japan’s form of nationalism featured worship of a god-like emperor. Arab Nationalism, infused with socialism and Islam, gained authoritarian power in Egypt and Syria, where it led to stagnation, the exploitation of the subject population, and regional wars.
By the early 1970s there were assorted nationalist movements making separatist demands, often using violent means; for instance in Canada (Quebec), Spain’s Basque region, and the perpetually restive Balkans. The term Balkanization entered the lexicon as a byword for the disintegration of Western societies into warring tribal and nationalist factions.
Today, nationalism can be seen in Russian belligerence. It is a major part of Vladimir Putin’s justification for invading Ukraine. In a long essay, Putin claims that Russia and Ukraine are essentially one nation. Ukraine, he contends, is an artificial creation, which must be reunited with Russia, regardless of the cost in individual lives.[viii]
Nationalism is a repudiation of the sovereign individual, the ideal central to a free society. Whatever semblance of credibility nationalism may have had in the last century, it lost that on Europe’s corpse-strewn battlefields and in the gas chambers. Today, at the forefront of the campaign to revive nationalism are the self-described “national conservatives.” What reason if any is there to believe that their ideas will lead to a different outcome?
National Conservatism’s Anti-Enlightenment Crusade
Distancing themselves from nationalism’s blood-soaked legacy, those who call themselves “national conservatives” would have us believe that their ideology is pro-liberty, that it is in fact the path to restoring the American vision. But as with the nationalism of the last century, their vision is hostile to reason, individualism, and liberty.
National conservatism fundamentally devalues the individual’s rational mind, and consequently, it repudiates the principle of individual rights. In his book, The Virtue of Nationalism, Hazony argues that—contrary to the evidence—human reason is incapable of arriving at universal truths. He writes that, “no human being, and no group of human beings, possesses the necessary powers of reason and the necessary knowledge to dictate the political constitution that is appropriate for all mankind.”[ix] Therefore, he believes, it is wrong to regard the principle of individual rights as a universal truth. Instead, he downgrades it to a “cultural inheritance of certain tribes and nations.” (And as we’ll see, despite pro-liberty rhetoric, this view empties the principle of individual rights of all meaning.)
National conservatism is tribalism with a theoretical fig leaf. If you unpack Hazony’s idea of “the national state,” inside, like nesting Russian Matryoshka puzzle dolls, you find tribes; unpack tribes, and you find clans and families. Unpack families, and yes, there is a reluctant concession that families consist of individuals, but the basic unit of value is really the family/tribe. Binding the collective together are a common language, and history, and the self-recognition as a community. To be part of this collective is to owe your devotion to its “collective self-determination.” (This implies divining the “collective’s” will, by some means transcending our senses and reasoning minds.) Here as with 20th-century varieties of nationalism, the nation’s needs take precedence over the lives and judgment of individuals.
National conservatism repudiates the Enlightenment’s focus on individual sovereignty. Yoram Hazony, in a keynote at a nationalist conference, announced that “We declare independence from neoliberalism, from libertarianism, from what they call classical liberalism—you can give it any name you want—but that set of ideas that sees the atomic individual, the free and equal individual” as central to political thought.[x]
Will a national conservative state protect your individual rights? To have even a semblance of freedom, in this view, you have to live in a tribe or nation where that is a “cultural inheritance.” (Tough luck if you’re born where “honor killings” and female genital mutilation are accepted cultural inheritances.) Whatever degree of freedom you may be afforded is not a matter of your moral right, but rather a permission granted by the collective, and hence a permission that it may withdraw. Essentially, your life and freedom actually belong to the nation. To echo Hegel, your life is “something subordinate,” and if the collective “claims life, the individual must surrender it.”
National conservatism seeks not to safeguard individual liberty, but to exert authoritarian control. You can see this in a 10-point manifesto that Hazony co-authored, “National Conservatism: A Statement of Principles,”[xi] which bears the signatures of a long list of writers, political figures, and activists. The document puts forward several anodyne positions that give it a veneer of compatibility with freedom: an embrace of the rule of law; a repudiation of racism; the idea of constitutional government; a nod to the idea of free enterprise. These, however, are merely window-dressing.
The manifesto’s conception of the purpose of government is overtly collectivist. Government is not instituted for the sake of securing the rights of individuals, but “to establish a more perfect union among the diverse communities, parties, and regions of a given nation.” To serve the collective’s welfare, national conservatives call for imposing a “national economic policy” to command every individual and prop up favored industries (while somehow, miraculously, avoiding “cronyism”). In reality, this erects but the facade of enterprise, trade, and private property, while negating their essence.
The manifesto’s distinctive aim, however, is religious authoritarianism. National conservatism seeks to demolish one of the signal achievements of the American political system—the separation of church and state. This separation reflected a sober recognition of historical experience: the Old World had been racked by wars of religion and by the political dominion of one Church or another. For their part, national conservatives assert that:
No nation can long endure without humility and gratitude before God and fear of his judgment that are found in authentic religious tradition. [. . .] Where a Christian majority exists, public life should be rooted in Christianity and its moral vision, which should be honored by the state and other institutions both public and private.
Such a Christian nationalist regime, we’re assured, would protect religious minorities. Notice, however, the statement’s glib evisceration of the First Amendment’s protection of intellectual freedom. The national conservative manifesto simply states: “Adult individuals should be protected from religious or ideological coercion in their private lives and in their homes.” [Emphasis added.]
To say that freethinkers, dissidents, or atheists, for instance, “should be” protected “in their private lives and in their homes” is not to say that they have a right to freedom of thought and speech. That would necessarily include the right to voice and write and publish your ideas. A protection that extends only to your private life and home conflicts with that; it implies that you cannot hire a lecture hall, run a blog, publish books, release videos, exhibit artwork, or run advertisements to express your views. And why exclude children from such protection? Presumably, national conservatives are only too eager to see children in state schools indoctrinated in the state’s dogmas (Christian dogmas, here in the U.S.).
Moreover, whatever this protection looks like, it is conditional. The nation’s “collective self-determination” takes precedence, overriding any permission granted to individuals. It is hardly an original tactic to promise people a vague freedom that the government can later revoke, once it has seized sufficient political power and no longer feels obliged to put on a friendly mask.
The authoritarianism latent in national conservatism can be seen elsewhere in the “Statement of Principles.” In keeping with the goal of marrying church and state, the government’s purpose is not only to bring criminals to justice. Its mission also encompasses the imposition of a religiously-rooted morality: in areas “in which lawlessness, immorality and dissolution reign, national government must intervene energetically to restore order.”
And how, exactly, does a government’s energetic intervention against “immorality and dissolution” square with protecting individuals from “religious or ideological coercion”? Further evidence of the religious authoritarian agenda is contained in the document’s alarm at “radical forms of sexual license and experimentation” and the notion that government must foster “stable family and congregational life and child-raising as priorities of the highest order.”
These goals—policing sexual behavior, promoting traditional “family values,” encouraging child bearing—are shared by Islamist regimes such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, and, especially, the self-styled Christian regimes of Vladimir Putin and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán (fittingly, Orbán was an honored guest at one of the national conservatism conferences). There is a deep kinship between these authoritarian regimes and national conservatism.
Notice also the points of commonality between national conservatism and a political vision that came to power in the last century.
[This outlook] is a religious one in which man is viewed in his permanent relation to a higher law, endowed with an objective will transcending the individual and raising him to conscious membership of a spiritual society. [. . .]
Being anti-individualistic, . . . [it] recognizes the individual only in so far as his interests coincide with those of the State . . . ; outside of it no human or spiritual values may exist, much less have any value. [ . . .]
To achieve this purpose it enforces discipline and makes use of authority, entering into the mind and ruling with undisputed sway.[xii]
The similarities are marked: Religion as a political foundation. Subjugating the sovereign individual to the nation. Authoritarian control. These are the words of a political figure who elevated the nation above the individual; who allowed the facade of enterprise, trade and private property, while negating their essence; and who built a militant dictatorship. That this statement from Benito Mussolini resonates with the political vision of national conservatism should be disturbing.
National conservatism is an ideology crusading for religious authoritarianism.
In The Virtue of Nationalism Hazony insists that his brand of nationalism is narrow, unambitious, and therefore peaceful. Yet, by design, Hazony’s theory puts the life and freedom of the individual at the mercy of the tribe/nation, and so vulnerable to being exploited in the name of “collective self-determination.” What recourse is possible to an individual if his duty is to subordinate himself? What hope can there be of resolving disagreements peacefully through persuasion, if this society is predicated on sidelining reason and rejecting universal truth? What’s left, except physical force? Nothing.
These points are evident in examining actual societies that devalue reason and subordinate individuals to the collective. They exhibit an ingrained “us-versus-them” mindset, which leads to viewing outsiders with suspicion, if not contempt. How can disagreements and conflicts be settled in such societies? Why try to reason with “outsiders” who are inferior, wrong, or beyond redemption? Think of the Rwandan genocidal tribal war in 1994. Recall the “ethnic cleansing” and concentration camps during the nationalist wars in the Balkans.
Nationalism is notorious for conflict and bloodshed, and that’s fitting: it pushes aside the faculty that enables individuals to avoid and resolve conflicts through persuasion.
A Pro-Reason, Pro-American Alternative
Why abandon the Enlightenment ideals at the foundation of America in the name of national conservatism? Because, we’re told, today’s cultural disintegration and the “woke” phenomenon are products of consistently practicing reason, individualism, liberty and their political-economic expression, capitalism. Supposedly, reason ends in alienation, individualism ends in nihilism, capitalism ends in unemployment, poverty, despair, and misery. In their place, national conservatives offer religious collectivism as a cure.
Yet this is a fraud. Reason is our means of understanding the world, ourselves, and others. It is our way of taking control of our lives, earning self-esteem, bonding with friends and lovers, resolving conflicts, and creating lives of meaning. Nihilism and alienation are products not of reason, but of rejecting it in the name of faith and other forms of irrationality, a prevailing cultural trend. Moreover, it is not individualism but the focus on group identity and tribalism that dominate our culture. It is not capitalism but the betrayal of political and economic freedom that has been the theme of the past century. The economic upheavals and angst we’re witnessing are products of our refusal to uphold liberty—the full separation of state and economics—consistently.
National conservatism is not a cure for our cultural ills, but part of what’s ailing us.
But there is a rational alternative. What’s urgently needed today is a rethinking of the ideals of reason, individualism, and freedom—and a commitment to realize them fully, consistently, without compromise.
In the twentieth century, the foremost champion of these philosophic ideals was Ayn Rand. Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism takes reason, not faith, as the only means to knowledge. It teaches us to follow our best, most rational judgment, not treating feelings as tools of cognition. Individualism is the theme running through Rand’s novels and thought. The hallmark of individualism is a fundamental orientation to facts and a commitment to grasping the truth first-handedly, rather than obedience to authority or unthinking social conformity.
This thoroughgoing individualism implies a distinctive moral code. The moral purpose of an individual’s life, Rand argues, is “the achievement of his own happiness.” Happiness cannot be achieved by the satisfaction of irrational whims; it entails “using your mind’s fullest power” to identify, pursue, and achieve genuinely life-furthering values. And the Objectivist ethics of rational egoism holds that “human good does not require human sacrifices and cannot be achieved by the sacrifice of anyone to anyone.”[xiii]
Politically, the government’s proper function is not to subordinate the individual to some alleged greater good, “the public interest,” the community, the “race,” God’s will, or the nation—but to protect his freedom to pursue his own path in life. Rand wrote:
Individualism regards man—every man—as an independent, sovereign entity who possesses an inalienable right to his own life, a right derived from his nature as a rational being. Individualism holds that a civilized society, or any form of association, cooperation or peaceful coexistence among men, can be achieved only on the basis of the recognition of individual rights—and that a group, as such, has no rights other than the individual rights of its members.[xiv]
The Enlightenment bequeathed to us the idea of the sovereign individual, but since then this idea was attacked and marginalized. In Rand’s philosophy we find the philosophic validation, grounded in empirical facts and logic, for America’s foundational ideals. It is these secular ideals properly understood and defended that we desperately need today, not any whitewashed form of collectivism.
[ii] Hans Kohn, Nationalism: Its Meaning and History, revised edition (Princeton, NJ: Van Nostrand, 1965), 35.
[iii] Leonard Peikoff, The Ominous Parallels: The End of Freedom in America (New York: Stein and Day, 1982), 27.
[iv] Quoted in Kohn, Nationalism, 111.
[vi] Adolf Hitler, speech at Bückeberg, October 7, 1933, in N.H. Baynes, The Speeches of Adolf Hitler, 1922–1939, Vol. 1 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1942) 871–872.
[vii] Kohn, Nationalism, 70.
[ix] Yoram Hazony, The Virtue of Nationalism (New York: Basic Books, 2018), 131.
[x] https://youtu.be/4cpyd1OqHJU [Emphasis added]
[xii] Quoted in Kohn, Nationalism, 171–172 .
Photo by Charles “Duck” Unitas on Unsplash