Nationalism, cosmopolitanism can coexist
By TYLER COWEN | Bloomberg News | Published: May 31, 2019
Nationalism’s reputation was already low among intellectuals when President Donald Trump claimed the label for himself. “You know what I am?” the president said at a political rally last year. “I’m a nationalist, OK? Nationalist. Use that word.”
In response, Harvard historian Jill Lepore published a column titled “Don’t Let Nationalists Speak for the Nation,” in which she wrote: “Nationalism is an abdication of liberalism. It is also the opposite of patriotism.” Both of those claims would probably confuse the American people (not to mention me), or seem outright objectionable.
All of which raises the question: What might a sane nationalism look like — a nationalism broadly consistent with a centrist cosmopolitanism?
I start with a primary commitment to cosmopolitanism and the notion that borders are morally arbitrary. A person is no better or worse if he or she was born on one side or the other of the Rio Grande. For most of human history, of course, such borders either did not exist or were not enforced. If I see a bystander drowning in a lake, I feel an obligation to help; it would never occur to me to first ask about citizenship. And don’t tell Donald Trump, but I don’t even feel compelled to root for the U.S. in the Olympics.
The plot thickens, however, when considering more practical political issues. This is a world where just about all of the habitable territory has been carved up into nation-states. Regardless of whether that is your moral ideal, it is not a system likely to change anytime soon. Furthermore, at least since the end of World War II, this system has performed pretty well. Living standards have risen greatly, progress has spread and, for the most part, liberty and democracy have expanded. The recognition of these facts follows readily from a doctrine that I call practical nationalism.
As a corollary to practical nationalism, citizens and voters think of nation-states as very real concepts. If you suggested that the U.S. extend Medicaid coverage to the entirety of Latin America, U.S. voters would rebel. Furthermore, bureaucratic structures across the nations are not so interconnected, and cultural norms are very different. It is hard to imagine a sustainable reform of this nature, and one can be skeptical about the reform without regarding non-U.S. citizens as less worthy.
What about the European Union? First of all, it is an admirable attempt to make the world more cosmopolitan. That said, it should be judged ruthlessly on practical grounds as to whether it will succeed. To the extent it does work, it is probably because of a strong European history of overlapping national interests and cultural practices.
The hard part is balancing moral cosmopolitanism and practical nationalism at all times on all issues. Sadly, a fully open and publicly visible moral cosmopolitanism tends to subvert practical nationalism. Just about everywhere, a large chunk of people do believe that their way of life is something special, and this belief helps make possible the practical benefits of the nation-state. Those people are providing a valuable social and national glue.
One recent problem is that the internet has brought moral cosmopolitanism and practical nationalism into a more obvious clash with each other. It is easy enough to look at the nationalists and see them as racists, bigots, provincialists or, if you prefer, merely inarticulate people who can’t quite defend or justify their attachments. Of course, some nationalists are in fact bigots and racists, which makes those designations all the easier to tar them with. It would in fact be good for those forms of nationalism to weaken.
The best way for that to happen is to let practical nationalism reign, while at the margin seeking to soften it with moral cosmopolitanism. Both perspectives are valuable, and neither can be allowed to dominate. Each perspective, standing on its own, is intellectually vulnerable, yet the two outlooks together are not quite fully harmonious. It is this dynamic clash, however, that helps to account for the strength of each.
Try explaining all that, and its required background knowledge, in a 280-word tweet. Yet much of the world manages a pretty fruitful balance between moral cosmopolitanism and practical nationalism. There is a wisdom embodied in this lived experience that neither pundits nor philosophers can convey.
A tempered and centrist cosmopolitanism won’t always command the strongest loyalties, nor will practical nationalism always look so pretty. If we can accept that reality, then maybe we can stop throwing stones at each other.
Bloomberg Opinion columnist Tyler Cowen is a professor of economics at George Mason University. His books include “Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero.”