In defence of the US nation
Richard Reinsch reviews The Case for Nationalism by Rich Lowry
The late harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington, author of The Clash of Civilizations (1996), acutely understood the challenge that America’s academic and journalistic class had issued to the authority of America as a nation, one that could govern as a cultural and political unity. Of this cohort, Huntington proclaimed: “They began to promote measures consciously designed to weaken America’s cultural and creedal identity and to strengthen racial, ethnic, cultural, and other subnational identities. These efforts by a nation’s leaders to deconstruct the nation they governed were, quite possibly, without precedent in human history.”
The latest iteration of the genre was just published in the so-called paper of record, the New York Times in its “1619 Project” that claims America’s entire political and economic system was built on slavery and cannot be understood otherwise. America finds itself ensconced in this cultural revolution. But many now scream in panic that America is gripped by nationalist fever.
Undeterred by the ongoing repudiation of America by its intellectuals is Rich Lowry, whose new book illuminates the meaning of a modest American nationalism, which he explicates and defends on the levels of culture, politics, and national character. Lowry’s book also provides a generalist approach to understanding the centrality of national loyalty for providing order and stability. His task, though, faces incredible opposition throughout the West.
Lowry opens with an observation from the 2018 centennial commemoration of World War I, which gathered world leaders in Paris for the occasion. French president Emmanuel Macron remarked, “Nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism. By saying ‘Our interests first, who cares about the others,’ we erase what a nation holds dearest, what gives it life, what makes it great and what is essential: its moral values.” Macron intended his remarks to impugn President Trump. Lowry notes that while Macron’s “speech played to near-universal praise, it garbled the definitions of patriotism and nationalism . . . and posited a conflict between nationalism and values that doesn’t exist (or doesn’t have to).” Macron appealed to the widely held sentiment that nationalism is aggressive, ambitious, and aims to marginalise liberalism, tolerance, and equality.
Where nationalism’s opponents impute the worst motives to it, Lowry argues that the nation and its law, culture, language, and shared memories are the precondition of political order and of diverse groups living together as cooperative citizens. The seminal factor is that “National loyalty gives everyone in society a common interest that is deeper than any specific power struggle. It transcends tribe and sect.” Lowry appropriately invokes Roger Scruton’s notion that the nation “renders a society . . . in the first-person plural ‘we’.” The fruits of such loyalty and membership “make(s) possible the social trust that lubricates everyday life and the market economy”. If you want peace, work for national devotion properly understood.
America’s twentieth- century rise was made possible by its cultivated unity
Editor of America’s foremost conservative journal, National Review, Lowry picks a fight with the constant refrain that “America is an idea”, the exact words used by leading Democratic Party presidential candidate Joe Biden to launch his campaign. Lowry quotes an array of conservative and progressive politicians, journalists and academics to drive home this point. The locus of the “idea” is the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence that contains the well-worn lines: “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” In practice, this reduces to constant evocations of America as a universal state dedicated to freedom and equality and whatever specific content you impute to these words.
Lowry firmly rejects this. He roots the American nation in the history, culture, mores, habits and practices of the American people. This is common sense, and as Lowry notes “culture is seeded with ideas”. To put a fine point on it, Lowry asks, “Would America be the same if its people spoke Russian, the language of a country that has never effectively supported property rights, the rule of law, or limited government, rather than English?”
Lowry’s robust defence of the American nation as a political and cultural unity roots its foundations in the English language, Protestant biblical theology and English constitutionalism, and how these provided a basis for constitutional liberty and a “national character” that wider groups of later-arriving immigrants could accept as their own. English political history “exposes as a smear” the teaching that nationalism is a step towards fascism or authoritarian government. Lowry’s book defending American nationalism touches on key elements of English national political development that were fired by the English Reformation and the English Bible, the chosen nation of Queen Elizabeth, the dissenting Puritans, and the rise of Parliament against the House of Stuart.
These parts are discussed because it’s this religious and political history that will be ingrained in the souls of the Puritan settlers who will shape colonial New England with belief in their “chosenness, the idea of the Covenant, and the King James Bible”. Implicit in this judgment is that Puritan New England became the seedbed of American constitutionalism as a whole.
Many nations understand themselves to be chosen for greatness in some sense, but New England colonists acted on this belief by establishing biblical commonwealths legally governed by a Covenant they made with God. The vernacular Bible fired their imagination and understanding of their mission. Upholding the Covenant required holiness and fidelity to God’s word. This practice of Covenanting would shape many colonial governments in North America, facts richly demonstrated by Willmoore Kendall and George Carey’s The Basic Symbols of the American Political Tradition (1970). In time, this religiously rigorous understanding would become about the choice of republican government under a secular constitution.
Lowry also notes the English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution of 1688 for the political teaching they offered the colonists about political liberty and representative government. The defence of the English constitutional tradition against perceived tyrants is the real anchor of the Declaration, a document that contains numerous English rights of the colonists that were violated, they insisted, by the King and Parliament. These are facts Lowry might have done more with in shoring up America’s basis in English constitutionalism and for how it shaped American constitutionalism, i.e. most of the grievances in the Declaration find expression in the Constitution of 1787.
This book is a worthy attempt at a most difficult project, the defence of the American nation. It touches on the key pieces that have been crucial to building a grand, continental republic: the War for Independence, the ratification of the Constitution, continental expansion and settlement, the Civil War and its final forging of the nation. The twentieth century witnessed America’s rise, something made possible by its cultivated unity. Notable for Lowry is how America handled high levels of immigration in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a trend not reversed until the Immigration Act of 1924 and its national quota system that sharply limited the numbers of new arrivals. He looks to President Theodore Roosevelt (TR), who served as the twenty-sixth president (1901-1909), for a guide on immigration that supports the nation and as an example of an admirable nationalism. TR stressed assimilation: “We welcome the German or the Irishman who becomes an American,” but “We have no use for the German or Irishman who remains such.” He went on: “He must revere only our flag; not only must it come first, but no other flag should even come second.”
Many nations understand themselves to be chosen for greatness, but New England colonists acted on this belief
TR, though, is a problematic figure for many in America, progressive, conservative and otherwise. He helped build foundational pieces of America’s massive administrative state, glorified war in certain statements, and made some undeniably racist comments. To his credit, Lowry acknowledges these flaws, but he also stresses TR’s incredible love for America and his desire to use its power well, laying the foundation “for the American nationalism that defined much of the twentieth century”. Lowry’s nod to TR is appropriate precisely for his difficult legacy. Rather than dismiss America for its warts, its patriots must love it in full.
There is something precious about the strength of the American nation, Lowry is arguing. This fact may seem a bit much given the force and power of America. However, what Lowry is keen to note is the close-run nature of America’s national development. The cohesion of America, its unity in the twentieth century, that gave it the capacity to be a crucial partner for victory in World War II, and to doom the Soviet Union with its economic and technological prowess later in the century, was an achievement. He notes that both the famous New Deal president Franklin Roosevelt along with the conservative president Ronald Reagan found a home in and made strident appeals to American nationalism. Translation: it’s a capacious tradition.
American nationhood, though, was forged against many hostile forces. It can also be lost in the face of other contemporary forces. Lowry points to the Trahison des clercs as one outsized oppositional force. “The beginning of our discontent wasn’t nationalism but its breakdown in the 1970s,” he observes. Elements of the New Left in the late 1960s and early 1970s could not find their home in this tradition. Their homelessness metastasised as they moved into the institutions of cultural and educational power in succeeding decades where they spread their discontent with their country. Their ongoing project has thoroughly infected education in America, most notably in elite private settings but throughout our state-run system. Lowry points to the Marxist historian Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States (1980) as representative of this project. The book is a monotone socialist screed accusing America of having built itself on theft, murder, genocide and rapacious profits. To date it has sold millions of copies; its lies and ideological mythology have earned it a continued audience in American secondary and higher education.
Lowry means to recall American nationalism and its roots in order that his countrymen might again know the details of their nation’s greatness. The American nation has repeatedly been called to triumph over those who deny its goodness and authority to govern in its own name. It must do so again, but its opponents now occupy many of the commanding heights of its central institutions of power.
Will the Covenant be unbroken?
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe