I love America and am grateful to be a citizen. However, I’m really more of a globalist than a nationalist. This is largely due to the progressive culture I’ve been immersed in most of my life, which tends to view nationalism and patriotism as slightly embarrassing, and even somewhat suspect. And now that Donald Trump has become President of the United States, my reflexive distaste for nationalism has intensified. Whatever merits might be assigned to nationalism as an abstract concept, Donald Trump’s version of “America First” seems just too ethnocentric to accept. The idea that America is qualitatively superior to other nations feels hubristic and immature.
Yet at the same time, I’m not willing to discard nationalistic patriotism altogether. In fact, when members of the progressive “resistance” equate nationalism with racism—starkly dividing the electorate into noble activists and evil fascists—this tends to rekindle my latent sympathy for the American nation-state. Failing to distinguish xenophobic nativism from healthy patriotism inevitably produces an opposite form of resistance that empathizes with the nationalistic yearnings that motivated sixty-four million Americans to vote for Trump.
Even though I oppose Trump as America’s national leader, as a proponent of democracy I feel a sense of civic obligation to do my best to recognize what is right and good about the political positions I disagree with. That is, because I believe that representative forms of government are morally superior to nondemocratic alternatives, I’m duty bound to give some credence to the wisdom of the other side. In light of the results of 2016, it is clear that the electoral majority who voted for Trump thought it would be wise to restore competitive nationalism as a governing principle.
American voters have, of course, made many bad choices in the course of our history. This fact, however, cannot be used as an excuse to roundly dismiss Trump’s voters as completely lacking good sense or good faith. “Deplorables” can certainly be found on both the right and the left, but roughly half of America can’t be entirely wrong. While history may well prove that Trump was the wrong choice for president, the electorate’s larger choice to reemphasize nationalism cannot be so easily dismissed as completely mistaken. Therefore, in this essay I will consider the wisdom of nationalism in the hope of bringing out some of its positive and enduring features that all Americans would do well to endorse.
Beyond a certain deference to the folk wisdom of my countrymen, as a globalist, I think the most compelling argument in favor of America’s reemphasis of nationalism is that globalism and nationalism are ultimately interdependent. Ongoing globalization as an economic trend, and globalism as an ideal, both rely on the underlying vitality of nation-states. If the international system of nation-state structures, which has prevailed since the treaty of Westphalia in 1653, were to break down, globalism would be severely set back. Functional nation-states thus provide the foundation for continuing global integration. And the viability of every national polity itself depends on a basic sense of social solidarity that is supplied by nationalistic patriotism.
In the twenty-first century, not only does increasing globalism depend on viable nationalism, but individual nation-states also rely in turn on global cooperation and the smooth functioning of the global economy. Even beyond economic considerations, national citizens worldwide, and especially the young, are encouraged by the promise that increasing global integration will lead to the overall betterment of people everywhere. Aspirations for increasing global solidarity and world-centric morality thus provide hope for the continuing progress of humanity.
Although the perceived interests of nationalism and globalism may often seem to be at odds, the reciprocally intertwined nature of these levels of political development points to their relationship as an interdependent polarity—a relatively permanent dynamic system that, if managed well, can produce ongoing positive social evolution.
The art and science of realizing the developmental potential of interdependent polarities, such as nationalism-globalism, has recently become the focus of leading edge management theorists. “Polarity theory,” as it is known, is now a thriving and even fashionable business practice promoted widely within the field of organizational development consulting.
The basic idea is that in almost every interdependent polarity, the strengths or virtues of each pole can serve to mitigate the downsides of its opposing pole in a recursive process resulting in synergistic progress. Polarity theory describes two basic kinds of polarity: ‘positive-negative’ and ‘positive-positive.’ Positive-negative polarities, such as ‘prosperity-poverty,’ present problems to be solved. However, positive-positive polarities, such as ‘liberty-equality’ or ‘competition-cooperation,’ are better understood as permanently recurring systems to be managed. According to polarity management consultant Barry Johnson, “Polarities to manage are sets of opposites which can’t function well independently. Because the two sides of a polarity are interdependent, you cannot choose one as a ‘solution’ and neglect the other. The objective … is to get the best of both opposites while avoiding the limits of each.”1 Stated otherwise, when the opposing sides of an interdependent polarity are brought together in an interactive relationship of mutual challenge and support, each side tends to ‘true up’ the other.
In practice, bringing out the developmental potential of the polarity of nationalism-globalism involves carefully distinguishing between the pros and cons of each pole. The idea is to tease apart the “dignities from the disasters.” Yet while this may seem fairly obvious, in our current political climate globalists tend to see only the downsides of nationalism and vice versa. So as a corrective to this “one-side-ism,” the chart below shows how globalism and nationalism both include positive aspects that every responsible citizen is bound to respect. And not only are each side’s positive features desirable in themselves, they also provide a perfectly tailored remedy for the deficiencies and pathologies of their opposing pole.
Positive and negative aspects of the interdependent polarity of globalism and nationalism.
For instance, nationalism’s patriotic loyalty can help preserve the unique features of our nation’s traditions in the face of globalism’s cultural homogenization. Conversely, globalism’s commitment to free trade and international cooperation can counter nationalism’s predilection for a bellicose foreign policy.
Acknowledging the reciprocally beneficial relationship between nationalism and globalism— recognizing that they are interdependent levels of evolutionary development—helps us better appreciate how these competing ideals actually provide the two legs of our collective progress. While our current political situation may oblige us to resist the xenophobic downsides of nationalism, our resistance will be more effective if we conscientiously affirm the upsides of nationalism that we need to preserve. Moreover, this kind of “inclusive resistance” also requires us to acknowledge the downsides of globalism and admit that we may have indeed over-extended ourselves in this pole’s direction.
As an example of how this might work, consider Trump’s attempts to suspend immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries. Personally, I think this is a bad idea that will make America less secure in the long run. But for the millions of good people who voted for Trump, his travel ban is seen as an important gesture affirming that America is not a global public utility that is unconditionally open to all citizens of the world. Even if such a temporary ban is largely symbolic, and even if it is on balance bad for America, Trump’s efforts to secure the border provide reassurance for his supporters that our nation is still sovereign, while reaffirming the larger value of nationalism itself.
Inclusive resistance, however, does not require us to condone Trump’s attempt to indiscriminately deport thousands of people who are already in our country. It’s one thing to prevent people from entering the U.S., and quite another to round people up who have been here for years. However, because nationalism and globalism are essentially interdependent, our ability to effectively oppose mass deportation will be more persuasive and effective if we acknowledge the need for a modicum of corrective rebalancing to strengthen the positive aspects of nationalism. Taking a hard line against every attempt by nationalists to enforce immigration laws only strengthens xenophobia.
The political key to opposing the negative expressions of nationalism, such as mass deportations, involves actively welcoming policies that advance the positive features of nationalism, as shown in the chart above. For example, such welcoming might include globalist acquiescence to stepped up border security. Stated as a general principle: when faced with an interdependent polarity like nationalism-globalism, the best way to forward the values of our preferred pole is to actually affirm the foundational values of the pole we oppose. This principle has even been embraced by leftist political commentator Robert Reich, who writes: “Failure to choose positive nationalism almost surely promotes its negative twin, because the losers are left vulnerable. … Nationalism is not the danger. The real danger comes in allowing the negative nationalists to claim the mantle of patriotism for their own ends.”
In this time of national division, the most effective remedy for America’s ills is to foster greater civic virtue. And if democratic civic virtue means anything, it certainly includes a degree of sympathy for the legitimate values of those with whom we disagree. When faced with any positive-positive political polarity, practicing civic virtue requires more than simply acknowledging our opponent’s point. We have to authentically value—cherish and esteem—the positive upsides of the pole we oppose. While this practice can be difficult, polarity theory provides systematic instructions for distinguishing each pole’s dignities from its accompanying disasters.
Understanding the deep political principle of interdependent evolutionary development—how each level depends on the healthy functioning of its predecessor—can help us appreciate why every globalist has a compelling interest in preserving nationalism’s positive aspects. those of us who want to see the further progress of globalism and the ongoing integration of the peoples of the world will therefore do well to honor the necessary and enduring values of patriotic nationalism.
1. Barry Johnson quote: Polarity Management by Barry Johnson (HRD Press 1996), p. xviii.
2. Robert Reich quote: “Good and Bad Nationalism,” in the American Prospect http://prospect.org/article/good-and-bad-nationalism
This article was originally published on CulturalEvolution.org.
Steve McIntosh J.D. is president and co-founder of the Institute for Cultural Evolution think tank.
His work has appeared on NPR, The Daily Beast, The Hill, The National Journal, and others.
This was marked as spam by Disqus. I read your article, and I need to make a few points (Disqus can kiss my butt).
‘Whatever merits might be assigned to nationalism as an abstract concept, Donald Trump’s version of “America First” seems just too ethnocentric to accept. The idea that America is qualitatively superior to other nations feels hubristic and immature.’
This is a terrible misconception the left and progressives have of people who want to put America First. It involves love for country, the people, our economy, education, and general welfare. This, in no way, is a nationalists way of thinking; “America is superior to other nations,” nor is it patriotism. Its liberal filth. I can make a reference to a former Pres. Obama and say; “A pig, is going to be a dirty, filthy pig, but it doesn’t how much you bath it, you can put a flower behind its ear, it will still be a dirty pig, that likes roll around in the dirt and sling mud.” I personally don’t see a problem with eradicating poverty, providing better education and jobs for the people of this country, before we go on a crusade in the name of globalization and act like we are the worlds saviors (which we aren’t), especialy if we can’t provide economic freedoms and opportunities for people in our country first.
Your premise / argument also fails to recognize America as a independent nation. Like it is recognized in our constitution. I for one, love and enjoy my independence, like many people of this country do. We do not rely on anyone or anything for our own well-being, but we know there are other like-minded people who are willing to make sacrifices and be public servants (even if they choose to abuse those powers for their own self-interests and call it a national interest – which 99.99999% of the time it isn’t because no one can speak for everyone, much less a plurality on every issue they believe is true).
Lol a progressive is a socialist in the brink of being a communist with a dream of one world dream true communist order