Saturday, March 31, 2018

The Resurgence of Nationalism

Politics is not a field where predictions are easy to make. We learned that from the 2016 election. People are complex. They want different, oft contradictory things. Although the Right is currently ascendant in American politics, Republican Representatives and Senators are not always unified. 

Without the spectre of President Obama to scare their base, Republicans don't have as much in common as they thought they did. They failed to deliver a legislative replacement to the PPACA. Trump signed a budget that was widely seen as a loss for conservatives. Republicans disagree on immigration levels. The Right's overreach and the disdain that many on the Left hold for Trump means that the Left could make strides in Congress in 2018 and possibly even win the White House in 2020. Who knows? But that's all movement on the political surface. 


I'm more interested in the underground political resentments that helped to get Trump elected in the U.S., made Brexit a winning policy in the UK, put a scare in the French establishment which has President Macron sounding like Marine LePen, caused Italy to shift policy on immigrationsaw the rise of anti-immigrant and racist parties in Italy's most recent election, brought the virulently anti-immigrant German party Alternative for Germany to Parliament for the first time, made Hungary and Poland turn to the right, just brought another anti-immigrant party to power in Austria, and has seen the Czech Republic refuse to take in any more refugees.




Worldwide, nationalism, often intertwined with white supremacy in Europe at least, has made a comeback. Nationalism has seemingly increased in China as that country feverishly claims entire areas of the ocean as its own, makes Mercedes-Benz issue a humiliating apology for daring to quote the Dalai Lama, and continues to steal or demand U.S. intellectual property for the benefit of Chinese companies. The predominantly Buddhist nation of Myanmar has carried out a horrific campaign of rape, murder and ethnic cleansing against the Royingya Muslim minority, denying their citizenship and chasing them to Bangladesh.

So nationalism is not something that is a failing of any particular ethnic group, race or nation. All over the world people who are more or less indistinguishable to my eye squabble over differences which are quite evident to them. Nationalism has returned not only because it was always bubbling below the surface in a witch's brew of chauvinism, racism, anti-semitism, sexism and every other "ism" you can think of listing. It has done so because too many people have portrayed nationalism as yesterday's news, no different from and no better than racism. 


The problem, as this article makes clear, is that currently the nation-state is our largest and perhaps most effective political unit. There's currently no other realistic way by which to define our political preferences and communities.


Politics in all times and places involves a bounded community defining itself, and its citizens ruling themselves, in contradistinction to other bounded communities. The community can be a village, tribe, or city-state; a nation-state; or an empire. Certain forms of government are better suited to certain sizes than others. (A small community can work as a pure democracy, for example, but a vast empire never could.) 


But regardless of the community's size, it always has limits (a border), and it always draws a distinction between those who are permitted to join the community and those who are not; between who is and who is not a citizen; and between who does and who does not get to enjoy the privileges that come with citizenship, including a say in making such determinations in the future. 

This may in fact be the most elemental political act of all, the basis of everything else the political community does. To declare that this act is prima facie illegitimate is to declare a foundational political act to be illegitimate. It is to treat politics itself as in some sense morally compromised.

There are many, many intellectually coherent answers to the two key questions of immigration policy (Who can come here? And how many of them?) — but many on the left seem to think there is only one legitimate answer to each question (Everyone. And all of them). This is ludicrous.


Although there are plenty of libertarian and corporate elements on the Right who are themselves hostile to the idea of borders and strong nation states for reasons both ideological and pecuniary, the people most profoundly and vocally opposed to such things have tended to be found on the Left.

The U.S. is relatively open to outsiders, having large levels of both legal and illegal immigration along with unconditional birthright citizenship. European nations, and many other nations in the "Old World", are often de facto ethnic homelands. It was ridiculous to think that all of those countries would be forever accepting of large levels of immigration from Africa, Asia or elsewhere. Heck, one of the driving forces behind Brexit was (white) British animus to (white) Polish and Romanian immigrants. So even people who share the same "race" are not necessarily overly fond of the outsider. If political parties in Europe and perhaps even the U.S. give the impression that they are just as concerned about the foreigner as they are the native born, they will continue to bleed voters, all else equal.


The good news is that all else isn't equal. By my standards, many conservative positions and parties are bad for reasons that have nothing at all to do with immigration. They would be bad even in completely homogeneous societies. But people can lose sight of that when one section of the political establishment appears to reflexively put the needs and desires of foreign nationals occasionally above or even at the same level as those of citizens. The recent government shutdown over DACA was an example of how this strategy can be a political loser.



If people continue to view all lowering or cessation of immigration as being morally beyond the pale then as we've seen in Europe and in the US, there's an increased chance of people who actually are morally beyond the pale getting elected to power. 

Globalization increased capital mobility and now labor mobility. But capital and people aren't the same. People and cultures aren't fungible. You can't suddenly move large numbers of people who do things one way into a place where an even larger number of people do things another way. It won't work. Reactionaries and bigots shouldn't be the only people speaking in nationalist tones. To the extent that people in the so-called First World have a moral responsibility to assist those in the so-called Third World more of the help will need to involve sharing resources and technologies, not turning a blind eye to mass migrations.


There is a progressive case for lower levels of immigration that neatly sidesteps some of the white identity politics that often inform such positions in Europe and the U.S.  As William Galston points out "unmodulated internationalism is breeding an increasingly unbridled nationalism."  It's as if some people believe that making any distinction based on where a human being was born is exactly as wicked as making distinctions within a given polity on race or gender or heritage. That's just not the case. Citizens should be able to debate the topics of immigration and nationalism without immediately going to one extreme or another. We're going to have to start doing that because citizens have one huge advantage over non-citizens. They can vote.
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