Rich Lowry’s Nationalist Review
The problem is that his American nationalism is at once too small and too big, thus missing the mark. Here's why.
By Rich Lowry’s telling, the last great American statesman to make a philosophical case for nationalism was Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt plays a distinct starring role in Lowry’s narrative of American nationalism for both his words and deeds, announcing a peculiar moment for American conservatism. For several generations, Progressives like Teddy Roosevelt have marked the dividing line between the good Founding and the ill-fated late 19th-century turn toward historicism and relativism, along with all of their attendant ills into the 20th century. Yet the effort to forge a new conservative argument in favor of a form of nationalism, one that is not merely based on the philosophical commitments of the American founding, suddenly makes it possible to appreciate Progressives like Roosevelt. America, he writes, is not reducible to an idea.
Lowry thus finds himself attracted to certain Progressive strands that opposed the premise of America as a philosophical “project,” the same strands that led figures like Roosevelt to laud the historically-grounded nationalism of Burke, Hamilton, and Lincoln. While 19th-century Progressives rejected the philosophical Lockeanism of the Founding generation, they embraced Hamilton’s vision of a great and unified nation, one informed by a common history, shared ideals, and collective destiny. A hallmark of this Progressive national vision was at once to enlarge and shrink America’s devotions: Americans were no longer to identify primarily with local, state, or regional commitments, nor with the traditions and even religions they might have brought with them from foreign shores, but rather with the American nation.
At the same time, Progressives sought to forge a new religion that was possible to be shared now in a nation that was no longer overwhelmingly Protestant, a “civil religion” that invoked such symbols as the flag, a national history taught in common schools, and creeds embodied in the newly-inscribed national civic prayer, the Pledge of Allegiance. Progressive intellectual Herbert Croly—who is credited with supplying Roosevelt with the motto “The New Nationalism” during his failed 1912 campaign—was an ardent follower of Auguste Comte, the visionary French sociologist who argued for a new “Religion of Humanity.” Croly argued that the vehicle of this new religion was no particular church, but the nation itself, one whose membership transcended all particular churches, and whose mission was ultimately the perfection of humanity through a national political apotheosis.
Today’s 21st-century Progressives retain most of these previous commitments, except they have come not only to reject the nation as the vehicle of redemption, and instead now regard the nation as the single greatest obstacle to its fulfillment. They continue to deplore parochial devotions and limiting loyalties, but where the nation was once the encompassing human order that would transcend particularity and orient us toward universal belonging, today the nation is the quintessence of narrowness and parochialism. As is too often the case, American conservatives have taken up the banner that was all too recently dropped by the opposition, with Lowry leading the charge for a new nationalism that stands against the cosmopolitanism of the traitorous elite. However, like the Progressives a century ago, Lowry’s nationalism is at once too large and too small.
Lowry commends a newer new nationalism that flattens all the remarkable and genuine diversity that once and even today still marks the American nation. While he claims that a defining feature of a nation is a common and shared language—countries like Switzerland, Canada, Belgium, and Ireland notwithstanding—during the period Lowry acknowledges as a high-water mark of American nationalism, America was a multilingual and genuinely multicultural nation. My maternal grandfather’s primary language was French, as was the case for many French Canadian immigrants living in Maine, not to mention the many French and Creole speakers in New Orleans. Large swaths of the upper Midwest spoke Norwegian, Swedish, and German, and nearly every major city had sections where only Italian and Chinese were spoken. America was a multicultural nation during a period in which Lowry praises American nationalism, yet this fact is erased as he tells a tendentious history of a once-strong nationalism displaced by the rise of a new Babel. Through a concerted project of assimilation, the Progressives succeeded in a project of eliminating most of these distinct cultural enclaves, and Lowry proposes to finish the work through encouragement, among other things, of intermarriage of immigrants aimed at erasing cultural and religious distinctions, a sure path to a citizenry of homogenized, deracinated, cultureless cosmopolitans.
Lowry also commends “cultural nationalism” by encouraging certain holidays such as Thanksgiving and Independence Day as the basis of a shared national identity. But what of the annual springtime Shad Derby of Windsor, Connecticut; Scottish Walk Weekend in Alexandria, Virginia; Dyngus Day in South Bend, Indiana (just to name three memorable celebrations in places I have lived); and the thousands upon thousands of festivities and celebrations that make up the far richer fabric of shared memory and community spirit than three or four national holidays alone could ever supply? What of St. Patrick’s Day, Columbus Day (at least once upon a time), Cinco de Mayo, and the enlarged calendar of religious and ethnic holidays that have been a legacy of the variety of Americans who have populated the nation? A nationalism that asks us to have as our primary and even sole devotion the abstract reverence toward the flag, the American eagle, and a national history that leaves aside all the various particular histories of America’s many places asks us to love something too abstract, too distant, and too artificial. For good reasons, conservatives of a different era mistrusted this Progressive project.
But while Lowry’s nationalism is too big, risking erasure of our appropriate devotions to more local and distinct cultures, at the same time, his nationalism is also too small. Like the Progressives of old, he endorses a nationalism that takes on the trappings of civic religion and that, in effect, seeks to create a religion lodged in the nation that implicitly takes place of priority over any transcendent religion. Lowry quite clearly endorses this dimension of nationalism: in praising England as the nation par excellence worthy of our admiration and emulation, he takes the side of Henry VIII against St. Thomas More, whom, he writes, “represented a worldview that considered nationality as an accidental division and an incidental loyalty, a perspective that would steadily lose ground.” He dismisses More’s famous refusal—“to conform my conscience to the council of one realm against the General Council of Christendom”—as a stance on the wrong side of history. History, in fact, cautions us otherwise.
This siding with Henry—and, endorsement of the attendant philosophy of Thomas Hobbes, who commended the joining of Church and State with the political sovereign as head of both—throws into stark relief many of Lowry’s awkward attempts to dismiss atrocities and injustices of American history as so many unfortunate but ultimately excusable occasions. At various points throughout his book Lowry acknowledges the sins of America—foremost, slavery, but also treatment of Native Americans, Catholics, Mexicans, its imperialism and, today, white nationalism—and regards them in each and every instance as regrettable, but occasionally necessary (the decimation of the Native Americans for their backward economic order), and finally not an essential expression of American nationalism. Lowry concludes with the bizarre claim that Martin Luther King’s achievement represents proof of American nationalism’s inherent excellence—though, he admits, King “was a Christian universalist who issued a prophet’s stinging rebukes of the failings of his own country.” King himself understood, a nation that is not “under God” (added only in 1954 to the Progressive-era Pledge of Allegiance) is a nation too likely to rationalize its own interests. What does Lowry make, one wonders, of King’s reliance upon the transcendent natural law to which Thomas More appealed as a guidance and corrective to the nations?
Lowry’s book is most valuable as a necessary, if partial, challenge to the rampant anti-nationalism of today’s Progressives. As Christopher Lasch observed a quarter-century ago, America’s elite has increasingly separated itself from the nation, forging a global order in which they disproportionately benefit while accusing their nominal countrymen of backwardness, ignorance, parochialism, and, of course, every imaginable “-ism.” They are the “deplorables” who “cling to their guns and Bibles,” and who—in the words of a leading political scientist—deserve their fate, being “people of limited ambition who might have sought better opportunity elsewhere and did not.” The nation is the necessary protector of such people who seek to make a home rather than construct a launching pad, who rightly view the nation as the bulwark against a predatory globalism, superficial “woke” egalitarianism that shrouds rapacious corporate greed, and the self-serving disdain of urban cosmopolites toward those in flyover country. The nation is best defended on these terms—as the appropriate vessel of a broad, civic common good, and especially as a constraint upon those who would plunder the common treasury for their own benefit.
But the nation should also be defended as a “community of communities,” a place that is not itself most essentially a home, but a space allowing for the viable pursuit of a common good that makes a stable and good home more possible, regardless of one’s educational and financial attainments. Lowry’s book rightly reminds us that the nation is essential, but he should also have insisted that it is the necessary mean between two other excellences—those both smaller and greater than the nation—and that we should be wary of defending nationalism on the terms that were so recently used by those who today despise the nation.
Patrick J. Deneen is professor of political science and David A. Potenziani Memorial College Chair of Constitutional Studies at the University of Notre Dame. His most recent book is Why Liberalism Failed.