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Op-Ed: What Is American Nationalism?

Op-Ed: What Is American Nationalism?

Can We Put It In Words?

Marking the centennial Armistice Day, Emanuel Macron called nationalism the opposite of patriotism.   Whatever his inspiration, his comment should spur Americans to consider what nationalism means to us.

Macron may have been channeling historian Timothy Snyder, in his cite of novelist Danilo Kis: “… nationalism ‘has no universal values, aesthetic or ethical.’”  Snyder quoted Kis in “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From the Twentieth Century.” This 2017 book is his warning from the “bloodlands” of his expertise, and the swamping of personal identity in chauvinistic tribalisms that has brought totalitarians to power.  His examples are almost all European, from the Nazis, Soviets, or Vladimir Putin.

America’s is an unusual nationalism.  The nation created itself in an explicit Declaration of Independence.  Most nationalities arose from mythical origins; no American nation existed until it declared itself.  The North American colonies shared only British nationality before the Continental Congress, and the Declaration’s signers divorced those roots.

The Declaration announced that a “people” was dissolving its bonds to another.  It only identified the new people as “we,” who “hold” certain “self-evident” truths.  Something that “we hold” – credimus in Latin – constitutes a creed.  America conceived itself in this creed.

The Declaration’s creed alone defines the American nation.  The rest of the Declaration only lists British violations.  Americans commonly cite the Constitution.  But that document actually promulgated the nation’s second state, effecting a “more” perfect, already existing union, by better “secur(ing) the blessings of liberty” – as the Declaration charges governments to do.  The Constitution is the nation’s essential edifice of state, but the Declaration’s creed sets the nation’s foundation.

America’s creed provides little of a traditional national identity.  It asserts only the unalienable rights of all persons, and that government exists to secure them.  It expressly defers to free individuals, each to discover and shape their personal identity by their own lights, be those traditional, avant-garde, or something else.  It actually fits one of Snyder’s lessons: to “establish a private life,” as totalitarianism is the “erasure of the difference between private and public life.”

This nationality is radical, and odd.  For almost all of history people lived hand-to-mouth, life was easily lost, and nations addressed human needs and fears.  Government represented an exchange, of persons’ fealty and obeisance for order and security.  Religions and ethnicities were co-opted, and traditions adopted, sanctifying the tradeoff.   Rights were conferred as privileges, by rulers.  That nationalism fits Snyder’s warning, and seems the real target of Macron’s concern.

French nationality has both an ethnic component, and its universalist tradition of “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.”  Macron may have been arguing French domestic politics on Armistice Day, advocating universalist tradition over ethnic identity.  America’s divide is not between patriot and nationalist.    American nationalism rests on the universal tenets in which the nation conceived itself.  America faces a different question.  Patriotism is love of country.  Just how does a patriot love an abstract principle like America’s creed?

Love is an emotion, felt as part of a person’s organic constitution.  Its objects are people, families, communities, places and personal ties, and the ways and means by which each pursues Happiness.  These objects of love are not separate from American patriotism. They are, after all, fruits of Americans’ exercise of the unalienable rights.  But neither do they carry the full meaning of patriotic love, even when viewed under the waving flag.  People’s freedom for their pursuits is, Americans recognize, the national bottom line.  Even outright racists have learned to argue only against what they see as special privileges for minorities, and to profess respect for everyone’s rights.  Even in their virulent emotional attachments and resentments, they sense the primacy of the Declaration’s creed.

The racist’s deference does not equate to love, but most Americans sense how the things they love have the protection of government charged to protect rights – and bristle when they feel that charge misapplied or violated.  We feel the unbreakable connection of flag to universally endowed rights, and the democracy, equality, and due process that guard them.

The political trick for Americans is to discern how any policies, mandates or actions fit, or fit better or worse, with America’s creed.  Judging, or arguing, the fit is a complex exercise, topic for another essay.  But America’s nationality rests in its creed, the bedrock object of American patriotism.  It sets a common standard for all Americans, offers fundamental guidance for national conduct, and signals an endemic commitment to individual liberty.  The Declaration’s creed defines a nationalism that merits a place above political difference, and American patriots should learn it all the better.



George Paik

George F. Paik is a former political affairs officer in the U.S. Foreign Service, as well as a twenty year veteran of U.S. capital markets. He is a current board member and former chair of the World Affairs Forum (a sister to FPA in the World Affairs Councils of America network) in Stamford, CT. His work as a diplomat straddled the fall of the USSR, and included political analysis, human rights, trade affairs, and environmental policy, in postings were in Brazil and Trinidad, and in the Department of State. Financial experience includes stints with Mellon Bank, Manufacturers Hanover Trust Co. and People’s United Bank. He currently holds the position of Managing Director at Lord Capital, LLC, a firm focused on international trade finance.

Paik graduated from Harvard University with a BA in Social Studies; he also holds an MBA in Finance from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He counts ten years playing Rugby, with club mates from countries around the globe, as part of his international experience.