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A Democratic Nationalism

An abbreviated version of this article was published by American Thinker.

Nationalism is what made us great, argues Rich Lowry in The Case for Nationalism: How It Made Us Powerful, United, and Free (New York: Broadside Books/HarperCollins Publishers, 2019). Nationalism tends to sport its particular flavor depending on who champions and shapes it.  In our case, it is democratic nationalism that makes us exceptional. “America is a nation… What makes us different is that our ideas are true. That our claim to chosenness has been better demonstrated, by our essential goodness and power, than that of any other country” (p. 14).

Further, our brand is that of cultural nationalism. “The preservation of the American cultural nation” should be our absolute priority (p.  214). It is a grassroots phenomenon, not mandated from above by any government. It is “organic and open” (p. 221).  No common culture, no more America. “In short, our culture is the warp and woof of the American nation. Throw it away, and we will lose ourselves as a people and lose a country that is the most glorious jewel in the millennia-long history of nations” (p. 232).

“Culture is seeded in ideas.” They are best expressed in the English language which “remains a pillar of our national identity” (p. 18-19). And we hear you: Neither Greek nor Roman, not a Jew or Gentile, we are all children of God fit to embrace, and to be embraced by, American nationalism.  “It isn’t based on hatred, instead on love: our affection for home and our own people” (p.  32).

Love fosters loyalty. Loyalty reaches back for memories to strengthen its sword of imagination via fostering continuity. “Memory is what gives a nation its self-image and its sense of unity and coherence” (p. 199). Memory preserves peculiar American traits, infused with a Biblical message, now strongly secularized, and peppered through pop-cultural idiosyncrasies such as the blues or baseball. And there is the indispensable mystical dimension: We relate to the United States reflexively through powerful symbols such as the Flag and Thanksgiving. In this respect, America’s democratic and cultural nationalism is a ritual of continuity. It is a story in need of constant retelling, of continuous re-affirmation.

In Lowry’s narrative, nationalism is synonymous with patriotism, and that is an indispensable virtue to defend and maintain this Republic and to guarantee its continued greatness. “In short, nationalism isn’t just old, natural, deep-seated, and extremely difficult to suppress, it is the foundation of a democratic political order” (p. 47).

However, nationalism is in disfavor in government, business, media, and academia.  Our elites have betrayed us, and ditched nationalism in favor of globalism and other progressive, and, ultimately, anti-American projects. They consider our nation, any nation, really, as an artificial construct.  Within this repulsive milieu, Howard Zinn emerges unsurprisingly as a particularly malicious bête noir with his opus perhaps too hyperbolically described as “a desecration of American memory that is the single most destructive act in the annals of American historiography” (p. 183). America is fake; it is an artificial construct – runs the progressive screed. To such treasonous defilement, the author retorts sharply: “Nations aren’t mere intellectual constructs but accretions of history and culture, usually shaped over the long term by their beginnings” (p. 102).

If this sounds like a MAGA commercial, Lowry should be forgiven. His is a common sense plea to reembrace American nationalism to save these United States of America. We are approaching a dangerous juncture in our history; the situation at home is much worse than it was on the eve of the war of independence in 1776, when the Tory loyalist constituted a relatively small fraction of the population and an innovating king felt overbearing not only in the colonies but also back home in England. At this particular moment, our predicament of national divisiveness slowly approaches the levels unseen since right before the War for the Union erupted in 1861. We are in dire straits, and it is unclear how much time we have.

To prevent the looming tragedy, Lowry has given us a primer on American nationalism. The author traces its origins back rather aptly to the Old Testament. Like the ancient Hebrews, the Americans are a nation out of tribes, predicated on the doctrine of “chosenness” (p. 88, 178) and bound by a contract. Granted, virtually all national mythologies invoke chosen people: by God or history, or both.

It is always nice, however, to feel special, and this particular American feeling translates into the ideology of our exceptionalism.  It does not matter that the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth achieved a level of freedom unparalleled in the world until the rise of the United States. It is a matter of indifference that the Danes are perhaps even more devoted to their flag than we are. What matters is our perception of ourselves as exceptional which allows us to excel. And our exceptionalism is indispensable to our national myth. Indeed, we feel exceptional in this world in many ways even if, currently, our exceptional attributes, including freedom and limited government, are slowly being undermined by the onslaught of leftism.

Next, Lowry draws a straight line from the Old Testament to America’s Puritan roots via a detour to England. One recoils from the author’s praise of various sectarians, including apparently the Lollards of the 14th century, as virtually an inspiration for the United States (p.  105). As earlier in Europe, religious dissidents chose America to set up a theocracy, and not a limited republican government. Their putative virtue of rebellion against authority attracts Lowry, however inexplicably. To invoke Edmund Burke, are we not to ask what the revolutionaries want before we heap our hosannas on them?  Again, the sectarians tended to want collectivism and paradise on earth. This is not the American way.

The author seems to confuse here revolution for freedom. He praises Henry VIII as a proto-nationalist. “Henry’s revolution shattered medieval universalism” (p. 87). What Lowry fails to appreciate is that the King eliminated the universalist context and replaced it with Byzantine Casearo-Papism of his rule. How is that for the separation of the Augustinian Church and state? It was truly a Protestant Revolution vs. the Catholic Reformation.

Nonetheless, for similar reasons, Cromwell and the Roundheads meet the journalist’s praise, and even the Diggers and Levelers receive a kind word or two. Thank God the author has eschewed ululating over the Fifth Monarchy Men of the English Revolution. Lowry now should read Norman Cohn’s The Pursuit of the Millennium and Erik von Kuehnnelt-Leddihn’s Leftism Revisited: From de Sade and Marx to Hitler and Pol Pot to understand the inappropriateness, for a conservative, of counting such a motley crew of fanatics among the precursors of America’s freedom. This, incidentally, feeds into the ultramontane Catholic criticism of the United States as advanced by Solange Hertz in her A Star-Spangled Heresy: Americanism, as well as squares with Charles A. Coloumbe’s Puritan’s Empire: A Catholic Perspective on American History.

It is truly baffling that editor of the storied National Review would embrace revolutionaries over traditionalists as the antecedents of the United States. He scornfully dismisses the Cavaliers, even though they encapsulated the political nation (natio) stemming from chivalry. They are the original nationalists before the peasants had even an inkling of national consciousness. True, many of the nobles, faced with a revolutionary fury of Cromwell and his ilk, turned to absolutism in self-defense. This is no different than a knee jerk reaction of any victim of the revolution, from Joseph de Maistre to Anton Denikin. That is the essence of reactionary conservatism. Extremism must be met with counter-extremism.

Yet, there eventually developed – out of tradition, and not revolution – an evolutionary approach to conservatism as encapsulated by Edmund Burke. His brand of conservatism has much more to contribute to American nationalism than the revolutionary fury of the sectarians. Burke was no Cromwellian; his pedigree (and not just of his Irish Catholic mother) can be traced back to the flower of chivalry in the 12th century, and his ancestors most certainly opposed the English Revolution’s depredations of Ireland. Why not invoke their glorious resistance to injustice as America’s inspiration? By the same token, why dismiss the Cavaliers en bloc?

But soon enough, however, incongruously and unexpectedly, Lowry admits that the elites of Virginia and other southern colonies had more to do with the traditional English nobility and mainstream Anglicanism (albeit, admittedly, low church) than with the sectarian rigidity of the Puritans with their fantasy that New England was “A NEW ENGLISH ISRAEL” (p. 106).  Horror of horrors, George Washington himself was neither a Lollard nor a Cromwellian! And neither were most of the Founding Fathers. Deists and Freemasons perhaps, they certainly were not extremist sectarians. So what kind of continuity with sectarianism are we talking about in the case of the U.S.? Lowry insists on a continuity with the English Civil War and protection of “the traditional rights of Englishmen” (p.  117). This is a rather peculiar definition of “rights”: for revolutionaries only.

There is surely a continuity of tradition, in particular Christianity in its variegated manifestations in the colonies. The theocratic Puritans were certainly a part of the variety, but they soon developed plenty of competition outside of Massachusetts. Yes, they were among the first on these teeming shores, but they held no monopoly on shaping America. Instead, we see a typical story of multiple points of entry by multiple peoples, arriving over time.

Why not give some credit to Catholic Marylanders? To the greater glory of the Virgin Mary, the honor of Charles I’s spouse Henriette Marie, and, perhaps, in memory of “The Bloody Mary,” Lowry’s Pavlovian bête noire, Lord Baltimore, launched this particular settlement as a refuge for Catholics.  They showed up on these shores soon after the establishment of the Plymouth Colony. Didn’t they contribute anything worthwhile, like persevering as a minority in the face of nearly uniform anti-Catholic bigotry, to the American project? How about Maryland’s initial settlement town of St. Mary’s City being the first urban center in the American colonies to institute religious freedom to all Christians, save the anti-Trinitarians? Doesn’t this count? I bet the presence of the Maryland Catholics at least partly informed wise decision of the Founding Fathers not to establish an official American Church. And they fit the American story much better than the author’s iconic proto-nationalist saint, Jeanne d’Arc, a rather incongruous figure here except to feed Lowry’s plebeian narrative. I’d stay away from her unless he wants to open himself up to accusations of countenancing the saint’s principal champion in the 20th century, the integral nationalist and radical monarchist Action française.

At any rate, culture is generated by increments, including the American culture in its melting pot. Lowry signals so but fails to include the Marylander factor in the story of the origin. This insight would have strengthened the overall universalist argument of The Case for Nationalism.

The rest of the story is pretty straightforward and should not be controversial to any American patriot. For the leftist fans of the reductio ad Hitlerum gimmick, Lowry stresses that Nazism “was not nationalism but supranational racism… Nationalism has been a current in the world for centuries, touching every corner of the globe, and somehow only the Germans produced racism.” Further, “true nationalism… proved the antidote to the twin totalitarianisms of the twentieth century” (p. 21).  Lowry gets it exactly right.  And he is equally on the spot rejecting white nationalism as an oxymoronic function of identity politics, a crooked mirror image of America-destroying minority nationalisms from Black Power to La Raza (p.  213). “We should hope that America’s racial and ethnic lines blur, rather than harden, under the benign influence of intermarriage, perhaps the best friend of national unity over the long run” (p. 204). Intermarriage, culture, and history rather than unrestricted emigration should drive the American project.

Granted, The Case for Nationalism is a plebeian and sectarian tale of the origins of American nationalism, but it should do a sufficient job, with some readjustment, of rekindling the American spirit for the great task of a cultural Reconquista and, ultimately, a counterrevolution to restore the United States of America to those who care about the nation. This is because, according to Lowry, most importantly, “our country… should come first” (p. 5). A corrective: God should come first, then the nation. Otherwise, we court a neo-pagan disaster. Aside from that, we are in a tentative agreement with the author’s solutions to remedy the contemporary ills afflicting our great country.

Marek Jan Chodakiewicz
Washington, DC, 26 February 2020