A National Man of Mystery

Anyone who knows anything about the first half of the 20th century knows that the concept of “nation” has a lot to answer for. We have such familiarity with it that we need not rehash the sins of “nationality” here. Slightly less obvious might be the impact, or pendulum swing we experienced in the second half of the 20th century towards the individual related to the state, or the community. This manifested itself in a variety of ways:

  • The proliferation of international bodies like the EU, G-8, World Bank, IMF, etc.
  • Expansion of global markets, facilitated by the internet and the removal of boundaries on communication and information
  • Significant expansion of media technologies that allow us to radically personalize our world everywhere we go, like Facebook, iTunes, Netflix, etc.
  • Removal of barriers to self-expression, encapsulated in the hey-day of free speech in the 1960’s, and now, with the end of traditional beliefs and social norms about gender and sexuality.*

But, if the pendulum swung too far in one direction from 1900-1960, many think that it has gone too far in the other direction (i.e., Bowling Alone, Why Liberalism Failed, etc.). Some form of such swings might be inevitable from a historical perspective, and might even be healthy when mild, as it might prevent stagnation. But dramatic swings destabilize societies and make it harder to get our bearings. At such times, terrible mistakes can occur.

Over the past 5-10 years we have witnessed the reemergence of national populism. In America, the phenomena manifested itself with Trump’s election, but almost every democracy in the western world has dealt with this, both in old and established democracies (Brexit, Marie le Pen), and relatively new ones (Poland, Hungary, etc.). Some see in national populism the dreaded extreme pendulum swing, but authors Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin disagree. In their book National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy, they seek not to praise or bury the phenomena, but to understand its reasons for being and the nuances of the movement. Some critics of the book see it as a sympathetic defense of right-leaning populism, a Marc Antony style bait and switch. Instead, I view the book as a careful delineation of the nuances of the movement. Above all, we must resist the urge to cast the label “Fascist,” to all or even most manifestations of national populism. Yes, the authors believe that certain populist leaders have dangerous leanings, but others simply seek to stand against real/perceived excesses of progressive ideology. We must exercise caution in our examination.

The authors first remind readers that populist movements have always existed within democratic governments. Greece had so much direct participation that it scared off our own founders. Rome’s Republic often existed in uneasy tension with more populist strains. More recently, America has seen populist presidents like Andrew Jackson, and to some extent, Teddy Roosevelt, in addition to various populist governors like Huey Long. Some may dislike all of these leaders on balance, but even if one did, democracy survived, and the country stayed far away from “fascism” or even overt nationalism. Of course, we could arguethat, given the horrors of how national populism operated in Germany from 1933-45, we should avoid even minute drops of it.

Eatwell and Goodwin think that this both unfair and unrealistic. They distinguish between fascism and populism in a variety of ways. Fascist regimes have a strong racial ideology, they often wish to expand territorially, and they often have apocalyptic goals. But even if the similarities were more acute, we simply cannot avoid populism if we wish to remain democratic–we cannot ignore the “voice of the people” in a democracy.

I have sympathy for Eatwell and Goodwin’s presentation of their ideas, though I have written before that I think that democratic societies need “elites.” The question comes to, “What kind of elites?” It seems too easy to say that we need elites with connections to the “common man,” “on the ground,” but so it goes. The “elite” culture of Periclean Athens was a very public culture, accessible to the people (recall the free theater performances of plays). Their leaders often competed with one another as to who served in office, who led armies, and so on. Roman elites were likewise quite civically minded, and for much of the Republic’s history patricians did not greatly exceed the wealth of the plebs–and when this gap widened tremendously after the 3rd Punic War so began the breakdown of the Republic (one factor among many, to be sure). Medieval elites lived in castles, but defended the realm, and were obliged to host a variety of festivals and parties for their tenants. They socially mixed frequently with peasants. Our own founding fathers took great risks and served in the army. Some of them had farms or worked as ordinary town lawyers, again, with strong connections to the “common man.”

Perhaps the chicken of the Republican right in the 1990’s, starting perhaps with Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh, pushed the left farther from the center. Or perhaps the egg of the radical progressive ideologies about immigration, abortion, sexuality, etc. have made it hard to maintain something of a traditional conservatism. Or possibly grander historical forces play upon us, or maybe still, we are now experiencing something cyclical akin to the changing of seasons. Whatever the cause, we now have elites at universities, in Hollywood, in Silicon Valley, and in certain segments of the media (a short list that I know does not apply equally everyehere) that drive the agenda of much of the left throughout the democratic world, and I think this is the main cause for the rise of populism.

For example . . .

  • We “know” that “Empire” is a bad word
  • “Nation” is increasingly becoming a bad word in certain circles
  • In the U.S. at least, we don’t want to give much autonomy to states or local communities to decide things, to have any variance on issues that divide us like abortion, gender, sexuality, immigration, etc.

So, all that certain segments of the political spectrum will leave us with is a stateless individualism with no unifying theme, culture, or nod to tradition. Very few can live in such a way or have ever lived in such a way. Older, more personal and familial conceptions of political realities, such as the “realms” of medieval kings, will not return any time soon.

So it appears that, unless we want civil wars across the western world**, we are stuck with the political entity of nations.

I concede, with Benedict Anderson, that there is something mysterious and imaginary about nations, but they undeniably exist, and people want some sense of identity within them. For that to happen, they need to take their bearings and locate themselves within the culture. The ancients often equated the formless and boundless ocean with chaos–moderns with freedom, and this might hint at the differences in how we interpret the meaning of our communities then and now. Nations may have less of a concrete reality than a particular individual, but for people to be truly human we need connections with others. These connections can only come with the presence of trust and familiarity. Dramatic change in law, demographics, and ideology make this hard to come by.

One reviewer rightly pointed out that whereas Eatwell and Goodwin take pains to point out the complexity and nuances of populist movements, populist movements themselves reject complexity–the problems we face have self-evident solutions. Maybe so, but I think that, as academic “elites,” Eatwell and Goodwin do one good turn towards rectifying the gap between elites and the common man. They have at least written a serious book about the “average Joe.”

For those who fear this movement on the right and the left, I would suggest them giving us something for us to feel tangible pride in as a nation. The right too often resorts to our expanded freedom to consume, but this comes from the nameless, faceless market–a stark contrast to what “going to market” meant in bygone eras. Many on the left constantly undermine our cultural inheritance and see the past and present as nothing but evil. They would offer instead foolish fantasies of a future that will always reside outside of our grasp. Neither approach will help us build a reasonable national identity and pride, and so neither approach will prevent the global rise of national populism.


*Free speech today is under attack on campus’ especially, which is ironic considering the modern free speech movement had its birth at the university. Perhaps this means that free speech is at its most vibrant when a) People wish to challenge the existing order, and b) The existing order is at least partially out of alignment with the rest of the culture, and thus ripe for a “fall” of sorts. Free speech in those contexts might just look like “saying what everyone is thinking (or at least the “right” “everyone”). Today there are plenty of people who fit into the first category, but perhaps the prevailing orthodoxy is not yet ready to fall, backed as it is not just by cultural elites but also most businesses. In the 60’s, the main forms of national culture sided with those challenging the existing moral and political order.

Also, free speech can never be an absolute value even in the context of academic freedom. For example, one might imagine a hypothetical Professor Smith, who advocates with extended argument an absurd defense of Jim Crow laws. Whether public or private, no college should allow his continued employment. The problems today are that 1) Such standards are very unevenly applied, with very slippery standards used to decide what is racist and what is not, and 2) Standards get formed very quickly that alienate, at minimum, very large numbers of people with different opinions that until quite recently were quite acceptable–one recalls President Obama’s support for traditional marriage in 2008, and 3) One can get “mobbed” for things far less than careful, systematically expressed thoughts.

**I dread the possibility, but could the U.S. separate into “Red” and “Blue” nations peacefully? One thinks of the famous dictum from the Chinese epic, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, which states, “The empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide.” Maybe, possibly, we should not view the political union of the states as an absolutely fixed good. New York and Texas could easily go their separate ways, but what about the swing states, like Ohio and Florida? Like Kansas in 1854, one can imagine a frightful spectacle of their destiny decided by a few thousand votes one way or the other.

The lack of geographic contiguity would make the prospect difficult even with no violence, and so we would have the problem of 4-5 separate nations, new constitutions, etc. While nodding to the hypothetical possibly, we should do all we can to avoid it.


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