Propositional nationalism – the idea that America as a nation is based on abstract ideals like “freedom,” “equality,” and “democracy” – is almost universally accepted in mainstream American political discourse. To disagree with this concept – that is, to imply that America, like other nations, was founded on a specific ethnic or cultural heritage – would be racist and bigoted, we are told. But looking at America’s history as well as current events, where has propositional nationalism led us?
A Brief History of an Idea
The concept of a proposition nation is a relatively recent one, contrary to what is often implied by idealistic portrayals of the American Revolution which conceive of the Founders as ideologues fighting for “freedom,” “equality,” and “democracy.” To the contrary, the Founders were keenly aware of their uniquely English heritage from which their civic ideals were rooted. The Declaration of Independence, for instance, appealed explicitly to the traditional rights of Englishmen and the traditional role of English government which they perceived King George III to have violated. This is apparent, of course, to anyone who reads past the second paragraph of the document. Unfortunately, such diligence is rare in an age where the entire American founding is interpreted through the lens of a single prefatory phrase in the Declaration about the supposed equality of all men – a phrase which many people (amusingly) also believe is part of the Constitution. And in the 2nd Federalist Paper, John Jay writes,
Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people, a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs.
These are just two examples of many Founding documents which clearly express the Founders’ belief in an ethno-cultural basis for the United States, not a propositional one. So if America was not founded as a nation based on a set of propositions, where did the idea come from? It turns out, the “proposition nation” concept was developed primarily during the post-WWII era, as many people became turned off to the idea of “blood-and-soil” nationalism – largely perceived as one of the major causes of the war. In addition, contemporary views of racial equality became much more prevalent in American culture during the mid-20th century, especially in the wake of the Civil Rights movement. This further stigmatized “blood-and-soil” nationalism and prompted historians, political philosophers, and other intellectuals (such as Leo Strauss and his disciples) to devise an understanding of the American nation that would be more “inclusive” to ethnic and cultural minorities so as to better avoid the abuses of Nazi Germany.
This idea became central to the neoconservatism that would become prominent around the last quarter of the 20th century in addition to the center-left liberalism that largely dominates political discourse today. To give some examples of this idea in action, take George W. Bush’s 2001 speech in Poland, recently quoted by a leftist author in The Atlantic complaining about the “racial paranoia” of Trump’s recent speech in Poland. Like Trump, Bush also appealed to the shared civilization of Europe and America. But he stated in the very next sentence that “its values are universal,” unlike Trump who was quite explicit about the uniqueness of Western culture and civilization and the importance of preserving those. Additionally, a writer in The American Conservative recounts, “Bush unfurled his cherished litany of good works called forward by the universality of those civilizational values—bringing peace and health to Africa, an expansive freedom project sure to generate widespread global prosperity, protection of the environment, lifting ‘the quality of life for all.’”
Hillary Clinton, a woman who could aptly be described as the center-left counterpart of the neoconservative Bush, made the following statement to Goldman Sachs executives:
[America] was an intellectual invention, and we have done pretty well for all these years. And these people want to just undermine that very profound sense of who we are. And we can’t let them do that. So it’s not just about politics or partisanship. It really goes to the heart of what it means to be American.
Describing America as an “intellectual invention,” Clinton expressed the true essence of the “proposition nation” concept – a nation founded on ideas divorced from a specific ethnic or cultural heritage.
Propositional nationalism has been thoroughly ingrained in modern American political discourse, both on the mainstream right as well as on the mainstream left. Supposedly for the better, we are told, lest we sink to the racism of Nazi Germany. It’s important to consider where the logic of this idea has led us.
Invade the World, Invite the World
If America is a nation founded on abstract, universal principles, what does that imply about America’s role in the world, especially as a military superpower? Well, as the great moral teaching goes, “love thy neighbor as thyself.” We want to be a good, moral nation, do we not? So what better way to “love our neighbors as ourselves” than by giving them the blessings of freedom, equality, and democracy that made America great? After all, these are universal values. To imply otherwise would be racist, narrow-minded, and bigoted, and we would never want that. No, to the contrary, we are told, it is our sacred duty as an exceptional nation to remake the rest of the world in our image so that the whole world may live together peacefully as a global community where nation and tribe are rendered obsolete and the ideals of freedom, equality, and democracy are fully realized.
In addition to freedom, equality, and democracy – the holy trinity of civic ideals – some on the left have added “humanitarianism” to the mix. Just think of the poor children in Syria being gassed by that evil dictator Assad! One might say to those heartless isolationists, “are you incapable of shame?” – as the great moral crusader Samantha Power did at the UN Security Council in reference to the supposed war crimes committed in Aleppo by Russia and the Syrian government. Similar rhetoric, of course, was used to justify intervention in Libya and Iraq in light of allegations of chemical weapons use on civilians by their respective leaders. One might also apply the same logic to North Korea, another tyrannical country which could use a good dose of freedom. As a matter of fact, why not “liberate” the entire Third World, where a litany of humanitarian abuses occurs on a daily basis? According to estimates by the Global Slavery Index, almost three million people are currently enslaved in the Middle East and North Africa. Wouldn’t the great liberator Abraham Lincoln want our nation to do something about that? What good is a global military superpower founded on the universal ideals of freedom, equality, and democracy if it fails to uphold those ideals universally?
And then, of course, there are the refugees. Refugees which are obviously fleeing their home countries to escape their evil dictators as opposed to our “humanitarian” interventions, of course. What to do about them? Let them all in, of course! And provide them with housing, food, welfare checks, and anything else they need! Of course, those petty right-wingers will object, claiming “cultural incompatibility,” but as any modern, tolerant person knows, the only values that matter are universal ones. How bigoted of them to suggest that cultural heritage actually matters! And that certain cultures might be incompatible with others! The gall!
Anyone reading this article is likely libertarian to some extent, so I doubt I will have to demonstrate how our democracy-spreading, nation-building adventures in the Middle East have been unmitigated disasters. Nor do I predict I will have to convince anyone here that increasing American military presence in Syria, in addition to the funding of “moderate” rebel groups, would only exacerbate their situation. On the off chance the reader remains unconvinced, there are plenty of excellent articles such as this one that explain the mayhem U.S. intervention in the Middle East has caused far better than I ever could. Regarding the refugee crisis, I would hope that even the most ardently pro-open-borders libertarian would recognize that migrant crime in Europe is a very serious problem, and that the migrant crisis as a whole is creating more problems than just an overloaded welfare state – namely cultural tensions between the secular host populations and the hordes of unassimilable Muslim migrants that they are being forcibly integrated with. But unfortunately, like the neocons, liberals, and progressives, many libertarians have unwittingly adopted the globalist mantra of “universal values” which serves as a core underlying principle behind the “invade the world, invite the world” policy that has wreaked havoc in so many places. Similarly, many libertarians have bought into the related idea of propositional nationalism, believing that America should be defined only by these “universal values.” However, as Jeff Deist of the Mises Institute so aptly argues in this article, such universalism is antithetical to the libertarian idea of self-determination. For a demonstration of where the hubris and idealism of “libertarian” universalism leads, one need look no further than a recent anti-Russian hawkish screed written at Reason Magazine (a supposedly libertarian publication to which a brilliant response is written here at the Lew Rockwell Column). As Deist states in his article, “universalism provides the philosophical underpinnings for globalism, but it does not provide a roadmap for freedom.” This brings me to the next point.
Universalism, and the propositional nationalism derived from it, provides a logical basis for political centralization. One may be wondering why this would ever be a problem for anarcho-capitalists, since anarcho-capitalism is in many ways, the ultimate anti-political philosophy. It is true that the primary “libertarian” advocates of political centralization are not anarcho-capitalists, but minarchists and “Constitutionalists” who tend to oppose decentralist measures like nullification and secession (even though the Constitution allows for both), and also tend to have fairly positive views of Abraham Lincoln. They believe in legislating “individual liberty” from the imperial city of Washington D.C., and by “individual liberty,” of course, they mean “fiscally conservative and socially liberal public policies.” After all, as they say, states don’t have rights, only individuals do! (Technically true, of course, but misses the point completely.) Of course, they also embrace propositional nationalism, but perhaps (to their credit) with a greater emphasis on “freedom” than “equality” or “democracy” as one of the universal propositions on which America was supposedly founded. And since America as a nation is based on these propositions, it would only make sense for the American national government to be charged with enforcing these propositions as the “law of the land.” Why should state and local governments be given the freedom to enact “un-libertarian” policies? No, they say, individual liberty (as we have infallibly interpreted it) is the basis for the nation, and must be enforced across the nation accordingly.
Compare the views of these libertarians to those promoted by paleolibertarian outlets such as the Mises Institute and the Lew Rockwell Column. In sharp contrast with the libertarian centralizers, these paleolibertarians have been consistent defenders of the right to self-determination. They correctly recognize that decentralized statism, while not ideal, more closely resembles private property norms than centralized statism and in the long run actually does allow for more individual liberty due to the downward pressure on taxation and regulation that decentralization brings about.
Interestingly enough, the Mises/LRC crowd also tends to be more comfortable with cultural conservatism, religion, and nationalism (not nation-statism!) than the “socially liberal” libertarians previously described. While it’s hard to say for certain, I believe it’s reasonable to connect these two tendencies together – the paleolibertarians reject political centralization because they recognize that culture actually matters – that one cannot simply apply the non-aggression principle in blanket fashion to the entire world, or even across a large country such as America without taking regional cultural particularities into account. Such a measure can only result in irreconcilable social tension and conflict, providing a perfect opportunity for a centralized state to arise once more to “keep the peace.” That’s not to say that the non-aggression principle is faulty, of course, or that libertarianism must include more than the non-aggression principle and a working understanding of private property norms. However, it is worth noting that certain social conflicts can arise where a simple appeal to the non-aggression principle may not suffice, and in the absence of an “unwritten constitution” (i.e. a set of shared cultural values and commonly accepted social norms) may prove quite thorny. This is evident in the fact that even libertarians have a hard time agreeing amongst themselves on what the “correct” NAP interpretation is on certain issues such as abortion, children’s rights, and animal rights, just to name a few. In other words, culture matters, not just philosophy. Hence, the paleolibertarians’ concern over cultural preservation in the face of multiculturalism, and their opposition to political standardization.
One might point out that the paleolibertarians are also mostly anarcho-capitalists, and thus their opposition to political centralization is tied to that, not to their cultural perspectives. But what, then of the anarchists who virulently despise the paleos and their “bigoted” views? What about Larken Rose, who dismissed secession and decentralization as a proposal for “smaller slave plantations”? What of the Free Thought Project, which consistently displays an open hostility to national identities, religion, and the very idea of ethno-cultural distinctions? How do these anarchists propose freedom will ever be attained if not through political decentralization, which almost always occurs along ethnic and cultural boundaries? Through a communist-style violent revolution? Would they have all governments across the world overthrown at once? Or perhaps they will claim that their goal is to “educate” everyone into anarchy so as to achieve their stateless world peacefully. But again, how would this world come about peacefully if not through gradual decentralization? And even if these multicultural anarchists were to accept “smaller slave plantations” as an acceptable path to anarchy, along what lines would secession occur if not based on ethnicity or common culture? Do these anarchists even have a coherent plan, or are they just interested in purity-signaling?
So we can see here that propositional nationalism in fact does have a “libertarian” version, and even an “anarchist” version. It seems that this idea creates somewhat of a mental roadblock for some of these libertarians and anarchists who refuse to embrace decentralization. The common denominator is the idea that societies of people do not require a common culture, ethnicity, language, history, or religion to function peacefully and cohesively, but simply the acceptance of a few vaguely defined ideals. The difference between the different adherents of propositional nationalism is not one of principle, but rather which “universal ideals” are emphasized. Progressives, for instance, value “equality, diversity, and tolerance” as their cardinal virtues upon which their ideal society would be based. Neocons, on the other hand, tend to talk more about “freedom and democracy” with perhaps some “equality” thrown in as well. Libertarians and anarchists at best will actually define “freedom” in terms of private property rights, and at worst will appeal to some vague conception of “freedom” for the purpose of promoting culturally progressive libertinism. Even in the best case scenario where the propositions in question are private property rights and non-aggression, the question remains – can you have a free, peaceful society based purely on a set of propositions, even if they are good propositions? Let’s explore this a bit further.
Food for Thought
While it’s true that the libertarian philosophy of private property rights and non-aggression are based on an objective understanding of legal principles, one must also recognize that without being rooted in some sort of cultural tradition (as the American founding principles were) attempting to mold societies according to them is doomed to fail. People do not naturally coalesce around abstract ideas, but around concrete things such as a common culture, kinship, faith, language, and history. The “global village” that so many neoconservatives, centrist liberals, progressives, and yes, even libertarians long for is virtually impossible due to the reality of human nature. In fact, even the Soviet Union – a propositional nation if there ever was one, realized the impossibility of getting its population to unite under the abstractions of communist ideology and had to appeal once more to the idea of “The Motherland.” As such, their struggle against Nazi Germany in World War II, framed by Stalin as “The Great Patriotic War,” was not a war for communism, but a war for Russia. Of course, the multicultural Soviet Union ended up collapsing anyway, as minority ethnic groups toward the end of the 20th century asserted their rights to self-determination and declared independence from the Soviet monolith, forming their own sovereign states. Another example of a failed “proposition nation” is Revolutionary France, founded under the banner of “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity,” which half a century later was reaffirmed by Charles de Gaulle as a “European people of the white race, with a Greek and Latin culture and the Christian religion,” and which now is floundering in the social tensions created by the “cultural enrichment” of North African and Middle Eastern migrants. So while private property rights and non-aggression are most certainly sounder principles than the communism of the Russians, can these ideas truly unite people the way a shared ethno-cultural heritage has consistently proven itself capable of throughout history? I suppose we won’t really know the answer to that until a “libertarian” proposition nation is attempted, but until then, I will continue to oppose the destructive idea of propositional nationalism which thus far has only led to the loss of life and liberty to both war and globalism.