Can America be Liberal and Nationalist?

Rogers M. Smith, “Beyond Tocqueville, Myrdal, and Hartz: The Multiple Traditions in America”

Jill Lepore, The Case for the Nation

The U.S. has long been described as a liberal democratic nation.  At the same time, however, some scholars question the true compatibility of the words “liberal,” “democratic,” and “nation” in the U.S. Liberalism is a specific system of ideals that forms the basis of what we think the proper relationship is between the state and society. What is liberalism in the U.S.?

 

According to Jill Lepore in The Case for the Nation, liberalism is the concept that all people are free and good, and that the government exists to serve and protect that freedom. Crucially, liberalism is an ideology that emphasizes a commitment to equality and universal liberty, individualism, a free-market economy, and the protection of rights, stemming from Lockean philosophy and Enlightenment ideals. By consenting to be governed under the social contract, the government will protect those rights and freedoms, as well as be constrained from infringing on those rights. 

 

However, U.S. is notorious for nationalism and nativism. According to Lepore, nationalism has a sinister past, rising in the 20thh century with fascism. Stemming from an attachment to a particular place with national distinctions, nationalism focuses on hating other countries and people in your own country that don’t belong to the racial majority.

 

Although trying to understand liberalism in the context of intense nationalism is often difficult and confusing, Lepore’s approach to reconciling liberalism and nationalism is to allow the two ideologies to coexist and interact with each other in her idea of a “good liberal nationalism”. Rather than “bad illiberal nationalism”, Lepore views “good liberal nationalism” as a possible solution and ideal to strive for by promoting civic nationalism and an attachment to civic ideals.

In her definition of a “good liberal nationalism”, she focuses on nationalism that does not involve the exclusion of others and outsiders. Instead, she focuses on a liberal nationalism that emphasizes civic ideals and virtues, with the liberalist principles of inclusivity. She even states that liberalism and nationalism were species of one another, insinuating the idea that they can potentially coexist. We simply just must be wary of an illiberal nationalism with racist and ethnic tones underlying its hatred and exclusionary policies. For example, we can see what Trump has done with the census to manipulate it and undercount and exclude blacks and immigrants (Brownstein). Lepore would disagree with the illiberal nationalism that Trump espouses. 

Thus, it is possible that liberalism and nationalism can exist at the same time in the form of an inclusive liberal nationalism.