Nationalism Is Not News
By Bryan Caplan
In the last two years, there’s been an avalanche of news on the “rise of nationalism.” I find this narrative deeply aggravating. My critics – even a colleague or two – say it’s because I’m in denial over the painful facts. But what really aggravates me is the false insinuation of radical change. Nationalism hasn’t become dominant recently. It’s been dominant without interruption for at least a century and a half. In 1926, historian Carlton Hayes wrote an essay on “Nationalism as a Religion,” observing that:
“My country, right or wrong, my country!” Thus responds the faithful nationalist
to the magisterial call of his religion, and thereby he intends nothing dubious
or immoral. He is merely making a subtle distinction between governmental
officials who may go wrong and a nation which, from the inherent nature of
things, must ever be right. It would sound pedantic for him to say, “my nation,
indicatively right or subjunctively wrong (contrary to fact), my nation!”
Indeed, to the national state are now popularly ascribed infallibility and
impeccability. We moderns are prepared to grant that all our fellow countrymen
may individually err in conduct and judgement, but we are loath to admit
that our nation as a whole can make mistakes. We are willing to assail the
policies and even the characters of some of our politicians, but we are stopped
by the faith that is in us from doubting the Providential guidance of our
national state. This is the final mark of the religious nature of modern
The most impressive fact about the present age is the universality of the
religious aspects of nationalism. Not only in the United States does the
religious sense of the whole people find expression in nationalism, but also,
in slightly different form but perhaps to an even greater degree, in France,
England, Italy, Germany, Belgium, Holland, Russia, the Scandinavian and Baltic
countries, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Spain, Portugal, Ireland, the
Balkans, Greece, and the Latin-American republics. Nor does the religion
of nationalism thrive only on traditionally Christian soil; it now flourishes
in Japan, Turkey, Egypt, India, Korea, and is rearing its altars in China.
Nationalism has a large number of particularly quarrelsome sects, but as
a whole it is the latest and nearest approach to a world-religion.
In 1960, Hayes followed up with a whole book – Nationalism: A Religion – cataloguing the ideology’s global ubiquity. The work’s full of gems like:
We need not here rehearse the epic story of World War I. It lasted over four years and turned out to be a supremely nationalistic war… As soon as war was declared, both masses and classes rallied to the support of their respective governments. Earlier professions of pacifism or neutrality quickly evaporated, and failure marked the movements and organizations which, it had been imagined, might check, if not exorcise, the war spirit. Christianity failed: no heed was given to pacific pleas of anguished pope or other priests and ministers. Marxian socialism failed: its following made no attempt to stay or impede the war by “general strike” or any other means. “Intellectuals” failed: the large majority of them deserted reason for emotion, fair-mindedness for bellicose partnership. So, too, failed “big business” and “international finance,” and other economic considerations, which publicists such as Norman Angell had prophesied would militate against, and prevent, the enormous cost and ultimately universal bankruptcy that large-scale warfare would entail.
Can’t we accept the dominance of nationalism, but also admit that it’s currently growing much stronger? We could, but we shouldn’t. There’s definitely a lot more media coverage of nationalism, but making a big deal out of everything is what the media does. Do I protest too much? Well, I’ve been blogging for a dozen years. Can you recall a single time where I claimed that current events were somehow “on my side”? I can’t. Multi-decade trends mean something to me. So do the World Wars and the collapse of Communism. The rest is noise.
If you disagree – if you think you can see the global nationalist revival in the tea leaves – I am happy to bet you. Otherwise, turn off the news and read some Carlton Hayes.