Disagreeing vehemently with people you admire is always uncomfortable. But it also helps one to develop a better appreciation of some arguments: how come a person as smart as x believes in that?

Chris DeMuth, the former head of the American Enterprise Institute and a true scholar, took part in a “National Conservatism Conference” and the Wall Street Journal has published excerpts of his speech. I have nothing but admiration for DeMuth and his case for a “nationalist awakening” is much better than most of the competing attempts.

Chris’s article has a particularly interesting takeaway. He compares the “nationalist awakening” with “the religious Great Awakenings that swept over America in the 18th and 19th centuries.” He continues, “In the American colonies and early U.S., the new religious impulses were much more populist, participatory, and enthusiastic than what had come before, and posited a new relationship between God and his people and among his people”. He sets this comparison in a hopeful light, assuming that the new awakening will be more galvanizing and less divisive than many of us expect. Yet I think the precious point is the equivalence between nationalism and religion.

I don’t want to enter into necessarily intricate disputes, from the tension between the universalism [pretenses sounds harsh] of the Catholic church and the particularism of the princes who endorsed Protestantism onwards. But nationalism, in the era of mass democracy, was basically a cult: the cult of the (nation) state. And rulers saw such a cult as necessary in a secularised world, where kings and queens could no longer extract obedience on the basis of divine right. Now that we live in an ever more secular world, rulers perhaps find nationalism even more necessary. Sometimes, when I contemplate contemporary populism, I can’t but think about Chesterton: when men choose not to believe in God, they become capable of believing in anything.

I don’t agree with DeMuth that religion and nationalism are “institutional embodiments of human understanding and aspiration, of human excellence and folly. To oppose them is to oppose human nature”. Religion has been with us forever (though it is decaying), while nationalism is a 200 year old invention (though it seems to be on the rise).

My main criticism of Chris’s article is really this: he speaks of nationalism, but he does not define it. In his article, nationalism is basically seen as the political embodiment of people’s feeling that they have lost control of their lives because of supranational bodies. That story is persuasive, perhaps, for Brexit but not quite for Trump: has the US lost sovereignty to the benefit of any supranational body? Which one?  Chris knows that and therefore writes: “It has delegated lawmaking to foreign and international bodies, and domestic bureaucracies, that have scant regard for the interests and values of many of our fellow citizens.” (italics added) But aren’t domestic bureaucracies part of a nation-state, and perhaps its very backbone? And aren’t nationalists often in the forefront of trying to strengthen domestic bureaucracies’ powers, especially if the bureaucracies have power over immigration?

To get back to the issue of a clear definition of nationalism, let me quote the very first lines of Elie Kedourie’s splendid work on the subject:

Nationalism is a doctrine invented in Europe at the beginning of the nineteenth century. It pretends to supply a criterion for the determination of the unit of population proper to enjoy a government exclusively its own, for the legitimate exercise of power in the state, and for the right organization of a society of states.

Any single word, in the above-mentioned paragraph, is important, beginning with “invented.” Chris seems to believe that nationalism is sort of a “natural” loyalty of people, which is being jeopardized by international institutions. But is it? Historically nationalism has competed, sometimes ferociously, with other loyalties, beginning with religion and the family (the two main targets of one of the favorite policies of nationalism: a national education system). I won’t argue against the idea that human beings are gregarious and need to belong to something. But that something is more often than not a club, an association, a football team, or a municipality. The nation is quite a remote object: in some countries, it represents a very strong element of identity; in some, it doesn’t. It is more often than not a (political) manufacture, not a spontaneous offspring. In this case, it typically grows by crowding out other loyalties: most notably, indeed, religion.

I think Chris’s lacking a definition of nationalism is instrumental for his speaking of the US as a nation-state. But the US is quite different from any other nation-state: it is a federal system that, though weakened through time, still sees a considerable role played by individual states. Nationalism is a “reductio ad unum” of diverse loyalties, which in the US has been a project with limited success.

DeMuth makes a point I wholeheartedly agree with, a genuinely conservative point: “One of the most arresting features of modern life in the rich democracies is the pervasive rejection of the idea of natural constraint.” I certainly agree with this. My question is: is the nation-state really a constraint, as DeMuth apparently believes? I hope the readers will allow me a rather materialistic answer, but I suggest we go and look at public spending as a percentage of GDP in nation-states, from 1900 to today. In the Western states, government spending was around 10% of GDP (5% in the US), and now is typically around 40 to 50% of GDP(a bit less in the US). How did exactly the nation-states act as a constraint? It seems to me they were precisely the conduit through which politicians and bureaucracies exercised their hubris. Whatever you think of supranational organizations as they exist today, it seems to me that their authority over individual lives is minuscule, as compared with national executive and legislative powers.

I understand that some of the people at the National Conservativism Conference (see this thoughtful speech by Yuval Levin) were actually trying to give a “limited government” interpretation of nationalism. This may well be a noble effort. But I suspect it will be an unsuccessful, if not a counterproductive, one.