John Judis, longtime Democratic socialist and veteran left-wing journalist, wants you to be a nationalist.
If you’re a progressive, chances are you’re as puzzled, maybe as disgusted, as I was when I first read about his most recent book, The Nationalist Revival. Nationalism is the purview of demagogues and bigots, isn’t it? Even Donald Trump admitted that “we’re not supposed to use that word,” before embracing it enthusiastically last October.
But for Judis, nationalism—the concept of a common, shared identity with people in your nation-state—is an indispensable element of a cohesive country. It’s necessary, he says, for people to want to pay taxes and support the common good. And if the left doesn’t embrace it, the right will exploit it.
“Nationalism can appear on the left and in the center, as well as on the right,” Judis told me as we spoke on a cold late-winter day. “Abraham Lincoln was a nationalist, Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle, Teddy Roosevelt were all nationalists. Of course, so were Mussolini, Hitler, George Wallace, and now Donald Trump. It all depends on what the nature of the enemy is.”
That’s where our conversation took off.
Daily Beast: The way you describe nationalism, aren’t all Democrats nationalists too? They also wave the flag and are proud of America.
Judis: Yes, absolutely, but let me start at the beginning. There is a nationalist sentiment, a national identity that if countries don’t have that, they get into trouble. You get places like Spain, where there’s a secession crisis. Democracy, the welfare state—all this depends a common national identity. When you’re paying taxes for somebody who’s blind or disabled in Reno, Nevada, that you’re never going to see, you do it because that person is a fellow American. But if you think you’re paying taxes for people who aren’t your fellow citizens, the welfare state and Democracy start to break down.
A lot of it is a matter of priority: how important our national identity is to ourselves. If you look at the culture war that’s been going on in the country for the last 20 years, a lot of the crisis is among people who live in places where a lot of their previous identities have been stripped from them: small and medium-size towns that used to be prosperous manufacturing towns; towns where there used to be the corner bar, or the church; where you had a whole set of associations that have really been wrecked by the last 20, 30, 40 years.
For people who live in these places, nation, family, church, even guns as a way of protecting the home become much more important than they do for someone who lives in Washington, D.C., where I live, or New York City, who can boast about what college they went to, belongs to a prestigious firm, who writes stories that hopefully live after the person passes from the scene. So that’s a big difference. Of course, people who live in metropolitan areas also celebrate Thanksgiving and also get upset when our country is attacked. It’s just not as central to their identity.
I wonder what the practical consequences of that are. Is there a particular candidate or policy prescription, or rhetorical prescription?
Let's talk about attitudes and policies.
First, attitudes. Now we’re not talking about the attitudes a Trump voter has toward a liberal who lives in Brooklyn or the Bay Area. We know about that. But take, for example, the post on social media by the CEO from Silicon Valley [Melinda Byerly of Timeshare CMO] that went viral after the election, that “no educated person wants to live in a shithole with stupid people,” especially ones who are “violent, racist, and/or misogynistic.” I’m talking about understanding people, trying to put yourself in their shoes, rather than dismissing them as being evil. It’s almost a religious attitude, good versus evil. You find that a lot among liberals in metro areas in their attitudes toward Trump voters or people who live in small towns.
On policy, the most important thing is to understand that if you want to expand the welfare state—I don’t mean just aid to poor people, but I mean Medicare for all, free public education, the kinds of things Bernie Sanders advocated and now several other Democrats have latched onto—those demand people believing that they all are part of one nation. The reason that Obamacare broke down was a lot people felt they were paying taxes for people who didn’t deserve it, or who weren’t at same level of being Americans and citizens that they were. That takes us to the issue of immigration. Democrats need to take more seriously people’s fears and concerns about illegal immigration. Of course, the other side to that is that the Republicans’ indifference to the underclass, and to people who don’t have legal grounds to be here, has to be met with a path to citizenship. But liberals and people in metropolitan areas only see part of it. They only see the problem of the underclass that has to be integrated into America. They don’t see the other side to it, that people want a country where everyone is here legally and where there isn’t the kind of culture clash that we see now. Where we can get to a place where we can again talk about one America, whether it’s a melting pot or whatever language you want to use. It’s going to be very hard to get programs like Medicare for all, where people will accept much higher taxes for benefits that apply to all Americans, if we don’t have this sense that we had after World War II that we’re one nation.
One response to what you just said is that this is warmed-over racism. You know the data, that when you correct for other factors, attitudes toward race are the best predictor of people supporting Trump. And it’s no coincidence that the people who “didn’t deserve” Obamacare were seen to be people of color. Maybe the problem is just racism.
That is some of the resistance, but if you look at what we’re fighting about now in Congress and in the country, it’s not race; it’s immigration.
Can I push you on that? Is that really true? If it was immigration from Europe, would we really see this resistance? Surely the problem is that it’s immigration of brown people.
In 1965, we’d had for 50 years a bigoted immigration law that didn’t just restrict numbers but also restricted the kinds of people who came into the country. Then, after [the Immigration and Naturalization Act of] 1965 came incredible change. We went from 4 percent to 13 percent of the population being immigrants, people who weren’t born here. Enormous numbers of those people, maybe half to two-thirds, are unskilled. They don’t know the language when they come into the country. They occupy the lower tiers of the economy. They compete with “native” Americans who are also unskilled… Between 1980 and the early 2000s, industries like meatpacking and construction get transformed. What used to be middle class jobs taken by "native"Americans disappear… and become mostly low-wage, immigrant, very dangerous work. The resentment lingers… It’s a threat to identity, but what you’re really looking at is a threat to a way of life. Of course, racism is with us and will be for a long time. One part of it, though, is the question of immigration.
I’m skeptical, though, because it doesn’t matter if liberals send positive messages and help people in manufacturing towns, when Fox News, Breitbart, and the rest of this large right-wing industry wants to go hard in the opposite direction and inflame anger. I’m skeptical that any effort would work because there’s a whole industry dedicated to what you would call the “bad” kind of nationalism—the vindictive, us versus them kind.
That’s obviously a problem. But you know, we elected Obama twice. And in 2018, many Trump voters switched over and voted for Democrats. One way to see this is in terms of human nature, and again putting yourself in other people’s shoes. Most people born in America who are “white”—just in growing up here, they have an element of racism. It’s very hard to avoid. I grew up in Chicago in the ’40s and early ’50s, and we really thought the blacks were going to come from the south side and kill us all. It’s very common in America. And it shows up on all these fancy psychological tests. But when we make decisions, when we decide who to vote for, we often overcome those prejudices and preconceptions. Human nature is complicated. We can put things aside, we can change...
I think one thing that a certain kind of liberal has to understand is that there isn’t this kind of dichotomy between them and us. The problem isn’t just the Trump voters or Breitbart readers versus MSNBC. It goes two ways. In both cases, it’s a refusal to understand that our natures are complicated and we make decisions, and sometimes they’re guided by one idea and sometimes the other. Obviously, the hope of a Democratic politician in 2020 is that other concerns override those resentments about race or toward immigrants. It is possible to do this, is what I’m saying. We’ve seen it happen.