The Nationalism We Need

By Reich, Robert | The American Prospect, December 6, 1999 | Go to article overview

The Nationalism We Need


Reich, Robert, The American Prospect


There are two faces of American nationalism--one negative, one positive. The negative face wants to block trade, deter immigrants, and eschew global responsibilities. The positive one wants to reduce poverty among the nation's children, ensure that everyone within America has decent health care, and otherwise improve the lives of all our people.

Both give priority to "us" inside the borders over "them" out there. Both believe that America should come first. Both depend for their force on a nation's sense of common purpose. But negative nationalism uses that commonality to exclude those who don't share it. Positive nationalism uses it to expand opportunities for those who do.

Negative nationalism assumes that the world is a zero-sum game where our gains come at another nation's expense, and theirs come at ours. Positive nationalism assumes that when our people are better off, they're more willing and better able to add to the world's well-being.

These are America's two real political parties. You'll find both positive and negative nationalists among Republicans as well as among Democrats. George W. Bush's "compassionate conservatism," still conveniently undefined, at least urges Americans to be generous toward other Americans. The Republican right, meanwhile, is determined to turn America's back on the rest of the world. Democratic primary challengers Bill Bradley and Al Gore are engaged in a long-overdue debate about how best to meet the needs of America's poor and near-poor, even as some in the Democratic Party are putting priority on fighting a new round of world trade agreements. There may even be positive nationalists in the Reform Party unless Pat Buchanan--an unreconstructed negative nationalist--takes control.

If you look hard, you might be able to find a few globalists who deny that America should come first. They perceive no moral difference between a flood in North Carolina and one in Bangladesh, a sweatshop in Los Angeles and a sweatshop in Ecuador, hungry kids in Alabama and hungry kids in Burundi. To the pure globalist, all are equally worthy of concern. I admire pure globalists, but I also wonder about them. For most of us, it's easier to empathize with compatriots than with humanity as a whole, and easier to think we can do something to help those within our borders than those outside. Pure globalists have noble values, and many act on their convictions, but I worry that globalists may feel less compelled to act than people whose sentiments are more rooted.

History teaches that one of the two faces of nationalism almost always predominates. A society with a lot of positive nationalism is likely to be tolerant and open toward the rest of the world because its people have learned the habits of good citizenship and social justice. …

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