Good Friday Morning! I wanted to take a step back this week and look at the overall narrative we’ve had since 2015 that the world is in the throes of a nationalist moment. There might be some truth to that, but I think there are caveats to that claim. And since 2016, we’ve seen the realities of governing take over and force nationalists to figure out how to take whatever mandates they have and translate it into popular governance. That’s an easier said than done task. The same problem is strengthening nationalists groups in other European governments, as I’ll show. Links follow.
Where you can find me this week
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A piece on why all these talking points on popular votes being bogus.
Nationalism has some hiccups…
Governance matters. Good governance matters even more.
One of the themes I regularly hit after Donald Trump got elected in 2016 was that the pathway for the GOP holding power and Trump’s reelection relied on good governance. Midterms and other off-year elections are always referendums on the governing party. A unified government, where one party sits in power, is rare in American politics. Typically one party controls at least one of the branches of government — this is a design, not a flaw.
As we wait on more of the results to trickle in, Democrats have crept closer to the wave line. I still don’t think you can claim wave status given current returns, but it is a rejection in the House of GOP single-party control. And if we’re honest, the GOP did very little in the House, aside from passing tax-cuts, that they could point to as good governance. The same is true of Trump. The House accomplished very little at all.
You can look at Trump’s approval rating in many of these swing districts, especially the suburbs, see Trump’s horrid approval ratings, and figure out who lost the race. Rousing up the base through rallies and tweets may drive out supporters in specific demographics, but it does the opposite in others.
But it’s not just Trump that’s facing the issues of governance — it’s every nationalist movement across the world.
In the UK, Brexit has hit every hurdle conceivably possible. And just as PM Theresa May manages to cobble together a Brexit package, she’s facing backlash and a push to remove her from office.
In Germany, Angela Merkel’s incapacity to deal with immigration and other domestic issues has allowed the rise of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party. A party that openly flirts with racism and questioning Germany’s role in the Holocaust.
And in France, they thought they had dodged dealing with nationalism with the election of Emmanuel Macron, but his approval ratings have plummeted so low, Donald Trump is taking shots at him over it.
You can point to other countries struggling as well on the governance front. Either nationalist-style leaders in power are struggling to govern, which weakens their power. Or mainstream political groups are struggling to govern and giving rise to nationalist groups.
If you read about nationalism either in America or abroad, all nationalist movements tend to get grouped as a far-right phenomenon. I don’t think this is correct, and I’d draw distinctions on why some forms of nationalism are worse than others, and why some nationalist movements struggle to govern.
This type of analysis is similar to how the famous British politician and philosopher Edmund Burke viewed the American and French revolutions. Both revolutions were liberal, but they diverged on crucial points. Burke, as an Englishman, saw the American revolution as legitimate, and argued so in Parliment:
Urging Parliament to back off from its aggressive policies in America, Burke emphasizes the common culture and interests of the British and their American colonists. At the same time, however, he lays out an argument to which the differing customs and even personal characteristics of British and American peoples is central. The Americans, Burke points out, are somewhat quarrelsome as a people and deeply concerned with the protection of what they see as their longstanding rights and privileges. No slave to the abstract philosophies of expansive, universal rights, Burke merely asks his colleagues in Parliament to take account of the people with whom they are dealing, and to see the conflict from Americans’ point of view. A central facet of Burke’s understanding of politics is that of “prescriptive rights,” by which he means simply the reasonable expectations of peoples rooted in longstanding practice. Americans had become accustomed over many decades to conducting their own internal business, taxing and governing themselves within the limits set by the British Empire. To suddenly change the rules of the game by taxing their commerce directly and interfering with local legislatures was well-nigh revolutionary, according to Burke, because it violated Americans’ understanding of their place in the Empire, giving rise to grievance and undermining their attachment to the mother country.
Burke viewed the French Revolution far differently. At the time, people viewed both events as liberal revolutions against the monarchy. But while Burke saw the Americans establishing ordered liberty, based on English conceptions of rights, the French descended into mob rule and tyranny (If you want to dig into the differences between the American and French Revolutions, I recommend Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism and Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn’s Leftism Revisited).
While watching the brutality of the French Revolution unfold, Burke said:
It is now sixteen or seventeen years since I saw the queen of France, then the dauphiness, at Versailles; and surely never lighted on this orb, which she hardly seemed to touch, a more delightful vision. I saw her just above the horizon, decorating and cheering the elevated sphere she just began to move in,—glittering like the morning-star, full of life, and splendor, and joy. Oh! what a revolution! and what a heart must I have, to contemplate without emotion that elevation and that fall! Little did I dream that, when she added titles of veneration to those of enthusiastic, distant, respectful love, that she should ever be obliged to carry the sharp antidote against disgrace concealed in that bosom; little did I dream that I should have lived to see such disasters fallen upon her in a nation of gallant men, in a nation of men of honour and of cavaliers.
I thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards to avenge even a look that threatened her with insult.—But the age of chivalry is gone.—That of sophisters, economists, and calculators, has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever. Never, never more shall we behold that generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom. The unbought grace of life, the cheap defence of nations, the nurse of manly sentiment and heroic enterprise, is gone! It is gone, that sensibility of principle, that chastity of honour which felt a stain like a wound, which inspired courage whilst it mitigated ferocity, which ennobled whatever it touched, and under which vice itself lost half its evil by losing all its grossness.
The French, in their revolution, descended into madness and debauchery. Innocents got slaughtered and, as Burke noted, the beauty of the French past got destroyed by the brutality of the revolution. Burke could see, correctly, the differences in various types of liberal and conservative revolutions. We must do the same with modern nationalism.
I’d lump the modern nationalist movements into two broad groups so far, The US/UK, and then the rest of the world. Donald Trump and Brexit, for all their dissimilarities, are alike in a few respects:
- Distrust of a broader global rule of law replacing that of a national rule of law.
- Brexit / Trump had a limited mandate not to be their opponent. For Trump, he can’t be Hilary Clinton. For Brexit, they can’t make the country like the EU.
- Reverence for a patriotic belief in the country — and nothing else.
Are their racial elements in play here? Sure, for some voters. In reality, though, there is, at the base, a belief that a country should dictate its policy and not other countries. You get this with Trump and US dissatisfaction in the UN and treaties like Paris Accords or Iran Deal. Obama’s worldly progressivism stands in stark contrast to the more nationalist American first platform. In the UK, it was about local politicians passing legislation and then having the EU overrule those laws. As Daniel Hannan put it the night Brexit won:
We fought a civil war in this country to establish the principle that laws should not be passed nor taxes raised except by our own elected representatives. And now supreme power is held by people who tend to owe their positions to having just lost elections: Peter Mandelson, Neil Kinnock and what have you.
No one is talking about drawbridges or isolation. Nowhere else in the world do countries apologise for wanting to live under their own laws. New Zealand is not about to join Australia. Japan is not applying to join China – and do you hear anyone complaining about these bigoted Sino-sceptics in Tokyo? It is a natural healthy thing for a democracy to live under its own laws whilst trading with every other country in the world.
And when you look at what people were asking for in the UK and US, it shouldn’t be a surprise the 2016 leaders are struggling to lead. They didn’t have the mandate to pass specific policies. They only had an order to re-establish national rights of communities to rule themselves. If done correctly, this is a good form of federalism that moves power down from centralized federal government down to states and local cities.
That limited scope changes dramatically when you look at nationalist groups in other countries like Germany and France. Germany’s AfD and the National Front in France claim they want the same limited scope as the US/UK, but they go much farther.
They’re not just pushing for nationalism and the re-establishment of strong nations; they want nationalism at the exclusion of people within their society. They’re less nationalism, and more blood and soil, meaning they have a specific form of nationalism in mind. And whereas you can find an empowering of local communities in the US, in other European countries, nationalism seeks a strengthening of the national government.
But the broader point for these groups, they have a distinct policy platform they’re running on, that they want to govern with, and that they’re being judged by at the ballot box. Trump/Brexit do not have the same platform, nor a broad mandate.
And the great irony here is that in lacking specific policies and having a narrow mandate, Trump and Brexit leaders are struggling to govern, and that’s costing them patience with the voters. The far-right parties in Europe that have a specific platform and are trying to gain a broad mandate can’t gain democratic approval to govern.
Two years after the Trump and Brexit waves, nationalism has hit some hiccups. All the doom and gloom predicted by so many in 2016 has proven inaccurate.
That’s not to say these groups can’t gain ground. It should trouble politicians that they’re encountering political extremism and violence on both sides in a time of relative peace and great economic wealth. Odds are we’re nearing the end of the current economic boom, and the current wealth we’re enjoying won’t be around forever to paper over the nationalist fissures opening up.
But given all of that, what we’ve learned is that our institutions and Constitution have been up to the challenge so far. We aren’t encountering a Constitutional crisis, as the experts proclaim seemingly every day. That gives me hope, even if none of the major political parties is capable of governing right now.
And if DC is going to get mired in gridlock with the new Democratic House, it’s a perfect time for states and local communities to pick up the slack.
Links of the week
You can’t explain our politics by talking about ‘red states’ and ‘blue states’ – Kristen Soltis Anderson, The Washington Examiner
The Biggest Lessons of 2018: Expect more partisanship, more gun-control legislation, and higher Hispanic turnout going forward. – Josh Kraushaar, National Journal
Is Texas Turning Blue? The Best and Worse Case for Each Party. – David Byler, The Weekly Standard
Are Republicans Blowing It In The Midwest? – David Byler, The Weekly Standard
In North Korea, Missile Bases Suggest a Great Deception – The New York Times
My family escaped socialism, now my fellow Democrats think we should move the party in its direction – Giancarlo Sopo, USA Today
The Lonely Mob – Kevin D. Williamson, National Review
America Needs a Bigger House – The New York Times Editorial Board
Mark Zuckerberg Defends Facebook as Furor Over Its Tactics Grows – The New York Times
The White-Supremacy Surge – David French, National Review
U.S. Is Optimistic It Will Prosecute Assange: Over the past year, U.S. prosecutors have discussed several types of charges they could potentially bring against the WikiLeaks founder – The Wall Street Journal
North Korea Is Winning: Art of the kneel. – Noah C. Rothman, Commentary Magazine
Trump Endorses Criminal Justice Bill, Giving Momentum to Long-Delayed Reforms: We’re all better off when former inmates can reenter society as law-abiding, productive citizens. – C.J. Ciaramella, Reason Magazine
Becoming Anne Frank: Why did we turn an isolated teenage girl into the world’s most famous Holocaust victim? – Dara Horn, The Smithsonian Magazine
Delay, Deny and Deflect: How Facebook’s Leaders Fought Through Crisis – The New York Times
Love Letters From the Battlefield: How words kept my grandparents connected during the Second World War – Harley Rustad, The Walrus
Satire piece of the week
U.S. — New documents recently uncovered by Smithsonian historians confirmed that the group of pilgrims and Indians who gathered for the first Thanksgiving argued vehemently about politics throughout the course of the meal.
The newly discovered journal seems to indicate that just after giving thanks for the meal, one Pilgrim from England drank too much mead and began to rant about “making the colonies great again,” kicking off several hours of hostile glances, passive-aggressive remarks, and flat-out argumentation.
“Apparently, Uncle Charles was asked to eat at the kids’ table after a tirade about how real patriots need to support King James I, and several Wampanoag Indians and younger Puritans alike wouldn’t stop talking about their participation in a string of violent protests throughout the colonies,” Dr. Gary Etherton, a Smithsonian researcher said Tuesday. “They called themselves ‘the Resistance’ for some reason.”
Thanks for reading!