It was once common for national identity to be based on ethnicity. Members of a nation were thought to share some combination of a common ancestry, culture, language, race, religion, customs and history.
John Jay, a founding father of the United States, held to this traditional understanding of national identity. He thought it providential that the US was “one connected, fertile, widespreading country.” He added:
With equal pleasure I have often taken notice that Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people - a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs...This country and this people seem to have been made for each other, and it appears as if it was the design of Providence, that an inheritance so proper and convenient for a band of brethren, united to each other by the strongest ties, should never be split into a number of unsocial, jealous and alien sovereignties.
Over time, though, Jay’s traditional nationalism came to be thought illegitimate. Liberals began to take a negative view of ethnicity as something that ought not to matter; therefore, there had to be some other basis for national identity.
And so Western societies shifted gradually toward a policy of civic nationalism. Membership of the nation was to be defined by citizenship, and unity was to be based on a shared commitment to liberal political values and institutions.
One prominent defender of the civic nationalist ideal is Michael Ignatieff. He is a Canadian academic and a former leader of the Liberal Party in that country. He distinguishes a civic from an ethnic nationalism this way:
Ethnic nationalism claims...that an individual's deepest attachments are inherited, not chosen...
According to the civic nationalist creed, what holds a society together is not common roots but law. By subscribing to a set of democratic procedures and values, individuals can reconcile their right to shape their own lives with their need to belong to a community.
This is the liberal logic at work. Ethnic nationalism is predetermined (“inherited, not chosen”) and is therefore rejected in favour of a civic nationalism which is thought to be self-determined (“right to shape their own lives”).
But is civic nationalism really a viable replacement for traditional nationalism? There are reasons to think not. Civic nationalism suffers from being indistinct, inconsistent, unstable and shallow.
Indistinct & unstable
People generally like to feel that there is something unique about their national identity. But if identity is based on liberal values and institutions then it won't differ much from country to country. The civic national identity will be much the same in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and other Western societies.
That not only makes national identity less special, it also means that it makes less sense to keep to existing national boundaries. If two nations have the same civic national identity, then why not merge together if there are economic or political advantages in doing so? And why should citizenship stop at national boundaries? If I support liberal political values, and being, say, American is defined by such values, then why shouldn’t I consider myself American even if I live elsewhere?
There are liberals who have already drawn these conclusions. Thomas Barnett is a “distinguished scholar” at the University of Tennessee. This is what he had to say about the war on terror:
We stand for a world connected through trust, transparency and trade, while the jihadists want to hijack Islam and disconnect it from all the corruption they imagine is being foisted upon it by globalization...
In that war of ideas, I’d still like to see Lady Liberty standing outside the wire instead of hiding behind it, and here’s why: I don’t have a homeland. My people left that place a long time ago.
I don’t have a homeland because I don’t live in a place - I live an ideal. I live in the only country in the world that’s not named for a location or a tribe but a concept. Officially, we’re known as the United States.
And where are those united states? Wherever there are states united. You join and you’re in, and theoretically everyone’s got an open invitation.
This country began as a collection of 13 misfit colonies, united only by their desire not to be ruled by a distant king.
We’re now 50 members and counting, with our most recent additions (Alaska, Hawaii) not even co-located with the rest, instead constituting our most far-flung nodes in a network that‘s destined to grow dramatically again.
Impossible, you say? Try this one on for size: By 2050, one out of every three American voters is slated to be Hispanic. Trust me, with that electorate, it won’t just be Puerto Rico and post-Castro Cuba joining the club. We’ll need either a bigger flag or smaller stars.
Thomas Barnett believes that America is defined by a liberal ideal. Therefore, being American is not about living in a particular place amongst a particular people. Any other country that wants to sign on to the ideal and become a “united state” can do so, no matter where that country is located.
Barnett has parted company with the vision of America held by the founding father John Jay. Jay, if you remember, stressed how providential it was that America was one connected country:
Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people - a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs...
Barnett is not alone in drawing out the logic of civic nationalism. Paul Ryan, a Republican congressman, believes that America is exceptional in being universal:
America's "exceptionalism" is just this - while most nations at most times have claimed their own history or culture to be exclusive, America's foundations are not our own - they belong equally to every person everywhere.
That’s not a helpful way of defining your own nation as distinct. First, it’s not true that America is exceptional in holding to a civic nationalism – that is common amongst Western nations. Second, if the foundations of your nation aren’t your own but belong equally to every person everywhere, then why shouldn’t people choose to cross your borders to seek what belongs equally to them?
Rudolph Giuliani, a former mayor of New York City, once explained his civic understanding of American identity as follows:
Abraham Lincoln used to say that the test of one’s Americanism was not one’s family tree; the test of one’s Americanism was how much one believed in America. Because we’re like a religion really. A secular religion. We believe in ideas and ideals. We’re not one race, we’re many; we’re not one ethnic group, we’re everyone; we’re not one language, we’re all of these people. So what ties us together? We’re tied together by our belief in political democracy, in religious freedom, in capitalism, a free economy where people make their own choices about the spending of their money. We’re tied together because we respect human life, and because we respect the rule of law.
Those are the ideas that make us Americans.
Americans are “everyone” according to Giuliani, or at least everyone who believes in a set of secular ideals. The American political commentator Lawrence Auster wrote in reply to Giuliani:
...having told us the things that don’t make us Americans, he tells us the things that do make us Americans: belief in democracy, freedom, capitalism, and rule of law. But other countries believe in those things too. So how is America different from those other countries? If a person in, say, India believes in democracy, freedom, capitalism, and rule of law, how is he any less an American than you or I or George Washington? And how are we any more American than that Indian? Giuliani has removed everything particular and concrete about America and defined America as a universal belief system, not a country.
Giuliani did not shy away from accepting the logic of his own position. He made this declaration to the United Nations:
Each of your nations - I am certain - has contributed citizens to the United States and to New York. I believe I can take every one of you someplace in New York City, where you can find someone from your country, someone from your village or town, that speaks your language and practices your religion. In each of your lands there are many who are Americans in spirit, by virtue of their commitment to our shared principles.
So how exactly is it distinct to be American? According to Giuliani there are many who are “Americans in spirit” in every country of the world. America is no longer defined as a particular people and place, as a country, in the traditional sense. In Giuliani’s hands American identity becomes a globalist secular religion.
The logic of civic nationalism has been drawn out clearly enough by Professor Peter Spiro. He too recognises that defining American identity in terms of political ideals or values leaves few limits as to who can be considered American:
But here's something that really is new: the underinclusion of members-in-fact outside the territory of the United States.
One of the commenters on my first post pressed the proposition that America is an idea. That's completely consistent with strong civic notions of American citizenship and identity.
At one time, that idea was distinct. No longer. The American idea of constitutional democracy has gone global. That's America's triumph, but it may also be its downfall.
As I ask in the book, if that person in Bangalore wants to take an oath to support the Constitution of the United States, on what grounds can we deny him membership?...And what of the child born in Juarez, whose interests and identity will be connected to El Paso, Austin and Washington...but who has the bad luck to have been born a mile on the wrong side of the line?...
So: whatever it means to be American, it's everywhere. But that makes it all the harder to draw the membership line in a meaningful way.
If you define a national identity by an idea, then anyone anywhere can potentially belong to that nation. It starts to be thought arbitrary to limit membership of a nation to people who happen to live within a line drawn on a map. You get complaints, like that of Professor Spiro, about the “underinclusion of members-in-fact” living outside the territory of that country. The nexus between land and people is broken.
And that leads to an unstable form of national existence. If anyone who is willing to commit to a political idea is "in spirit" a member of my nation, then why won't it be thought right for them to migrate, in whatever numbers, to take up citizenship? How, in principle, is a transforming mass immigration to be argued against?
And if national identity is the same across nations, then why not merge nations into larger regional entities? Why not create superstates which give you more political and economic clout on the world stage?