Democracy and despotism in a digital age.
Covid Can’t Kill Our Way of Life
Nationalist localism—unlike globalism—survives the virus.
The world was already in crisis before COVID-19 hit: a crisis of identity and ideology. Brexit challenged the European Union’s vision of an interconnected continent, and the election of Donald Trump signaled a distaste among voters for economic, cultural, and military globalism.
The current wave of revolutionary anti-Americanism doesn’t change that. Here, like abroad, COVID-19 has only intensified the general mistrust of globalism. People and institutions around the world are facing up to this reality. For many, the old world order can’t die soon enough.
Even amid increasing conflict, nationalism is on the rise and people are looking inward to their own communities. Nationalism carries risks, but globalism has brought with it corrupt institutions and trade that is proving to be riskier amid today’s crisis. In response, more Americans are robustly embracing a healthy nationalism, defined not as some kind of blood-and-soil racialism but as a renewed kind of localism—decentralized, representative , and dedicated to advancing the general welfare.
From Individualism to Globalism
The new localism reflects a return to the strongest foundations of American life. As Alexis de Tocqueville observed, and Abraham Lincoln soon thereafter affirmed, American democracy fostered a unique culture of equality whose adherents rejected class or caste hierarchy. Tocqueville argued that the equality created by democracy gave rise to individualism: once people are politically equal, they become self-interested—in a way that’s elevated by the discipline of local government and what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.” This “self-interest rightly understood,” as Tocqueville put it, was the backbone of American life. Freely associating individuals showed “how the enlightened love of themselves constantly brings them to aid each other and disposes them willingly to sacrifice a part of their time and their wealth to the good of the state.”
Despite some nay-sayers, this healthy individualism has been on clear display in America’s COVID-19 response. Many initially believed that only those with pre-existing conditions and the elderly needed to avoid interaction. Nonetheless many young, low-risk individuals embraced quarantine despite their low-risk for mortality because they did not want to contract the virus. As we work toward recovery and reopening, state and federal governments have wisely focused on giving counties and communities room to differ, not one-size-fits-all regulations.
Nevertheless, an over-adherence to individualistic behaviors and sentiments can cause damage to the community. Tocqueville defined this “selfishness” as “a passionate and exaggerated love of self that brings man to relate everything to himself alone and to prefer himself to everything.” This, too, has been on display amid the coronavirus: take for example the thousands of low-risk young people who disregarded the warnings about COVID-19 (about which we knew very little at the time) and put communities at risk of harm rather than discontinue their spring break.
Recognizing the broad risks of extreme self-interest, Tocqueville warned that if citizens lost their right or will to associate, “their independence would run great risks,” even if the most prosperous and educated “could preserve their wealth and their enlightenment for a long time.”
In that somewhat paradoxical way, hyper-individualism leads to globalism, where a tiny elite detached from citizenship and dismissive toward local self-government concentrates money and knowledge while losing the taste for freedom. In A World Beyond Politics? Pierre Manent shows how a society of equal individuals tends to foster a politics driven by a “sentiment of humanity in general, of those like oneself.” Taken to the extreme, this globalist feeling results in a painfully split personality. Individual strangers are worshipful of their shared humanity—think John Lennon’s “Imagine”—but constantly struggle to prove they “matter” more than the rest of the undifferentiated mob that surrounds them.
COVID-19 was tailor-made to demonstrate the costs of globalism’s shallow yet excessive interconnectedness. A small market in Wuhan, China has already resulted in over 500,000 people dying. The ease of travel between states brought the virus to nearly every country in the world. With many “inessential” industries shut down, and tens of millions of American filing for unemployment, people are starting to realize how fragile our global systems really are—and how little they have gotten in the bargain.
Many enthusiastic globalists criticized President Trump for banning travel from China in the early days of the pandemic. Joe Biden took two months to endorse the ban after calling Trump xenophobic for his coronavirus response. The European Union followed a similar path—only to impose severe travel restrictions on Americans and others today. The reality of the risk has outweighed the high principle of the theory: even within the European Union, practically every country has closed or tightened its borders.
These reactions epitomize one of the worst excesses of globalism: the belief that borders are bigotry.
Following the Money
But globalism is not just the outgrowth of a humanist philosophy: it is also motivated by more mercenary desires. To Tocqueville, this would not have been surprising. He wrote: “Democracy favors the taste for material enjoyments. This taste, if it becomes excessive, soon disposes men to believe that all is nothing but matter; and materialism in its turn serves to carry them toward these enjoyments with an insane ardor.” The shrinking of the world has led to a nearly world-wide culture of consumerism—and, in a self-reinforcing cycle, vice versa. “Many liberal economists,” as Manent explains, “ envisage the progressive unification of the world through commerce.” In this sense, commerce is “radically egalitarian” and “presupposes equality,” replacing top-down commands with personal pursuit of happiness. As a result, states are driven to make trade more accessible through lowering taxes, eliminating barriers, and facilitating inter-transport.
Yet all too often, for all but the elite, the fruits of these policies have been greater inequality and increased misery. In an effort to help correct for these unintended consequences, Trump has placed special value on ensuring American companies produce domestically. He frequently touts the importance of American farmers and manufacturers and encourages American companies to return within our borders to create domestic jobs. Admittedly, goods produced domestically increase prices, which opposes personal self-interest. However, to Trump and a growing base of supporters, this trade-off is better than the alternative.
COVID-19 made this argument more plausible. Some American companies which outsource their production to China for cheap labor were restricted by China from exporting their medical goods from their factories to the United States, while China hoarded supplies of its own.
The call to bring U.S. drug manufacturers back to the U.S. has been loud. Several bipartisan bills, such as the “Pharmaceutical Independent Long-Term Readiness Reform Act,” would encourage or force companies to move their factories to the U.S. Both the U.S. and several European countries imposed limits on the export of protective medical equipment during the crisis, citing internal shortages and need. Even those countries which talk a big game about “world unity” are finding that when the rubber meets the road, they must tend to their own.
The Turn to Nationalism
These and other developments have made nationalism increasingly viable and increasingly visible. Political sovereignty matters again—not just control over territorial states, but within them.
Again, this is not a new development but a refurbishment of an older model. Preserving the nation-state was a central focus of European politics in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. But, as Tocqueville noted, the increased centralization of national politics during the age of absolutism wound up hurting nations like France whose monarchies destroyed local governance. The result? Destabilizing financial excesses and catastrophic wars.
By the end of the great 20th century wars of nationalism, states came together to form international and regional institutions, striving to consign “nationalism” to the history books. Today, Westerners have learned the hard way that there was—and still is—a better alternative.
Jean Bethke Elshtain attempts to articulate a more moderate vision of nationalism, which she defines in her book Sovereignty as “self-determination for a territorial, collective entity.” She rejects the idea of state sovereignty being dictated by one’s race, gender, ethnicity, or religion. Instead, she calls state or political sovereignty, “a great historic achievement” because “It helped bind millions of people to a particular ‘place,’ creating a civic home for which they had direct responsibility.”
Elshtain acknowledges the horrors caused by nation-state sovereignty and argues sovereign states cannot be considered legitimate if they abuse rights, particularly those which originate with the ultimate sovereign, God. Furthermore, being a “mature” member of society, or a state in the international community, does not permit “hermit kingdom”-style isolationism. Instead, it includes “a willingness and ability to build and to sustain rich relationships” with other nations. Ultimately, Elshtain believes, states are morally obligated to their own people but should cultivate a spirit of comity with others.
Manent agrees that the modern state restores to its citizens the particularized and specific identity of which globalism, with its overbroad notion of a “world society,” deprives them. For instance, the erosion of British identity and sovereignty in favor of a vague European one influenced the UK’s decision to leave the EU, and continues to inspire greater localism and regionalism within the EU even as the union attracts new members.
Meanwhile, American national identity lends itself to an even fiercer defense of local and popular sovereignty. President Trump made it clear very early on in his political career that he does not subscribe to globalism: this was the meaning of “America First.” Trump’s attitude captured the spirit of public opinion: according to a 2016 Pew Research poll, 57% of Americans “want the U.S. to deal with its own problems, while letting other countries get along as best they can.”
But the poll implies that respondents are in favor of isolationism. Neither Trump’s nationalism nor America’s is the attitude of a recluse; it is a belief that the United States can engage in the international community while putting his own state’s interests first. Trump expresses the attitude of a “mature state,” which correctly understands that its independence benefits most from a willingness to associate fruitfully with other states.
Months before the 2016 election, Trump claimed “America First” would be “the major and overriding theme of my administration.” Three years later, it is clear that this motto did, in fact, guide many of his policy decisions. He rejected the Trans-Pacific Partnership, pulled American from the Paris Climate Agreement, laid tariffs on Chinese goods, and often criticized global NGOs like WHO. That being said, he also made apparent his willingness to re-negotiate trade agreements on “terms that are fair to the United States, its business, its workers, its people, its taxpayers. He put America first while keeping it open to the world—an approach more and more nations and localities around the world mirror in their own attitudes and policies.
Most recently, during the COVID-19 crisis, Trump broke ties between the United States and the World Health Organization. Initially he halted funding, citing mismanagement, pushing Chinese misinformation, and initially disagreeing with the travel bans. But on May 29, President Trump announced that the U.S. would cut ties altogether.
The pandemic has led nations all over the world to look within for solidarity and assurance. Although we are told to stay away from one another, we have had to use technology to find innovative ways of fostering communal support. This is common in the time of any crisis. What is also common, however, is the growth of the state.
For all his criticism, Tocqueville was blunt about the appeal of centralization during crises. He wrote that a centralized social force “is in a position to execute great undertakings easily at a given time and on a determined point,” especially in times of war or crisis. Tocqueville believed that people would welcome centralization for peace and protection.
In our current crisis, it is true that the state is, in some respects, becoming more centralized and powerful. However, globalized institutions are not. This is because there is growing distrust in international institutions and a realization that the mutually beneficial interconnectedness we thought we had quickly fell apart.
And in some areas, the power of central governments appears to be weakening. State governments, not federal bureaucracies, have taken the lead in setting and enforcing health policy during the pandemic. Both globally and at the national level, it is clear a sweeping change is taking place. Whether today’s new political norms are temporary or permanent, they are the result of forces which predate the pandemic and will have a lasting impact on the future responses to global crises, both by individuals and states. The globalistic nationalism pushed by America’s elite now belongs to history. And the future belongs to the localist nationalism that has always been at the core of our shared way of life.
The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.
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