In the Sunday New York Times, Harvard University lecturer Yascha Mounk diagnosed the problems associated with nationalism, which he sees as too tainted by bigotry and jingoism in its current context. Nationalism, he determined, can be rehabilitated. Mounk suggested that the alternative to a toxic and prejudicial form of national pride is a kind of multi-ethnic, center-left internationalism that rebrands itself as patriotism. This is a paradigmatic approach to a dire threat to prosperity and liberty and is, thus, unequal to the scale of the challenge before us.
Mounk may have painted a portrait of nationalism with too broad a brush. The distinctions he draws between the nationalism of France and Germany and that of America and Canada are of degrees but not kind. As he conceded, European nations with a “monoethnic” identity and a people with a historic attachment to blood and soil have traditionally managed to craft a more coherent nationalism than their cousins in the New World. European nationalism is, however, no less susceptible to hijacking by populist ideologues than its American counterpart. In that sense, nationalism isn’t the culprit at all; the hijacking is. Therefore rebooting patriotism so that it more closely resembles the Olympics is a prescription derived from a misdiagnosis.
Mounk has, however, correctly identified the source of the problem he is attempting to address: the unintended consequences of a globalized economy and mass migration from the developing world into the developed. These relatively new realities are destabilizing traditional democracies and rendering them vulnerable to the sway of what he called “authoritarian populists,” who have already undermined republican systems in nations like Venezuela. It isn’t nationalism, then, but economic and political chauvinism backed by popular demand that concerns him.
COMMENTARY’s Sohrab Ahmari identified these disorienting conditions as the chief factors that led Italy’s voters to abandon their formerly “mainstream” political parties in favor of far-right and wacky left coalition movements. Those same factors led voters in America and Great Britain to head to the polls in 2016 to register their dissatisfaction with the internationalist status quo. This is where Mounk lost the plot. The opposite of populist nationalism isn’t pluralist internationalism; it’s classical liberalism.
Mounk laments the extent to which nationalism has a reputation for being exclusionary, but that is its very nature. It is a response to the zero-sum nature of the anarchic international environment: a permanent state of competition that fosters tribal solidarity. Classical liberalism is not in conflict with nationalism or patriotism—it has managed to coexist with these phenomena for centuries—but it is incompatible with populism. Populism divides by class, race, and gender. It identifies victims and aggressors. It establishes criteria to determine winners and losers, and it advantages and disadvantages them accordingly. And occasionally, as is the case with President Donald Trump’s determination to ignite a futile and costly global trade war, it is mind-numbingly stupid.
Classical liberals don’t just have an aversion to populism; they think it’s dangerous. But here’s the thing: The populists are outnumbered. Global free trade and liberal democracy do not benefit everyone equally, but they create vastly more winners than losers. Domestic producers benefit from economies of scale. Countries that engage in trade enjoy rising standards of living. Comparative advantages increase productivity. Recent agitation to the contrary notwithstanding, an unfettered global-trade regime has dramatically decreased global poverty and reduced the gap between wealthy and impoverished.
These are incremental benefits, and they’re far easier to overlook than are the conditions endured by those who are left behind in the global economy. The global liberal trade regime’s losers are sympathetic figures, and they command far more political power than their numbers should suggest. They serve as a living indictment of the very system by which the majority benefits. Their very existence buttresses populist attacks on the legitimacy of a system that creates so much disaffection. This is a matter of perception, not numerical inferiority.
Populist attacks on the Western-led international order don’t begin and end with free trade; they are aimed at the fundamental assumptions upon which the classically liberal democratic ideal is based. As Mounk concluded, it is, thus, necessary to contain this ideological impulse’s most dangerous excesses. He recommended subversion and assimilation, but there is another approach that is based on a rational hard-power calculation. Classical liberalism’s winners vastly outnumber its losers, and it is the populist nationalist alternative that cannot be accommodated. But it can, and therefore should, be defeated.
Humility and passivity do not well serve those who truly believe the liberal capitalist order hammered out after the Second World War is of the greatest benefit to the greatest number. Concessions to illiberal populists or chauvinistic nationalists should not be the product of charity or self-doubt. They should be hard-won, and only after a bitterly contested ordeal. These kinds of martial metaphors will yield bouts of feigned indignation from populist nationalists who freely and recklessly resort to such language themselves, but this, too, amounts to mere theatrics. If capitalist democrats believe their model is the means by which the greatest number will benefit, and contend that their opponents are dangerously wrong, they need to start acting like it.
It has been more than a generation since the West confronted a peer competitor that championed an alternative model to the kind of liberalized global economic integration that emerged after the collapse of the Berlin Wall. As such, our skill at championing a model of social organization unapologetically, without fear or favor, has atrophied. That’s an aptitude that we will have to re-learn, and soon. If populist nationalism is to be contained, it cannot be subsumed into greater liberalism and its malcontents mollified by social-welfare programs. The very idea of populist nationalism will have to be overwhelmed. As soon as advocates of unfettered freedom and commerce come to that conclusion, that necessary work can begin.