Media headlines to the contrary, there is at present no authentic debate between globalists and nationalists in the West. Paradoxical as it may seem, this is because there are no authentic globalists. Worse than any open conflict between the two is the confusion that results from the absence of one.
This confusion with respect to nationalism and globalism is both a symptom and a cause of a broader ideological disorientation, in which the conventional Right and Left contradict themselves as much as they oppose each other. This confusion, which breeds its own intensification, seems to leave everyone who labors under it increasingly dissatisfied. At the same time, it makes any movement away from the status quo seem more and more difficult.
The Absence of Authentic Globalism
To say that globalism is absent from current debates will no doubt strike most readers as an odd claim. There are, of course, many people who support the transfer of national sovereignty over trade policy, monetary policy (in Europe), foreign policy, and other core areas of government to transnational institutions. There are those who oppose any immigration policy short of open borders, and who likewise oppose any restrictions on the movement of capital. An increasing number of Western elites have begun attacking “nationalism” as an outmoded if not pernicious relic.
Yet, in spite of all the skepticism directed at the nation-state, today’s globalism (in contrast to that of previous eras) is neither thoroughly adopted nor sincerely promoted. Very few explicitly call for the abolition of national governments.1 No one seriously proposes the formation of a global state—whether on a Marxist, technocratic, or democratic model—even as an ideal. For all the celebration of global capitalism’s “lifting people out of poverty,” there are no proposals to allow Chinese or Vietnamese laborers a vote on U.S. economic policy or vice versa.
On the contrary, “globalist” policies are almost always justified on the basis of national welfare. In mainstream rhetoric, nations themselves are not denied or ascribed to false consciousness; rather, voters are simply told that their interests as national citizens are identical to the interests of noncitizens. Allegedly “globalist” policies—including the transfer of power away from national governments, and by extension their electorates—are always claimed to be in the true interest of national voters. The common rhetorical tropes typically employed on behalf of so-called globalism, such as “America is the greatest beneficiary of free trade,” or against borders (“That’s not who we are”) are quite revealing in this regard. The recent controversies concerning Russia offer another example of so-called globalists making naked and strident appeals to nationalism.
Thus what is called globalism today is a strangely ambiguous ideology. It is sometimes said that this ambiguity is merely a pose, a messaging tactic born of political opportunism. But most of its adherents genuinely believe in it.2 They genuinely believe that they are acting in the interest of their nation-states, even if they no longer believe that their nation-states have any distinctive purpose or significance. In this sense, they do not merely claim to be good citizens of the world; they claim that being a good citizen of the world is the same as being a good citizen of one’s nation, and vice versa.
The post–Cold War political project is not sincere globalism. Rather, its ideal of an “open society” (a more accurate though still self-serving term) is better described as a form of “synthetic” globalism. What might be called authentic globalism acknowledges the difference between the universal and the particular and simply rejects or subordinates the particular. Synthetic globalism, however, attempts a synthesis of the universal and the particular: it does not repudiate either but denies any difference between them.3
This synthesis is no longer tenable. The promise of “globalization” was that national interests would converge toward a global harmony of their own accord. The whole point was that global interests did not need to be politically imposed, but that the rational pursuit of particular interests would inevitably lead to the same goal. With the relative decline of the United States (along with the West generally) and the consequent movement away from a “unipolar” world, however, it is increasingly difficult to believe in this naive vision. On the contrary, since the end of the Cold War, the greatest beneficiaries of the “liberal international order” are precisely those countries that have ignored it or manipulated it for their own national and mercantilistic interests.
This perception is so damaging because “globalism” was never sold as the abandonment of American (or anyone else’s) national interests. It was promised—and continues to be defended—as the fulfillment of those interests. The original justifications of “free trade,” for example, promised that it would bring a new era of widely shared prosperity to the United States, perhaps even more than anywhere else, while expanding commerce was supposed to lead to the democratization of rival regimes. In Europe, the formation of the EU always was—and remains—bound up with national aspirations.4 It was only after these promises collapsed, and “globalism” came to be seen as practically incompatible with national interests, that the moralistic condemnation of nationalism became the main focus of “globalist” rhetoric. But the fact that this “globalism” was always premised on a dubious synthesis (as opposed to avowedly renouncing national interests from the beginning) made the revival of nationalism inevitable if the synthesis ever broke down.
In other words, post–Cold War synthetic globalism has always relied upon conventional nationalism and arguably functions as a kind of hypernationalism.5 That was the source of its popularity. If anything, this “globalism” is actually more triumphalist and hubristic than ordinary nationalism—and this is the source of its failures. Ordinary nationalism, even while privileging its own goals, acknowledges that others have their own competing interests. Synthetic globalism, by contrast, imagines its emergence as the end of history, and demands not only that every country conform to its model, but that all recognize this globalism as good for them, and profess that they like it. This hubris has encouraged all manner of strategic folly: the belief that American troops would always be welcomed as liberators; that competitors’ mercantilistic trade strategies could be ignored because, it was assumed, they would simply fail; that the transfer of sovereignty from national democratic institutions to unaccountable transnational bureaucracies would never be a problem.
In this light, synthetic globalism seems inherently unstable and destined to disappoint. Nevertheless, its unraveling has left both sides feeling somehow stunned and betrayed. Today’s “nationalists” feel betrayed because they believe their governments sold out their national interests without their consent. The “globalists,” on the other hand, believe they have been stabbed in the back by voters who are inexplicably embracing bigotry and demagoguery. Thus today’s “globalism” not only gives rise to nationalist movements but itself comes to resemble a frustrated nationalism—paranoid, outraged, and convinced of its own superiority—and, in a certain sense, a frustrated nationalism is exactly what it is.
The Illusion of Post-Nationalism
The new political competition between so-called globalists and nationalists has produced election results that seem shocking and contradictory. But this only seems to be the case if the synthetic character of recent “globalism” is ignored. In reality, there was never a time when electorates transcended national interests in order to build some mystical global order. For the most part, they were never even asked to. They simply supported “globalist” policies when they thought they served their national interests. Now that these same policies are no longer seen to coincide with their interests, many have stopped voting for them. Fundamentally, voter motivations have changed very little; the same motivations are simply leading to different policy choices under changing circumstances.
Consider the case of Germany. Germany is often seen, and perhaps sees itself, as a thoroughly “post-nationalist” country. But in the eagerness to believe in the possibility of a post-national Germany, most have failed to notice the seemingly miraculous convergence between the post-national aspirations of German rhetoric and Germany’s strict, material interests. The most obvious example of this is the euro. Maybe German leaders really do believe that the currency union is a critical instrument of European unity, despite all evidence to the contrary. But is it merely a happy accident that the euro, as currently constituted, allows Germany’s export economy to benefit from an artificially low exchange rate without having to bear the costs of a fiscal union?
Indeed, when has German post-nationalism ever conflicted with its narrow national interests? In its refusal to contribute proportionally to NATO, in its desire for increasing trade with Iran, in its support for gas pipelines to Russia that disadvantage other countries in Europe, in its insistence on international product standards highly favorable to German industry, and on and on—German post-nationalism has merely been the means by which Germany pursues its own interests.6 Moreover, it should not be forgotten that while the German people have spent trillions on their own reunification, when it comes to the unification of Europe they demand austerity from everyone else. As a rule, the more post-national Germany claims to be, the more narrowly nationalistic it is.
The one possible exception is Angela Merkel’s immigration policy (though it had many cynical motivations, as well), and it is no surprise that it was the first pillar of Germany’s vaunted post-nationalism to fall. This reversal, too, has occurred not because German voters suddenly became bigots, but because all along they have only been pursuing what they consider their national interests. Similarly, the early years of the European Union brought many benefits and entailed few costs to Germany. Now that the preservation of the EU requires more and more from Germany, it is no surprise that German “stubbornness” has resurfaced, though the German people are no more or less self-interested than they were a few years ago.
This reality, of course, is hardly confined to Germany. America’s construction of the postwar order, to take another example, was never seen by its architects as a renunciation of American national interests, even if their goals happened to coincide with the interests of others. On the whole, the America that created the “liberal international order” was far more nationalistic, politically and culturally, than the America that is now questioning some of its later developments.7
Changing Definitions of Democracy
Nevertheless, recent, superficial shifts in voter attitudes have sparked a new wave of hand-wringing about “democracy.” It is here that the contradictions of synthetic globalism, along with its differences from authentic globalism, become most apparent.
Virtually all existing democratic institutions today are national or subnational.8 They are certainly not global. Diminishing the legal and moral sovereignty of the nation-state therefore reduces the legal and moral authority of democratic institutions. For a true globalism, this consequence would not necessarily be a problem. In response, it would claim that national democracies are not legitimate democracies, and either demand the construction of truly global democratic institutions or simply reject democracy in the name of some higher principle.
Synthetic globalism, however, cannot do either. It cannot abandon democracy as the source of political legitimacy without betraying its own self-definition as an “open society”—without betraying its vision of globalization as a mutually beneficial convergence. Although many who pronounce democratic principles today may not sincerely believe in them—it is possible to discern other “revealed preferences” in their behavior—the fact remains that Western elites, even if they wanted to, could not jettison all democratic pretenses. They lack the confidence to attempt it as well as the competence or charisma required to legitimate it.
Synthetic globalists are equally incapable of establishing a truly global democracy, and not merely because doing so is impractical. The “open society” ultimately cannot envision any reason to establish such a democracy, since its core ideological commitment is not the forthright assertion of the global but the refusal to recognize any distinction between the global and the particular. Accordingly, it simply expects national democratic majorities to ratify its preferences because it sees no conflicts of interest. To admit any conflict, or to embrace genuinely global democratic institutions, would imply a transformation into outright globalism and require a radical revision of the status quo on terms fundamentally different from its own.
Real globalism is an inherently revolutionary ideology. It both requires and promises the construction of a new world. Synthetic globalism, by contrast, seeks to rationalize the status quo as the best of all possible worlds, on both globalist and nationalist criteria. Authentic globalism seeks to politicize the global in order to mobilize it against the particular. Synthetic globalism depoliticizes both the global and the particular in order to treat them as identical. To wit, today’s “globalist” does not advocate for a global state or any politicized revision of the global order that would conflict with existing power structures. Quite the opposite, he wants everyone to listen to the IMF and adopt the Washington Consensus, and genuinely believe this is the best possible outcome.
Thus synthetic globalism never calls for global democracy. Instead, it claims to seek the global spread of democracy (which is justified on both nationalist and globalist grounds). What is sought, though, is not space for national democratic self-determination. As is pretty much openly admitted at this point, “democracy” means conformity to a quite narrow set of cultural norms and economic policies: witness the treatment of Poland, Hungary, Italy, Greece, Israel, and others. So while proclaiming democracy, today’s “globalist” simultaneously insists that, on every important question, “There is no alternative.” In this way synthetic globalism obscures any incompatibility between national democracy and what it proclaims as a global general will.
What is lost in this conception of democracy, however, is any sense of accountability to democratic electorates. On one hand, the expressed preferences of national majorities are effectively subordinated to so-called global norms, readily dismissed as somehow “undemocratic” whenever they contravene them. On the other hand, there is no global electorate—real or even imagined—that sets these norms or judges the policies implemented in their name. The only thing that comes close to a global constituency at present is global capital. As a result, what are defined as global norms are mostly just the (often selfish and parochial) preferences of the powerful—in this case, a relatively thin stratum of Western elites. The effect is to diminish the capacity of any existing national body of voters to check these elites, as well as to obviate the need for any genuinely global body. And so the more democracy is defended in the name of “pluralism,” the more rigidly moralistic it becomes. Far from promoting accountability, ritualistic recitations of “democratic values” are often employed as a substitute for performance or popular legitimacy.
Globalism and Nationalism
The failures resulting from the neglect of democratic constituencies—and the inability to address, prioritize, or balance national interests—are now widely recognized to have fueled the rise of “populist-nationalist” movements. Less recognized, however, is that the professions of “globalism” heard during the last few decades were never really sincere, either. Both “populist-nationalists” and their critics too often take this rhetoric at face value, and believe that they are either fighting or defending “globalism.” What is at issue, however, is not a fully conscious globalism but rather a conscious refusal to distinguish between the universal and the particular. This confusion is significant because the nationalist-globalist framing often conceals the real problems.
The core problem at present is not the morality or immorality of either globalism or nationalism, universal principles or democratic sovereignty. In fact, those questions are totally irrelevant, because both sides claim to speak on behalf of national interests.
If there is a problem with today’s “globalism,” it is that it is incapable of dealing with ordinary questions of political power and conflicting interests, because both its aspirations and its legitimation presuppose their absence. In other words, the problem with today’s “globalism” is that it is not really globalism. A sincere commitment to the coercive imposition of a global state would actually be less naive and utopian than the imagined convergence of all political interests through globalization.
Likewise, the problem with today’s “nationalism” is that it is often not really nationalism. It is more interested in playacting the evil twin of an imaginary globalism than in defining national interests or organizing political power around them. Insofar as it refuses to make its ultimate goal the reinvigoration of the national state, it cannot address the problems that gave rise to it and instead frequently exacerbates them.
More fundamental than any question of globalism versus nationalism at present is the inadequate conception of the national state in Western democracies, especially the United States. Not only have essential powers of the state been ceded to (what are effectively) private interests, but the prestige of its institutions (save for the military) has declined precipitously. The state has been hobbled in its ability to exercise power to advance national interests and rendered incapable of serving as an object of loyalty that constitutes and gives meaning to citizenship.
Intense controversies occasionally arise over whether a nation is defined by its culture or its ideology, though in many respects they are the same thing. Lost in these debates is the fact that the nation is determined to a large extent—arguably above all—by the state. For decades in the United States, one party has claimed to love the nation but hate the state, while the other has claimed to love the state but hate the nation. The consequence has been the corruption of both, and, in the argot of global management, this situation is completely unsustainable.
Crusaders against the State
The organization of the modern Right around anti-statism has been particularly damaging. Not only do many of the most pressing problems require more state intervention, but the entire free market framework, in which business is imagined to be in diametric opposition to central planning, misses the reality of today’s economy. Indeed, contemporary rightwing economic thought offers little more than the denial of reality: it refuses to investigate or even acknowledge that the policies it has pursued, and the shareholder capitalism it has created, have undermined its own stated goals. These policies have entrenched corporate hierarchies, incentivized financial arbitrage at the expense of productive investment, and bred stagnation rather than dynamism. Yet donor-funded free market ideologues are typically more concerned about some trivial agricultural or manufacturing subsidy than they are about the workings of the finance or tech sectors. They devote most of their time to irrelevant, small-bore issues like child tax credits and barber licensing, or to regurgitating the dishonest debt scare rhetoric of forty years ago. The whole effort seems designed to suppress the truth of really existing capitalism in order to preserve utopian dreams. Hence the Right has failed to produce any significant economic thought for two generations.
More important from the perspective of this essay, however, is that this effort has been undertaken in parallel with, and often legitimated by, an effort to restore a culturally traditionalist society. It is not only neoclassical economists who prefer abstractions to reality. The entire conservative movement has been built upon the fiction that a traditional sense of collective duty can be renewed by maximizing individual freedom. From the start, this wholly nonsensical amalgamation of market and altar was not only doomed to fail, but also bound to breed extremism and polarization.
The only way to reconcile a strong sense of traditional duty with the absence of a strong political authority is through a romantic cultural utopia in which all collective responsibilities are internalized in the individual. Lurking in the fantasies of every fusionist conservative is an (anachronistic and self-projected) image of Rousseau’s noble savage.9 In this vision, the moral is opposed to the political, and—inverting Rousseau’s conclusion—the political must be destroyed in order to liberate both the individual’s innate goodness and good sense. This impossible dream touches reality, however, only in the conservative insistence that market failures or problems of excessive individualism do not admit of political remedies. The state is never the solution, because some kind of state-imposed cultural decadence is always the problem.10 And so conservatism is perpetually conjuring an idealized “real America” to assert against existing America, while its hostility to any political collective only ensures further erosion from the ideal. Despite promoting a kitschy patriotism, it is constantly devaluing the bonds of common citizenship by eliminating or privatizing the functions of the state. Social insurance and industrial promotion are viewed as the road to serfdom, but incarcerating more people per capita than Russia or China somehow represents the workings of natural liberty. Hence the fusion of cultural traditionalism and market freedom is rarely realized in Tocquevillian civic virtue, but it frequently cashes out in a vicious combination of economic egotism and culture-war outrage.
The Eclipse of the State on the Left
Today’s Left, meanwhile, seems perfectly content with state power, but this appearance is deceptive. Consider, for example, the model career trajectory of contemporary progressivism. Today’s Left does not idealize an elected assembly or even a professional state bureaucracy. Its quintessential institution is the NGO. Its hero is not the legislator or the revolutionary leader, but the private activist. The Left’s equivalent of the Right’s cartoonish patriotism is the glorification of idealistic activists who change the world through the purity of their goodwill alone. Today’s Stakhanov works at a nonprofit, excels at “donor outreach,” and after an optional stint as a special adviser to the president, joins the board of Goldman Sachs. The rise of the progressive NGO, indeed the entire bipartisan fetishization of “civil society institutions,” reflects a fundamental transformation in the conception of the state that is hardly limited to the Right.
Like modern American conservatism, the modern Left represents an incoherent fusion—less consciously adopted perhaps but clearly indicated by the fact that in the United States it has two names, liberal and progressive. From liberalism it takes the idea that securing human rights is the highest purpose of government. From the more radical leftist tradition, it essentially accepts the notion that formal rights are meaningless as long as extralegal disparities in power persist (economic, cultural, etc.), and that progress consists in removing these disparities.
A statist Left (or Right) would simply subordinate the individual to the community and locate freedom in the capacity for collective action through the state, but this tradition is fundamentally incompatible with liberal human rights, and is therefore rejected by the modern Left. The tension might be resolved, however, if progress or justice were set in opposition to the collective. Progressive attempts to remedy the failures of liberalism through government are therefore permissible as long as they are conceived of and presented as expanding private rights, but not if they are pursued by the state to advance a national interest or other communitarian objective.
As a result, political action comes to be reconceived primarily, if not entirely, as judicial action.11 Unlike in classical liberalism, this judicial power need not be limited or balanced by representative institutions. (The whole point is to empower it to address the inequalities that corrupt classical liberal politics.) Yet it must conceive of itself as a check upon the collective, not an agent or expression of it. It must be an impartial upholder of rights rather than an instrument of political will. At the same time, the agent of progress ceases to be the state and becomes “civil society”—intellectuals, activists, NGOs, or even corporations—the actors pushing for the expansion of rights.
In this way, individual power disparities can be overcome without the subordination of the individual to the collective, or, by extension, without any differentiation between members of the community and those outside it. Indeed, progress is advanced through “transgressive” activity that attacks any residual inequalities. This is the ideal of the “open society.”
The reality of liberal progressive society, however, is that it is essentially a society without citizens—if it can even be called a society at all. It may have no objection to expanding government bureaucracies, nor to social engineering or cultural coercion in the pursuit of progress. But what it cannot and will not do is create citizens. It nominally adopts the ends of collective action, but it shrinks from defining a collective, or conceiving of political institutions as the highest expression of the collective. Thus any attempt to realize the ideal of the “open society” is inevitably self-undermining.
In the first place, liberal progressivism intentionally conceives of progress and justice as adversarial rather than unifying. The principal agents of progress are the consciously “transgressive” elements of civil society who attack perceived political injustices. The government conceived as a judiciary, meanwhile, may not be intentionally transgressive, but it is inherently adversarial. As Alexandre Kojève pointed out, judicial authority only manifests itself when it is in opposition to the other forms of political authority, when it asserts a “higher” justice against some political action.12 (If the state’s actions or laws were always just, then the judiciary would always rule in its favor, and might as well not exist.) But if progress can only be achieved through adversarial action, then the political community, understood as citizens united in the state, has at best no purpose and is at worst the enemy of progress.
When “social justice” can only be achieved by adversarial action against society, it cannot be conceived or legitimated as the common political project that it must become if it is to mean anything. In fact, it is increasingly incapable of legitimating itself by any means. For if its actions are to be seen as just and progressive rather than merely coercive impositions, it is necessary to believe that what begins as adversarial action will eventually come to be seen as a truer interpretation of the community’s own beliefs. But as the political community itself is increasingly devalued, it seems that fewer and fewer people are willing to believe this, including the progressives themselves. When separated from collective political legitimacy, judicial authority can be nothing more than the arbitrary adjudication of conflicting private interests.13
Unsurprisingly, liberal progressivism, much like fusionist conservatism, seems incapable of even articulating coherent national political objectives. Today’s progressive wants low unemployment, high wage growth, strong unions, and open borders. There are rights-based arguments that can be made for each of these positions, but they cannot all be pursued together. One of the essential tasks of politics is to organize and prioritize competing private moralities and interests, or even replace them with public goals, but this requires a willingness to subordinate private rights to a collective interest. The conscious anti-statism of the Right and the unwitting anti-collectivism of the Left, however, have conspired to make the U.S. government more bloated and sclerotic, yet increasingly less effective in pursuing common national goals—such as channeling the market to public purposes, building infrastructure efficiently, or even providing health care and education.
It instructive to compare the more avowedly statist—and in many cases quite nationalist—twentieth-century Progressives with those of our own day. The twentieth-century Progressives were keenly interested in promoting a strong sense of the collective—indeed the national collective—and citizenship within it. They sought to create public-spirited state bureaucracies devoted to overtly political goals. It was precisely a strong sense of national public interests that was to keep these agencies independent from the private interests and business concerns (“civil society”) that had corrupted democratic bodies at the time. Today’s liberal progressive, however, is concerned mainly with ensuring the “political independence” of government agencies, making each of them their own judiciary. On the other hand, private influence through regulatory capture or the revolving door is publicly criticized but tacitly accepted as business as usual—certainly an opportunity no one would ever turn down. Unwilling to conceive of the state as anything but the upholder of private rights (however expansive), it is no surprise that liberal progressivism has been unable to maintain its independence from private interests.
After the experience of the twentieth century, a wariness toward national ambition and state power is certainly reasonable. And the risks surrounding both will never go away. But an excessive sense of collective purpose is not the problem facing Western nations today. Quite the opposite. In America, especially, what is needed is not more rights or another “civil society institution,” but a state that is capable of defining and acting in the collective interest of its citizens.
In addition, by vitiating the value of citizenship, the “open society” in fact culminates in the opposite of what it promised: the increasingly pervasive economic, political, and social dominance of a narrow elite, enforced by moralistic groupthink; a dishonest and ridiculous political discourse; collapsing trust in public institutions; a government whose incompetence is equaled only by the arrogance of its top officials; and a resurgence of subpolitical tribalism fueled by the absence of common political goals. In the Hegelian philosophy of history, the citizen represented the overcoming of the master-slave dialectic; in today’s “end of history,” the devaluation of citizenship inevitably invites its return.
Fusionism and Moralism
Thus America suffers under three false fusions: the imagined convergence of globalism and nationalism, the fusion of free market economics and cultural conservatism, and the fusion of expansive individual rights and economic socialism. All three have conspired to make any effective government, along with any sense of collective interest or responsibility, seem further and further out of reach. Meanwhile, the coalitions arising out of these fusions continually disappoint each of their constituent groups: Social conservatives have been routed on all the issues their leadership has prioritized. Libertarians have been unable to even slow the expansion of government. Socialists see widening inequality everywhere. Cultural progressives spend more and more time attacking themselves. And centrist liberals are losing ground to “populist” challenges on all sides.14 A bizarre mismatch has also arisen between each party’s purported goals and their base constituencies. The party ostensibly dedicated to equality is supported by a supermajority of elite power, while the party eager to defend the prerogatives of the wealthy is despised by most of the elite.15
In sum, the more each group attempts to advance its immediate goals through a fusionist compromise, the more it undercuts its true ideals. Everyone would probably be better served by the separation of interest groups into multiple parties. Better yet would be a general realignment around one party favoring economic and political solidarity, and an opposing party dedicated to all forms of individual rights. But strained party coalitions are hardly the main problem.
Beneath all three awkward fusions is ultimately an unwillingness to see the state as the necessary center of politics. Beneath all three is an unwillingness to deal honestly with an essential aspect of politics—the ordinary and unavoidable competition for power, internally and externally.
Paradoxically, the aftermath of Marxism and postmodernism has brought with it an extraordinary sense of moral piety. Any awareness of the instrumental and ideological functions of morality seems to have completely disappeared. The ways in which moralizing rhetoric obscures and legitimates underlying power relations are totally overlooked. Liberalism itself, which originally promised liberation from divisive and stifling traditional moralities, is now justified almost entirely on moral rather than practical grounds.
In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville predicted that democratic peoples would privilege structural explanations of political phenomena rather than emphasize the effects of individual choices. He feared that such an approach to history would deny personal agency, and that people would come to believe their lives were determined by forces beyond their control.16
Today it is clear either that Tocqueville was wrong or that we are no longer a democratic people. Many do feel powerless and victimized, but political problems are almost always attributed to the moral failings of other individuals. Every political issue is viewed through the lens of individual morality, and moral condemnation is the means by which every political conflict is waged.17 And like the social media outrage now associated with it, this moralism is almost always hypocritical and counterproductive.
When every problem is attributed to bad will—and every policy choice perceived as a reflection of personal morality—ordinary political compromise around private interests becomes impossible. Democracy becomes a grotesque spectacle of (mostly) virtual show trials and inquisitions, staged against individuals as well as symbols such as “capitalism” and “socialism.” Meanwhile, collective interests and responsibilities recede. The major systemic problems which have nothing to do with individual morality are obscured, and the collective action required to address them is made impossible.
Indeed, as long as individual morality remains the principal criterion upon which political action is judged, neither good nor competent government is possible. It is precisely this moralism, and the attendant inability to comprehend or address structural problems, that makes people feel powerless—by depriving them of collective agency.
Ultimately, behind each of today’s dishonest fusions—and the political dysfunction they produce—is the moralism born of a debilitating and naive desire to shift all collective responsibilities onto the individual. Herbert Croly displayed a much clearer understanding than Tocqueville of this democratic and quintessentially American temptation:
The American tendency to disbelieve in the fulfillment of their national Promise by any means of politically, economically, and socially reconstructive work has forced them into the alternative of attaching excessive importance to subsidized good intentions. They want to be “uplifted,” and they want to “uplift” other people; but they will not use their social and political institutions for the purpose. . . . The “uplifting” must be a matter of individual, or of unofficial associated effort; and the only available means are words and subsidies. . . .
[America] still believes that democracy is a happy device for evading collective responsibilities by passing them on to the individual. . . . Behind the tradition of national irresponsibility is the still deeper tradition of intellectual insincerity. . . . to go on preaching ideality, and to leave its realization wholly to the individual. We can then be “uplifted” by the words, while the resulting deeds cannot do us, as individuals, any harm. We can continue to celebrate our “noble national theory” and preserve our perfect democratic system until the end of time without making any of the individual sacrifices or taking any of the collective risks inseparable from a systematic attempt to make our words good.18
This article originally appeared in American Affairs Volume II, Number 3 (Fall 2018): 126–43.
2 One of the great ironies of history and philosophy is that ideas consciously promoted as “noble lies” usually become problematic because people believe in them too strongly, especially their promoters. Indeed it is often overlooked that noble lies are created for the self-deception of the elites at least as much as for the deception of the people.
3 It could be argued that most ideologies promise to benefit everyone in some way. But there is a difference between, for instance, claiming that discarding petty national identities in order to form a global government will make everyone better off versus claiming that “free trade” will benefit America and its trading partners.
4 See, for instance, Wolfgang Streeck, “Europe under Merkel IV: Balance of Impotence,” American Affairs 2, no. 2 (Summer 2018): 162–92.
5 This is seen most obviously in the rhetoric of 2000s neoconservatism, which essentially claims that the entire world both should be and wants to be remade in America’s image.
6 In fact, the promotion of the very concept of “post-nationalism” matches perfectly with Germany’s national interests. Because of their history, Germans are generally prohibited from expressing “normal” nationalism. It is therefore advantageous to Germany if no one else is allowed to, either. On this question, it is worth noting that German nationalism has historically been prone to the pathological, and a unified Germany has always been a source of instability and rancor in Europe. In retrospect, permitting German reunification was probably a mistake, and one could easily make the case for redividing Germany into, say, West, East, and Bavaria. If the Germans are truly post-national, why should they object? The fact that they would object—and that this proposal is never even suggested—further belies the myth of a post-national Germany.
7 See, for example, Harry S. Truman to Bess W. Truman, July 20, 1945 (Truman Papers, Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum). Indeed, the successful postwar institutions were only successful because their architects had a firm grasp of their own and others’ interests, and sought to construct these institutions around shared interests rather than moralistic platitudes.
8 The possible exception is the European Parliament, though it is a relatively powerless institution, and its members are still chosen in national elections. It is also far from “global,” limited only to EU member states.
9 In fact, overt libertarian celebrations of hunter-gatherers are becoming increasingly common, as discussed, for example, in John Lanchester, “The Case against Civilization,” New Yorker, September 18, 2017.
10 In foreign affairs, the state might be used to force foreign populations to be free, not through a Rousseauean denaturing and reconstruction, but simply by liberating their internal good impulses from tyranny or Islamism. In a sense, “neoconservatism” expands the conservative cultural utopia to the entire world—all are inherently good and must simply be liberated from “tyranny.” The disputes between paleoconservatives and neoconservatives are essentially over little more than where the American cultural utopia ends.
11 Another reason transnational institutions are seen as equal, if not preferable, to sovereign states.
12 Alexandre Kojève, The Notion of Authority (A Brief Presentation), ed. Francois Terré, trans. Hager Weslati (London: Verso, 2014), 51–52.
13 Kojève, 75–76.
14 In the West, “populists” of various kinds have either taken power or severely disrupted establishment parties in the United States, the United Kingdom (Brexit), Italy, Germany, Austria, Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, Greece, and Mexico, and are poised to gain ground in several other countries (while Emmanuel Macron succeeded in France only by reorganizing the political system around his new party). At this point, it could be argued that the “establishment” only maintains that name because of its economic power and control of cultural institutions.
15 And unless the Right abandons its ideological commitments preventing the use of political power to alter the structure of the economy, this mismatch between platforms and constituencies will not change.
16 Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. Harvey C. Mansfield and Delba Winthrop (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 469–72.
17 It is worth pointing out that the partisan moral orientations are often the opposite of their own self-presentations (and their caricatures in opponents’ polemics). Far from being obsessed with hierarchy and sanctification, conservatives are thoroughly liberationist. Even when supporting traditionalist cultural norms, they believe these will be adopted through liberating people’s “natural good sense” from a state imposition. The Left, meanwhile, far from being postmodernist and relativist, displays absolute devotion to a strict moral code and defends permissiveness toward “transgression” primarily by calling for the self-renunciation of majority preferences.
18 Herbert Croly, The Promise of American Life (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1989), 403, 417.