For Americans contemplating our peculiar political moment, the lessons of last week’s British vote to exit the EU may have less to do with the outcome than with the nature of the referendum and of the responses to it.
As a general matter, I tend to think that honing sharp opinions about foreign elections is a bad habit to be in. If they are democratic, and if no question of the utmost consequence to America is on the table, we should trust that the people who will have to live with the choice are better situated to make it than we are—especially when the people in question have so long an experience of practical prudence in politics as our British cousins. Assessing the political options confronting a foreign society, even one as relatively intelligible to us as the Brits, is often just an invitation to inapt analogies. Talk to an intelligent British visitor about American politics and you will likely soon see what I mean.
But as that regard for the significance of national differences would suggest, if I were nonetheless pressed to cast a vote I would have sided with Brexit. Anyone not at least a little stirred by the sight of Britons demanding independence for the mother of parliaments is not a reliable, red-blooded friend of ordered liberty. Anyone who thinks the EU is in great shape and is a boon for Britain and for freedom and prosperity is not paying attention. As Noah Millman wisely notes, separation even seems better suited to allowing the EU to become what the bulk of its champions want it to be—unappealing as I find that vision myself.
I’m perfectly willing to acknowledge, however, that this is all easy for me to say from here. Anyone not at least a little worried about the implications of the exit vote for both the precarious prospects of Europe and the uneasy unity of the United Kingdom is a wishful-thinking optimist not to be trusted. The existence of a disease does not prove that a proposed cure would not be worse. So I can’t really work myself up to believe this should have been an easy call.
I do think, though, that some of the responses to the referendum—particularly from those here and abroad who were most eager for a “stay” vote—might help us think about some facets of our own political circumstances. The response of disappointed elite observers on the Left was nicely captured by Damon Linker at The Week yesterday. Some of it has been frenzied and perverse (as instant disappointed reactions to events often are), some a little more solemn, but the whole can be summarized as a kind of alarmed rage. At its fringes it betrays real confusion about the nature of democracy. But even at its core, it reveals an implicit commitment to a longstanding assumption of the Left: that globalism is the future and nationalism is the past. It is a view that stands to blind its adherents to some crucial facts about the present.
Throughout the West, the institutions that hold communities (and therefore ultimately nations) together have been fracturing for decades at the same time, and for some of the same reasons, that an assertive and powerful cosmopolitan elite has taken shape. The combination is creating an intense desire for a reassertion of control and authority from the bottom up, and therefore also some intense pressures for a revival of national control, strength, and significance in the face of globalizing pressures. This resurgent national yearning is in one way or another growing in most Western societies. Many things could be said about it, good and bad, but one is surely that it strongly suggests that globalism is not the future and nationalism is not the past.
Dismissing the growing desire for and force of nationalism as pure bigotry or revanchism or xenophobia is neither rational nor fair—indeed, such careless dismissal often itself sounds little different from blind bigotry. That a fervent national spirit can (like other fervent political passions) invite and incite resentment, exclusion, and hate is beyond question. But it need not be the equivalent of any of these, and it is up to political leaders and political cultures to draw crucial distinctions.
The British referendum actually displayed an unusually wholesome form of this emergent national impulse. In fact, it was probably artificially and misleadingly wholesome precisely because it was a referendum. To put the recovery of national sovereignty on the ballot as a policy, rather than have it be embodied by a person, is to render it significantly more appealing and winsome than usual. This allowed national reassertion to be presented to the public as a substantive question, largely deloused of the repulsive parasites who too often represent the case for nationalism in practice as political figures.
It is not some unfortunate coincidence that the human face of nationalism in politics tends to be obnoxious—it is a warning we should take seriously. It is surely an advantage of our system of government in America that we do not ask voters to consider party lists (let alone, at the national level, policy referenda) but rather to back an individual, knowing that leaders are human beings. Dangerous ideas are easier to ferret out when embodied by the kind of person who would flaunt them. And by permitting ideas to be affirmed by voters only when offered up by a person who can pass the smell test, we tend to make sure that hard edges are softened and extremes are substantively tempered. A leader’s temperament and personality are never fully distinct from his agenda, and so a system in which we elect persons and not platforms is well adapted to let us employ the kind of judgment most people naturally possess to make the kinds of judgments that otherwise wouldn’t come naturally.
British voters, by contrast, were given an opportunity to choose to effectively re-empower their entire political system without affirmatively voting to be governed by some particular menacing thug (or by a demagogic narcissist patently unfit for power). In this respect, the referendum was not a real test of the potential of the emerging national impulse in the 21st-century West—or of what it would take to get voters to trust it.
That is why people who believe in the need for (and the possibility of) a constructive, practical, and edifying counterforce to cosmopolitanism in our politics should be especially cautious about who they elect to embody their aspirations. It is why such people should be careful to explain to the country what they stand for and against and for what reasons, and should be as certain as they can be to avoid becoming attached to discrediting figures who will make it impossible for them to answer those who would dismiss them as bigots or worse.
It is why, in other words, Americans who yearn for a reassertion of national sovereignty (and even American greatness) in our politics should be the very first and foremost to reject Donald Trump—even if he sometimes growls in the direction of such notions when he takes a break from spewing insults at the weak and preening about how rich and wonderful he is. No one should want their cause to be associated in the public mind with a malevolent charlatan. And in the person of Trump we also find combined some of the worst traits that tend to be associated with nationalism—and we find others enabled and abided.
Trump thus stands to do irreparable harm to the cause that some of his most serious and well-meaning supporters want to champion and to the party that is the only plausible political vehicle for a constructive counter-cosmopolitanism in American politics. He threatens to render them all, like him, ridiculous.
What all this argues for, then, is a class of leaders who give the national impulse its due but also see its limits and its dark edges and can distinguish and curtail them. Such leaders (who may be imaginable among the younger generation of Republicans) would embody national pride, broadly understood, in an assuring and appealing way and so would make it better for us by adapting it. More important, they would articulate a distinctly American rejection of political cosmopolitanism—one that would take seriously the notion of “the American idea” but would also take seriously the reality of the American nation, which is not an idea but an actual living society full of actual human beings who deserve to have leaders who put their needs, interests, and preferences first.
I think the sheer vastness of our society, as well as the substance of the American idea and the demands of human flourishing, mean that a revival of the national spirit in America would need to be a kind of sum of subsidiarity—that it would follow from a revival of the local and communal. This is what Edmund Burke had in mind with his famous reference to the “little platoon,” which is often selectively quoted to suggest an elevation of the local in place of the national. Burke said “To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind.” That insight seems to me to harbor an answer to the crisis that manifests itself in the simultaneous rise of radical individualism and radical cosmopolitanism. If you’re a glutton for punishment, I’ve recently published a book-length grinding of that axe, so I won’t rehearse it here.
But whether in that form or in others, the articulation of a key role for both the community and the nation-state in giving shape to the future and pushing back against political and economic globalism is key to the task conservatives face in the coming years. It will be largely (though let us hope not exclusively) up to the Right to navigate a path between an intellectually exhausted cosmopolitan elite that masks its radicalism in a kind of cold technocracy and a dark reaction against that elite that threatens to embody only a long string of resentments. What conservatives, and surely some liberals too, can do instead is offer a constructive response to 21st century challenges that revives our national spirit by building on what does work in 21st century America—from the bottom up.
We can be sure it won’t be easy.
Yuval Levin is the Hertog Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.